Visiting India at least twice a year for the past five years—as has been my wont—I think one major change encapsulates what has happened to the country I have known and loved for nearly half a century. Five years ago, the moment word got around among my relatives and friends in India that my wife and I were about to arrive, letters, faxes and telephone calls poured in asking if we could bring them sundry things from the West. These ranged from jeans to tennis balls, from a computer to a microwave oven. Now when we visit, our e-mail and telephone in London run hot as British friends place orders for things they want us to bring back from India—clothing, watches, toys, stainless steel, pharmaceuticals. In those short five years, the situation has been completely reversed.
There are two reasons for this. One is that Indian manufacturing has become so innovative and market-oriented that there is now nothing you cannot buy here. So what sensible Indian would want an imported item when the local one is often better, can be repaired should it go wrong and is certainly cheaper? Many Indian manufactured goods are only a tenth of the price of the same goods in the West. Delayed-release 75mg aspirin tablets, commonly used to help prevent heart trouble, cost me twelve times more in Britain than it would in India, so I buy a year's supply at a time. A pair of spectacles with prescription lenses costs me the equivalent of Rs 5,500 in London compared to Rs 2,000 in Bombay, so I buy a new pair every time I visit.
Most of the changes have been initiated by Indians themselves. Five years ago, they would put up with almost anything. Now rising expectations means that they want their utilities to work—water to flow, an uninterrupted electricity supply, planes and trains to run on time. Consumer power has forced a partial retreat of the bureaucracy. Immigration and customs officers have a different attitude. Banks and other commercial houses have been revitalised and don't act like they were doing you a favour in taking your money. Indian fashion has always been popular in the West, but five years ago it was for the initiated few, so it was understandable for Indian designers to complain that they could not break into the stronghold of the four main fashion cities—London, Paris, Milan and New York. That appears to be changing with plans for an Indian-American partnership to launch a collection of ready-to-wear, high-fashion Indian clothing in the United States later this year.
The IT success story is so well known that it is not worth repeating in detail. In California, Americans say IT stands for "India-Taiwan" and add "The Indians make the software, the Taiwanese make the hardware, and we make the profit." The best way of summing up how Indian IT programmers have virtually taken over the world is that British immigration authorities—I repeat, British immigration authorities—are now prepared to admit Indian software experts to work here, a development unthinkable five years ago.
But for me the most exciting technological change has been in what's for many the arcane field of space imaging. Unheralded, India stole a march over the rest of the world when the satellite spy business was privatised at the end of the cold war. By early this year, Indian Remote Sensing (irs) with its constellation of five satellites was selling space images to the rest of the world through its commercial arm Antrix Corp Ltd. The Indian Space Research Organisation (isro) is also planning to have twelve satellites in space by 2004.
We are only just beginning to learn what this could mean, not only as an international business with enormous potential but as a way of improving life in India itself. For example, satellite imagery could help scientists track bacteria-carrying plankton in the sea and thus be able to predict cholera outbreaks. Already scientists are correlating years of hospital cholera records in Bengal with sea temperature and ocean height data gathered from satellite observations. I know many will scoff at my optimism about India. They already have. "It's only the rich getting richer," they say. I reply by offering evidence of a trickle-down effect. "How many servants did you have five years ago?" I say. "How many do you have today? And where have the others gone?" That silences them.
I have left politics until last because, like many Indians, I find the changes and upheavals of the past five years very difficult to follow. But I have a feeling that the nation's commitment to secularism has somehow weakened and that the democratic decency of an ancient and admirable civilisation can no longer be taken for granted. I hope I am wrong.
(Author-journalist Phillip Knightley divides his time between London, Goa and Sydney. His latest book, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, is published by Jonathan Cape.)
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