Young Workers Are Changing India's Politics and Society
By DAVID ROHDE, NEW YORK TIMES
August 19th 2004
KNOWLEDGE CITY, India - This American-style corporate campus outside Mumbai,
formerly Bombay, is replete with an artificial lake, gym, cafeteria and the
ambitious young Indians who are its lifeblood.
Ask them about India's future, and they chorus politely, but firmly: if older
politicians will just get out of the way, a new, younger generation of Indian
politicians will make India an economic superpower.
"There are old people in wheelchairs," lamented Huafrid Bathena, a
24-year-old project manager. "Let them lead themselves, not us."
In a demographic bubble that is transforming Indian politics and society, 54
percent of India's one billion plus people are now under the age of 25. As that
group ages, seeks jobs and raises families, their demands, dreams and
frustrations will dominate India.
Indeed, they already are, from their growing demand for limited university
slots, to marketers' frantic efforts to shape their consumer impulses, to the
way their attitudes about sex and family are changing patterns of population
growth and the spread of AIDS.
They are a demographic behemoth but not a monolith. In interviews with 21
Indians under age 25 in modern high technology offices, derelict slums, rural
villages and industrial cities across the country, young people expressed a
clear split over how India could achieve greatness.
The division reflects the difficult mandate facing the new government, led by
the Congress Party. As it pursues continuing growth and globalization, it must
balance the rich and the poor, the old and the new.
It must reconcile the division between those who yearn for India's
community-oriented quasi-socialist past and those who embrace the capitalist,
Americanizing influences now present, between those who believe the profit
motive fuels selfishness and greed, and those who believe it most efficiently
allocates and expands resources.
Some young Indians are extravagantly successful, linked by technology to a
globalizing world. More are poor, isolated from the rest of the world and
frustrated by their exclusion from a narrow economic boom.
Young, highly educated Indians employed here at Reliance Infocomm, an Indian
telecommunications conglomerate, express little faith in government, hail
private sector work, and often live independently from their parents. They call
the free market the best tool for eradicating poverty.
Poorer, less educated Indians, meanwhile, say they generally trust the
government, want public sector jobs, live at home and vote like their parents.
They believed that the state should lead a sweeping campaign to end poverty.
Nearly all sharply criticized religious extremism and called for a new,
younger generation of leaders. Most said they expected India to develop into a
leading economic power in their lifetime.
They praised the American business practices now sweeping India, saying they
had brought more merit, efficiency and entrepreneurship. But they criticized
American popular culture, saying it was decreasing human contact, creating
political apathy and weakening the traditional Indian culture and families.
In the end, their views reflected the hopes and contradictions of maturing
youth everywhere but also the ambitions of a nation that has decided its time
Rohit Pandey, 23,
Barely audible over the din of hundreds of his young Reliance Infocomm
co-workers, Rohit Pandey brimmed with confidence as he sat in a modern,
By the time he reaches retirement age, Mr. Pandey boldly predicted, India
will be the world's most powerful nation. "Fifty years, we'll be No.
1," he declared exuberantly.
His optimism, in part, is based on his coming of age in the portion of Indian
society that has experienced explosive economic growth in the past five years.
Mr. Pandey earns $8,000 a year, an amount that puts him among the elite of
India, where the average yearly wage is about $460. But he was emphatic that for
India to truly develop as a nation, its legions of poor must also flourish.
"We have to build up the whole mass to develop," he said.
The Brahmin son of a professor and a housewife, he grew up in Varanasi,
situated, like most of India's poor, in the country's north.
As a teenager, he scored high enough on standardized tests to win admission
to one of seven distinguished Indian Institutes of Technology, where only about
2 percent of applicants gain admission each year.
Mr. Pandey, like many of his co-workers, is from an upper caste. But he and
others said that private sector competition, not legislation, was easing caste,
class and religious discrimination in India. In private companies, merit,
discipline and skill are rewarded, they said. In state-run organizations, caste,
seniority and connections rule.
Mr. Pandey said about half his friends were so apathetic about politics that
they did not bother to vote. Those who did favored the Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party, because they saw it as more free-market oriented.
But he complained that satellite television and grueling six-day workweeks
were altering India's culture. He said American-style nuclear families were
replacing the centuries-old Indian extended family system, where sons live with
their parents after marriage. He lives in Mumbai, away from his family.
"People are getting away from each other," he said. "There
used to be more human bonding earlier."
Muhammad Imtiaz, 25, university student, Mumbai
Thirty miles from the Reliance cafeteria, Muhammad Imtiaz lives in Asia's
largest slum, the Mumbai neighborhood of Dharavi, home to more than a million
Five-foot-wide alleys are the main thoroughfares and cramped single rooms are
homes for families of six. Slightly larger rooms are factories where morose men,
women and boys churn out clothes, gym bags and wallets. Children are bald,
shrunken and bare, portraits of want.
The 25-year-old son of a rickshaw driver, Mr. Imtiaz is the first person in
his family to graduate from college. He is Muslim, as are about 15 percent of
"I've seen privatization," he said, as whiffs of cooking spices,
rotting trash and feces swirled in the air around him. "It should be
He said the private company where he also works as a lifeguard at a luxury
hotel cheated its workers and corporate clients, and had no commitment to
improving Indian society. He hopes to become a public school teacher, a job he
thinks can truly help his country.
Mr. Imtiaz said that he supported the Congress Party, and that the state's
role should be to provide reliable jobs to poor people. "I don't believe
there is any benefit to private companies," he said.
Yet he, like his peers, displayed tremendous ambition and the belief that
hard work would be rewarded in India. He said that as he watched rich Indians
and foreigners frolic in the pool, he made a resolution.
"I made my mind up that someday I will get to that position," he
said. "I believe in hard work."
Anamika Chakraborty, 25, student, Calcutta
Three years ago, Anamika Chakraborty's family moved from Assam, an
impoverished northeastern state that endured a 20-year Marxist insurgency, to
Calcutta, a city long associated with India's Communists and its cruelest
For the last quarter century, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has
ruled West Bengal, the state Calcutta lies in, the longest successive reign of
any political party in India. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the state was
dismissed as a socialist anachronism.
But today, a new generation of reformed Communist leaders is eagerly
recruiting foreign investors, declaring the city a high-technology hub.
American-style shopping malls and private housing developments have sprouted
across the city, with huge billboards urging India's growing middle class to
move in, enjoy the swimming pool and "smash, splash and have a bash."
Ms. Chakraborty, who belongs to an upper caste and was strolling through a
market with her cousin on a weekday night, said proudly that she was completing
her final years in pursuit of a master's degree in business administration in a
program in New Delhi.
She dismissed state-run corporations as wasteful, praised the reformed
Communists for halting almost daily strikes that once crippled Calcutta, and
said privatization's backers in Indian politics were the ones truly aiding
"For the young Indians, those striving for jobs, they have done a
lot," she said.
She wants to work for a foreign corporation, but she also fears
globalization. Young Indians who wear Western clothes, listen to Western music
and demand to move out of their parents' homes early surround her, she said. Yet
in her own life, she has decided to wear saris and other traditional Indian
She is determined to be both thoroughly modern at the office and to remain
traditionally Indian at home. She plans to happily accept an arranged marriage.
"These things are changing," she said, referring to traditional
Indian culture. "These things should not change."
Munna Kumar, 15,
train sweeper, Bihar
Asked what type of politician he liked, Munna Kumar seemed puzzled. "I
once heard Nitish Kumar," he said, referring to a local politician.
"He came to my village."
At 15, Munna is a lower caste train sweeper in Bihar, a northern state of 83
million people that is widely considered India's poorest. He, like 70 percent of
Indians, lives in a rural area where most are farmers.
He dropped out of school in the second grade and started working to help
support his family. His parents, who are both house servants, have five
daughters and two sons. His home has no running water. He occasionally watches
television in friends' houses.
Each morning, he boards a train in his small town, Khagaria, and rides for
four hours to the state capital, Patna. Along the route, he sweeps the train,
then each afternoon makes the four-hour journey home. His earnings, usually less
than $2 a day, go to his parents.
Asked what he wanted to be, he answered, "I don't have any desire."
Prodded, he said, "I wish I could be a big man and have my own
He stood barefoot, holding a small straw broom, in Patna's main railway
station. He said he thought a job in a private company would give him enough
time off to visit his family. The only political position he articulated
involved something he had experienced personally: corruption. He said
politicians' No. 1 priority should be to eradicate it.
"Even here, police are taking money all over the place," he said,
gesturing at the crowded train platforms. "Once I saw it on a train, the
police extorted 100 rupees per passenger."
Asked if India would be rich at the end of his lifetime, he replied, "I
don't think so."