Can India find true liberation?

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The economic miracle is transforming life on the subcontinent – and challenging established mores. Krishnan Guru-Murthy sees a nation searching for a new identity

In a city of 14 million people, it shouldn't be hard to find a gay man in Delhi. Statistically there must be around a million of them, but they don't exactly stand out.

A few websites list the "popular" cruising spots, but without the most culturally sensitive gaydar it is hard to tell who might be looking for fun and who most certainly isn't. Ever the team player, I send a colleague and his Indian fixer to stroll around Nehru Park trying to look both furtive and appealing, but nobody seems to be biting. Three supposed cruising spots later, and everyone is a little bit grumpy. In an Indian Winter of the kind Channel 4 is exploring this month it is certainly pretty cold right now, so has this deterred the thrill-seekers, we wonder? It isn't supposed to be like this. Six months after the High Court decriminalised homosexual behaviour, India is slowly coming out. The first gay shop has just opened in Mumbai, and in a delightfully innocent way is selling gay-friendly T-shirts and mugs. Don't expect to find anything raunchier. India has seen its first legal gay pride marches and there is even talk of the first gay love scene in a Bollywood film.

By gay love scene we can probably expect a bit of hand-holding and possibly a hug – but you've got to start somewhere. Where the Indian newspapers' classified ads columns used to exclusively feature rather coy and formal matrimonial details, there are now garish and vulgar ads for gay escorts and for "massage". (For some reason, "Afghan bodybuilder type" clearly conjures the sexiest image on earth here, rather than the slightly scary Taliban that might spring to mind in Britain.) But India is not finding it easy to come to terms with social modernisation. The decriminalisation ruling has prompted a rare coalition of conservative Hindus, Muslims and Christians fighting together in India's Supreme Court. "They think I have single-handedly corrupted the moral values of the nation," says Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation campaign group, adding, "But I feel fairly confident the decriminalisation will be upheld at the Supreme Court." Gopalan is frank, however, that the gay rights campaign had to be spearheaded by a straight woman like her, who would be taken seriously by the establishment.

Being gay in India might no longer invite trouble with the police and the threat of 10 years in jail, but in a country still built around the institution of marriage it's a social disaster for most. "It is still very difficult and dark. You'll have to get a job where people accept you, because most places won't. Even supposedly open-minded people have double standards," says Varun, one of the few openly gay men here happy to talk to the media. "They're like 'that's cool' if it's your brother who is gay, but if it's their brother ... my God." Most parents don't find out about their gay offspring's sexuality, and those that do often push them into marriage, children and a conventional lifestyle. "They're told they can do what they like once they're married, so long as they conform and have a wife and children," explains Varun. So vast numbers of homosexual men in India do not identify themselves as gay – merely as men who have sex with other men. And every gay man you talk to here has a story about somebody driven to depression or self-harm, or others beaten up or harassed.

It is a struggle with social change that you can see in many aspects of India, as the country develops and grows so quickly. In the cities the younger generation who go out and work in the call centres, the financial and other service industries now have independent disposable income. They have access to the media, the internet and mobile phones, and have never been as free from the eyes of their parents. It is easier than it has ever been before for young men and women to find the time and opportunity to meet each other, have relationships and extra-marital affairs. Not that they want to mimic Western moral values. A survey of young people to be revealed on Channel 4 News from India this week shows clearly that most feel that the country is not too socially restrictive and has the moral balance right. A surprisingly high number think the West is a bad influence.

But with progress and modernity has come insecurity. If parents are less in control than ever, they are acutely aware of it. That insecurity has spawned a whole new industry related to marriage, in the form of private investigations. In an age where match-makers no longer bring families together with all the background knowledge that entails, parents have started hiring detectives to check out their prospective in-laws. "2010 will be a good year for private investigators," declares Ramesh Madan of Goliath Detectives, who just won a lifetime achievement award from the President of India. "Modernisation of India has brought more people having more affairs, more people doing bad things." He and his team of 300 staff spend much of their time following around entirely innocent young men and women to see if they are worthy of getting married. They will be checked to see if their jobs are what they claim, whether they hang around with a bad crowd, smoke and drink and, most importantly, have existing relationships. And once they pass that test there is a good chance Madan and his ilk will be hired again to check out those suspected of having

affairs. "Usually the evidence never goes to court. The client usually shows the proof to the other side and they agree amongst themselves quietly." A wander around Madan's den and office leaves you bewildered and amused in equal measure. He plays to the cliché of an Indian Inspector Clouseau, insisting on wearing a mac and hat throughout our meeting. He has a plethora of disguises, from beards, moustaches and spectacles, to a fake sheikh outfit. Secret recording devices are used routinely, there are pocket batons and handcuffs, and my personal favourite gadget: a camera lens that shoots at 90 degrees to the angle it appears to be pointing. After showing me some telephone bugs of questionable legality the septuagenarian super-sleuth opens a cupboard where, under lock and key, he keeps a small .22 calibre pistol. "Have you ever fired it?" I venture. "Oh yes," he grins, "but I've never hit anyone. Just warning shots. I have been attacked many times by people I have investigated." A reasonable reaction is to wonder what on earth are India's middle classes doing spending their money on such a ghastly intrusive business? Protecting their investments, comes the matter-of-fact reply. People only tend to go to the detective agencies when they have very strong suspicions – which often turn out to be right. "I only take on cases where I know I will get a result," explains Madan.

Of course the moral dilemmas of India's new middle classes are still those of the minority. India's 7 per cent economic growth, despite a global recession, might slowly change the lives of all its citizens, but the grim realities of life for the poor, the low-caste and the street children do not seem to have become any less visible or shocking. It is a truth that modern India hates seeing the West focus on. Despite some pride at the Oscars that Danny Boyle's movie Slumdog Millionaire won for India, the movie still provokes cold anger among many here who would rather not dwell on the underbelly of India's poor. In the creakier corners of Indian officialdom, it is best not to mention the film if one hails from Channel 4. It certainly doesn't help open any doors. And calling people 'dogs' of any kind never goes down well in India no matter how good it sounds in a movie title. But for several weeks a Dispatches team has been filming kids on the streets of Mumbai: the real Slumdog children, if you like. And if the movie was shocking but uplifting, the real-life documentary is every bit as affecting. Most unaccompanied children arrive from India's drought-ridden and under-developed northern states: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Some as young as six, they flee from broken homes and broken bones. Most of all, they run away from poverty, believing that Mumbai is the place where dreams come true.

The runaway girls rarely make it beyond the station – the porters have an arrangement with the red-light pimps. It's the boys who you'll see on the streets outside. Look in the shadows, for the huddled shapes in doorways and bus stops, park benches and basements. You'll only hear them when your taxi stops at the traffic lights. "Sir, sir, just 10 rupees. Eat." That's how the team met Salaam, who had arrived in Mumbai just days before. He couldn't remember when exactly, nor how old he is. He said 11, but looks nearer nine. Sitting him down to eat – his first proper meal for some time – he slowly revealed his story. He was from Bihar, his mother died of TB, his father remarried a woman with her own kids who had neither time nor love for Salaam. He became a domestic slave – beaten if he spilt the well water. He'd run away before, but never as far as Mumbai, and was sleeping rough. Salaam had fallen in with a crowd of boys, and spent much of his time with 20-year-old Asif, who had taken the newcomer under his wing. He'd also been introduced to 'whitener' – the solvent used in typewriter correction fluid, which the boys inhale. Some of the other boys make allegations of abuse against the older Asif. But when the police officer arrives he merely gives Asif a thrashing and warns him to leave the younger boys alone.

It is estimated that 200,000 children sleep rough on Mumbai's streets. Of the rest of the city's 18 million residents, around half live in the slums. The kids there tell a different story. They have a roof over their heads, but many are living through the turmoil Salaam has run away from. Even within conventional family units, overcrowding, poverty and substance abuse turn homes into battlegrounds.

Eleven-year-old twins Hussan and Hussein live in the 'Pipeline' slum in the middle of Mumbai – a ramshackle parade of three-storey squats balanced precariously on a two-metre-wide pipe. It's home to over 350 families, without a flushing toilet between them and just three working taps. Hussan and Hussein gave up school years ago – to become 'rag-pickers' collecting rubbish to sell to the local recycling centre. They make about 25p per day from the trade. The twins live with their parents and brother in a space four metres by three, and sleep under the bed, even though the water leaks in. It's safer there; they can hide from their alcoholic father, who sleeps while their mother sells melons on the street outside.

It's a world defined by fear and insecurity, not least because the Pipeline slum is earmarked for demolition as the city planners attempt to dev- elop the site. It is a familiar story across Mumbai: homes are cleared and people moved on to the next site. The lucky ones are offered new accommodation somewhere far away – but many don't want it as it takes them away from their livelihoods and their networks. So you see the strange sight of people living in extreme poverty apparently turning down offers of new homes.

Young girls in the slums can face an even more precarious future. Seven-year-old Deepa already faces the prospect of being married off, illegally, or forced into domestic service. In the meantime, she is one of the estimated 100 million child workers in India. She sells flowers at the junction at Bhandra West, where Bollywood stars come to shop and play. Like so many of the kids here, Deepa is old beyond her years, and carefree moments are rare.

She lives with her grandmother in the Khardanda slum. Since her father died of alcohol abuse a year ago, her mother has abandoned Deepa and her three brothers. Money is tight, and Deepa spends her time after school desperately searching for her mother, not in the hope of reconciliation but to ask her for cash to feed her and her siblings. Her brother Rupesh, just 18 months old, is ill and needs more care than a seven-year-old can provide.

For the reporter, it is always difficult to know where to place this side of India – which generally gets a tremendously good press nowadays because of its economic development. It doesn't feel very "new India" – or "Incredible India" as the marketing slogan goes. But to point out that people are still poor and desperate in a nation changing fast is not just obvious but trite. The nation cannot go from developing to developed overnight, even at its current growth rate. What's harder to explain is the way Indians don't seem to agonise over the fact that such poverty and extremes are still the norm for so many people here. The ever-expanding 24-hour media here barely mentions it.

Instead, India seems focussed on its place in the world. The middle classes are proud that the nation is emerging as an economic superpower, and the government is determined to take its rightful place in the world order – not by flexing muscles perhaps, but by extending 'soft power' at least. The urbane, London-born Foreign Minister, Shashi Tharoor, told me last week, "I was delighted to learn that in Britain today more people are employed in Indian restaurants than in your coal, steel and shipbuilding industries combined. So the empire can strike back." India's global reach will depend on whether its values, strength and opportunities appeal to the outside world. But as Varun and Ramesh and the real slumdog children in Mumbai make all too clear, social change might well take some time to catch up.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy presents Channel 4 News from India, starting on Wednesday.

Dispatches: The Slumdog Children of Mumbai is at 9pm on 21 January.

Indian milestones: Independence, Bollywood, IT – and one billion people

1947

After decades of rising nationalist fervour, India achieves independence from Britain. The subcontinent is divided into mainly Hindu India and the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, triggering communal conflict that leads to widespread bloodshed and hundreds of deaths.

1952

India holds its first free elections, with 60 per cent turnout for what chief election officer Sukumar Sen describes as "the biggest experiment in democracy in human history". Last year, 714m voters visited 828,804 polling stations, choosing from more than 5,000 candidates.

1970s

English-language writers in India coin the word "Bollywood" for India's already well-established film industry. In the same decade, Bollywood overtakes Hollywood as the world's most prolific movie machine. It now produces more than 800 films a year.

1990s

Indian software engineers recruited to help squash the Millennium Bug help to establish a vast IT out- sourcing industry, creating for India a reputation as the world's back-office, and, by 2008, landing more than 4 million young graduates with a disposable income.

1996

McDonald's opens its first Indian outlet in New Delhi, offering the Maharaja Mac – an alternative to the Big Mac made with lamb. The country is now home to more than 170 branches, where last year sales increased by 35 per cent. KFC plans to open 50 new stores by the end of this year.

2000

Baby Astha, born to a poor couple in a Delhi hospital, is named India's billionth person. The UN warns of widespread shortages of food and water if the country's demographic growth does not slow down. The population is expected to top 1.7 billion people by 2050.

2007

Vogue India's launch is marred by controversy surrounding the appearance on the cover of Australian model Gemma Ward sandwiched between Bollywood actresses Bipasha Basu and Priyanka Chopra. Ward was also chosen to front the first edition of Vogue China in 2005.

1980

A court in New Delhi overturns a 148-year-old law criminalising gay sex. Activists say criminalisation – sex between people of the same gender carried a sentence of 10 years – forced people underground and hampered the fight against Aids.

Simon Usborne

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