Upwardly mobile could bring India down

THE LATEST fashion accessory for the sons of India's rising middle-class is a brace of armed bodyguards. These brawny escorts became a common sight after a spate of kidnappings in which the culprits turned out to be either business rivals or envious servants. The crimes stopped, but bodyguards were kept on as status symbols for India's nouveaux riches.

The economic reforms ushered in three years ago by the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, overturned 40 years of protected state socialism. India opened up. Nearly pounds 5bn in foreign investment poured in and the irrepressible Indian businessman was able finally to wriggle free from stifling bureaucracy. India's economy is now growing at more than 6.5 per cent, nearly twice that of Europe. The country has more than 220 million people who, many for the first time, are able to buy a motor- scooter, fridge or small car.

The size of the middle- class is much disputed but has been estimated at 50 million- 300 million (from a large European country to the whole European Union). On average, they earn far less (about pounds 1,600 a year) than Western counterparts, but living costs are far smaller.

Kito de Boer, from McKinsey financial consultants, said the number of gadget-starved Indians may be grossly over-inflated as a ploy to lure in multi-nationals. 'There are probably between 30 million and 80 million Indians who earn more than dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,300) a year. That's still a large market, but it's nowhere near the 300 million figure that some marketing people are claiming.'

One side-effect of this economic boom has been a swift upheaval in social values, one with potentially dangerous consequences in a nation where 45 per cent of its 900 million population are, and probably always will be, poor. Nikhil Chakravartty, a prominent newspaper columnist, argues that the pace and the direction of India's new free-market economy may be askew. 'The middle-class may be 10-12 per cent of the population. But what happens to the rest, the other Indians? We are instigating a revolution of expectations without the resources to match them,' he warned.

Tensions are rising between have-nots and the increasingly visible haves. As Prem Shankar Jha, an economist, said: 'This is first generation money.

There's enormous consumerism and ostentation that comes with it.' This consumerist message is blasting at India through Rupert Murdoch's satellite Star TV, and the foreign companies' advertising blitz.

Today's new member of the the affluent society is likely to be someone like Shahnaz Hussain, who sells her Indian herbal beauty products to the UK and owns several Delhi salons. It could also be a software programmer, a big rice farmer, or a property dealer in New Delhi where land prices over the past 10 years have soared by more than 300 per cent.

Throughout the country, only 7 million Indians pay taxes yearly, and now the middle class at last have goodies on which to spend their black money. Many Indians have also begun playing the bustling Bombay stock exchange, and even women's magazines have regular columns offering share tips.

Some nouveaux riches build Moghul-style mansions; one businessman has a flotilla of cut-crystal boats bobbing about in an artifical stream running through his living room.

Priti Devi Thapar, the Hyatt Regency hotel's marketing manager, drew attention to another excess: 'Some people threw a birthday bash at a disco for their seven-year old. They didn't do it for the kids, but to show off to the other adults. It is all rather ugly.'

Ostentation may be universal, but this is the dream to which many Indians on the rungs of the lower middle- class now aspire. For those barely surviving on a few rupees a day, forgotten by a government that is promoting economic reforms at the expense of social services, this disparity is a source of increasing grievance. The recent plague epidemic arose out of a breakdown in government health care. Education is in worse shape: only 1 per cent of this year's budget was earmarked, even though 250 million remain illiterate.

One solicitor, troubled after negotiating a whopping pounds 3,500-a-month rent on a villa that six months ago was worth only pounds 1,000, said: 'I'm afraid that one day, this could all get messy and violent. India may be forging ahead, economically. But millions are being left behind.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions