What’s Lost When Some Become Rich
Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune, July 30, 2009
KUILAPALAYAM, INDIA — The other day I went for a drive on my motorcycle and realized that my world had changed completely.
I drove along a cement road that was once a dirt path. The road leads to the ocean. I used to be able to see the ocean from the top of the road. Now the view has been usurped by new apartment buildings and guesthouses and shops.
When I was a boy, the road was bordered by emerald-green rice fields. There’s not a rice field in sight anymore, only the neon greens — and pinks and purples and oranges — of the concrete blocks that have taken their place.
The area around where I live was once an isolated rural hamlet. It was a hundred miles, along a potholed road, from the nearest big city, Chennai, or Madras, as it was called at the time. I grew up here, in the country, surrounded by five villages. I had an idyllic childhood. My life ran to the rhythms of an agrarian world: bullock carts and hand plows, bicycles, windmills.
But for the men and women who lived in the villages, who eked out a living from the eroded land, life was much harder. Their existences were circumscribed by poverty. In many respects, their conditions were little improved from those of their grandparents.
Things started changing sometime in the 1990s. In 1991, the Indian government, confronted with its most serious economic crisis since independence, was forced to liberalize the economy. The currency was devalued, import barriers came down, and the state loosened its grip on the economy. A country that had hitherto been guided by the motto of self-reliance — the government used to exhort us to “Be Indian, Buy Indian” — joined the world.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the reforms initiated in New Delhi trickled down to rural South India.
Farmers sold their bullock carts and started going to the fields in shiny red tractors. I noticed color televisions, and then satellite dishes, in the houses in the villages. The houses themselves were changing — there were fewer thatch huts and more concrete structures.
In the late ’90s, the road that led to Chennai was turned into a highway. Tourists started making their way down the coast, eager to visit the beach, or the colonial villas in the town of Pondicherry, a former French outpost just down the road from where I live.
Development has for the most part been kind to this area. It’s created new wealth, new jobs, and new opportunities. The men and women who have set up shops — and restaurants, and yoga centers, and grocery stores — on the road leading to the beach have done well for themselves. Their horizons are dramatically wider.
But development has also brought its share of complications. It has disrupted existing ways of living. It has strained the social and cultural fabric of the villages. Kuilapalayam, a village at the head of the road leading to the beach, has seen at least seven murders in recent years. Gangs of young men roam the village, extorting money, exacting revenge. Once, the panchayat, a traditional assembly made up of village elders, would have controlled the violence. But the new generation has modern ideas; they don’t heed their elders, and the panchayat members are powerless, too scared to step in.
Development has led to new resentments and torn apart families. Farmers who used to toil over barren patches of land suddenly find that that land is worth a small fortune. This is a good thing. They’ve built new houses, sent their kids to school, bought motorcycles and maybe even cars.
But neighbors who didn’t own land, who’ve watched their friends get rich while they stayed behind, often don’t feel quite as sanguine about the changes. And long-forgotten relatives have appeared out of the woodwork, perhaps moved back from the cities to make a claim on the land. The papers are full of stories about disputes over property. It’s not uncommon for them to end in murder.
There’s a man I know, a real estate contractor, who grew up in one of the villages around here. He started when he was 16, a dropout from school, as a helper on construction sites. He now has 75 people working for him. He has built mansions for the newly rich, and even a couple of beach resorts.
He told me recently about his hopes for his children. His eldest son wants to be a doctor, his middle boy plans to be an aeronautics engineer, and his daughter wants to be a teacher. He’s excited for their futures. It makes him happy to know they won’t have to leave the country to build better lives.
But he told me, too, about his fears for his children. He worries about the violence in the villages; he won’t let his son go to school alone. He’s concerned, also, because his son refuses to go to the temple, saying he has nothing to learn there. He knows that his children will probably leave the village and move to the cities. That makes him sad. City life is very individualistic; he feels they’ll lose their sense of community.
“All these things come automatically with development,” he told me. “The positive and the negative come together. We have to accept them both.”
Development is a complicated phenomenon. Decades before he popularized the phrase “creative destruction,” Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian School economist, was honing his ideas about innovation and disruptive change in “The Theory of Economic Development.”
Disruptive change, creative destruction, is what I’m living every day. In the big cities, India’s economic development can seem so simple. Business is thriving, the middle and upper classes are celebrating, and the country is moving inexorably ahead to what the press and politicians call “economic superpowerhood.”
But around here, where a way of life is disappearing and no one knows what will take its place, where someone seems to lose for everyone who wins, it’s a lot harder to know what to make of India’s economic boom. From my vantage point, development seems both wonderful and frightening; it is both inspiring and, at times, dispiriting.
There’s a tendency, in much of the media, both domestic and foreign, to greet the change sweeping across India either with unbridled optimism or excessive pessimism. It’s a little more nuanced than that. In the months ahead, I hope to use this space to explore that nuance — and, in doing so, to help sort through my own ambivalence about the passing of a world I knew as a child, a transition that I know is inevitable and probably even desirable, yet that I haven’t quite reconciled myself to.
Akash Kapur, who takes over Letter from India starting today, grew up and lives near Pondicherry, where he is writing a book about modern India. Read more at www.akashkapur.com.