Valley companies are based on 'know what.' They know
the market, they know the technology and they know
what products to make to earn money. (India's) Coolie
Valley companies are based on 'know how.' They do the
software coding for other companies that have the
'know what.' If you tell them what to do, they know
how and will do it for you." The Asian "coolies" of
the late 1800s and early 1900s came to the U.S.,
Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies as
laborers, doing the physical, backbreaking work
westerners didn't want to do. ... In this new
century, India's tech workers are coming to be seen
as nothing more than glamorized coolies (rich
coolies, but coolies still.) For the global corporate
sector, India is just one large back office, not a
formidable economic force such as China or even a
political nuisance such as Pakistan... The global
corporate sector - understandably - will not shed
light on these issues. It is not in their interest.
In fact, eased barriers to entry, a consumption
hungry upper class and cheap labor are major prizes
in the new economic colonialism... "
This is how the official story goes:
India is progressing. Period. From Bangalore in the south
to Vadodara in the west, India's cities are experiencing
an industrial boom, leaving the middle and upper classes
awash with money. Per capita income grew 5.2% in 2004 and
the economy grew by 7% in 2005's first three months,
bettering the estimates of global financial analysts.
Apartment buildings are popping up in newly developing
neighborhoods for the young, rich and upwardly mobile.
Office buildings and shopping malls are cropping up where
huge tracts of farmland once stood, and at an astounding
By 2007 in Mumbai alone, the number of shopping malls
will surge from 23 to 79, according to real estate
consultancy Knight Frank India. The physical
transformation of the urban landscape is being matched by
the transformation of the urban Indian populace.
Throughout India's cities, upper class urbanites can be
perpetually seen talking on shiny new cell phones,
driving SUVs and drinking bottled water. Prospering urban
Indians have begun paying more attention to their health
needs too. Eureka Forbes, a leader in the water and air
purification device-market, says it has installed its
systems in over 5 million Indian homes and is adding
1,500 new customers daily!
This is the new India - a country that is experiencing a
rate of growth paralleled by few other nations in the
world. As the story goes, by opening up to the free
market, and thus saving its economy from stagnation,
India has proven it can be a formidable force on the
world's economic stage. Perhaps, as Thomas Friedman
posits, the world really is flat and the Internet and
advances in telecommunications are finally leveling the
playing field for human development and access to
opportunity. And perhaps, as has been suggested, it is
the West that is falling behind in the great economic
game known as globalization.
Then again, perhaps this rosy picture of India suits the
west's rigid rhetoric on development and globalization
all too well: the world is a global marketplace and India
is finally reaping its rewards. Period.
But this illusion of progress, touted in the western
media and large parts of the Indian media, leaves out
such problems in India's development as the massive
poverty and social backwardness of states like Bihar and
Uttar Pradesh. It leaves out the communal violence and
religious persecution in Gujarat - which recently was
named the number one Indian state in terms of economic
freedom by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary
Studies in New Delhi. It says nothing of scores of
indebted farmers committing suicide in Andhra
The global corporate sector - understandably - will not
shed light on these issues. It is not in their interest.
In fact, eased barriers to entry, a consumption hungry
upper class and cheap labor are major prizes in the new
That India's privileged classes have so comfortably
accepted this status quo isn't surprising, but the
exuberance with which this has been done, is. Publicly
and in private conversations, India's elite seem quick to
identify themselves more with their corporate masters
than with their fellow countrymen.
Such is the twisted logic of Indian development - imposed
from afar and embraced by India's elite. It is a logic
that rewards Gujarat for its "economic freedom," while
the state's large Muslim population experiences internal
displacement. It is a logic that nurtures growing
information technology hubs in Andhra Pradesh, while
thousands of its farmers die in the countryside.
If these two terms - development and globalization - mean
people in poor countries get access to more consumer
goods, then India's current growth is a resounding
But, if by some wild chance, development and
globalization are even tangentially related to the
advancement of human freedom, unconditional, universal
access to basic human necessities and social mobility,
then India's current growth is a failure and the
foundations are being laid for far worse failure and
While news stories of India's growth paint pictures of a
western-friendly population, a sense of the "other" India
- one in which over 65% of the country's 1.08 billion
population depends on the agricultural economy - is
suspiciously left out. In the same period that India's
economy grew by 7%, agricultural output rose by only
1.8%, compared with a 10.4% rate of growth the previous
Not all of this staggering decline in the productivity
growth of an important sector of the Indian economy can
be attributed to poor monsoons and crop yields, as has
been asserted in both Indian and western media.
Apolitical explanations for the highly politicized
decisions being made in India right now do not suffice.
As India diversifies its economy, the agricultural
sector's share as a percentage of gross domestic product
has been decreasing, standing currently at about 21%. Yet
over 650 million Indians still live and die, earn their
livelihoods or starve, in rural India.
During a press conference in June, India's prime
minister, Manmohan Singh, asked states to aim at doubling
agricultural production in 10 years, saying "Indian
agriculture in future must move from the traditional
grain-based strategy towards diversification, emphasising
horticulture, poultry, livestock and fisheries."
Such a transition is of course wrought with many
uncomfortable realities. To compliment this
diversification Singh spoke of, the government has moved
rapidly forward with its policy of dismantling
agricultural subsidies in order to divert money towards
infrastructure investment. Added to this is the
ever-increasing presence in India of foreign genetically
modified agricultural products produced and sold at low
prices. In the midst of such changes, many of India's
farmers, faced with new competition and less government
assistance, have been left with two options: Starve and
watch their family starve, or trek to the cities and help
build the glassy monuments to globalization.
India's cities are brimming with migrant workers from
surrounding villages. It is these workers - displaced
farmers - who are the backbone of the manufacturing boom
in urban India. If you ask the urban upper classes about
these migrants, you will be told they are just temporary
day workers looking to make a little extra money while
they wait to harvest their large plots of profitable
crops in the countryside. This is another comfortable
myth that obscures the wretched reality that these
temporary workers have brought their families and their
livestock to India's cities and have made permanent homes
on the streets.
Vadodara city, in Gujarat - that beacon of economic
freedom - is a classic example. The roadsides throughout
this city are filled with tribal families from the
surrounding village districts of Godhra and Panchmali.
During the day, men and women look for whatever
construction work they can find, and at night, they cook
on open fires on the street, sleep next stray dogs and in
the morning, they begin anew.
Visiting various parts of India, it is plain to see: this
agricultural country is living for her cities. These
cities are in turn living for the corporate sector - from
information-technology companies to consumer goods
companies, foreign and domestic. This is the current
model of development taking seed in India, even as
agricultural development is being uprooted. This model is
driven by the consumerism of a select group in India and
their counterparts in the rich countries. It is not a
model based on the advancement of equal opportunity and
quality of life.
The problem with such "development" is that it renders an
entire population disposable. Just because the Indian
marketplace has become bigger and more varied, it doesn't
mean that life in India has improved. If anything, it
reinforces the notion of "disposability."
Take Bangalore, the very essence of "modern India" and
the city that launched the Indian-tech boom. The city,
filled as it is with young, hard-working professionals
and shiny new buildings, is bursting at its seams. It is
a city so packed with rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and
pollution that miles-long traffic jams and motorists with
facemasks are more the norm than an anomaly.
It is a city where open sewers and piles of trash reside
side by side with new office parks and shopping centers.
The population has increased by an astounding 61% over
the last 15 years, with 8% living in slums, according to
U.N. statistics. What's more, infrastructure development
has not kept pace with this population explosion and so
frequent power outages and shoddy water supply plague the
But this story - of a Bangalore unable to provide
essential services to its booming population - isn't
given much attention in the media or in political and
academic circles. Perhaps that's because most of the
corporations in Bangalore have back-up generators and
hefty tax exemptions to attend to their needs and
grievances. The fact that the residents of Bangalore
suffer matters little. The idea of Bangalore - the great,
cheap IT hub - lives on.
But it won't live forever - it isn't designed to. When
the 1,300 software and outsourcing companies - 450 of
them multinationals - get tired of doing business in
Bangalore, they will simply pick up an leave for cheaper,
more eager destinations.
Of course, the other Indian states are making sure this
flight will be easy. New Bangalores - filled with hard
working, eager young Indians - have cropped up throughout
the country, from Pune to Hyderabad, Kolkata to Chennai.
G. V. Dasarathi, a director of a software products
development company in India describes India's 'progress'
and it's role in the global market both crudely and
accurately. Comparing America's tech industry to India's
"(America's) Silicon Valley companies are based on 'know
what.' They know the market, they know the technology and
they know what products to make to earn money. (India's)
Coolie Valley companies are based on 'know how.' They do
the software coding for other companies that have the
'know what.' If you tell them what to do, they know how
and will do it for you."
The Asian "coolies" of the late 1800s and early 1900s
came to the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the West
Indies as laborers, doing the physical, backbreaking work
westerners didn't want to do. Their hours were long, the
pay nominal, their treatment, unjust. Not only was the
term derogatory, it became a concept used by westerners
to caricaturize entire groups of people.
In this new century, India's tech workers are coming to
be seen as nothing more than glamorized coolies (rich
coolies, but coolies still). For the global corporate
sector, India is just one large back office, not a
formidable economic force such as China or even a
political nuisance such as Pakistan. With the help of the
Thomas Friedmans of the world, India's modern-day coolies
have been caricaturized as well: they are eager, hard
working, obedient, self-sacrificing and ready to take
jobs westerners do with little to no enthusiasm.
It is plain to see. India's development is being directed
and defined by people outside of India - and the
country's upper classes and its government are happily
going along for the ride. Its poor majority, which
explicitly voted against such policies in 2004, doesn't
even get to ride.
(1) Central Statistical Organization
figures released June 30, 2005
http://mospi.nic.in/mospi_press_releases.htm (2) For a
government description of tax relief for companies
operating in Bangalore
A good chart and subsequent story on rural indebtedness
(4) For G V Dasarathi's description of "Coolie Valley"