Sati and IT: Social Stats and the Bangalore Boom

Mobile phones and infant mortality, American call centres and drought-dead farmers, software outsourcing and burning wives: ironies of India’s growth.

Several classes of the course introduced socioeconomic issues.  In 1991 the Indian economy nearly collapsed when the Gulf War drove oil prices up.  This forced rapid liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, which led to dramatic growth.  Standout stats I’ve heard: from 1991 to 2006, foreign reserve increased from US$1.5 million to $220 billion, and annual software exports grew from US$150 million to over $31 billion.  From 1997 to 2007, Telecom subscribers increased from 15 to 225 million.  From 2000 to 2005, mobile phone users grew from 3 million to over 100 million.

These figures are impressive, making India one of the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but India’s social problems remain huge.  “India’s economy offers a schizophrenic glimpse of a high-tech 21st century future amid a distressingly mediaeval past” (Edward Luce, 2006).  The country is still almost three-quarters rural.  Villagers often struggle to survive and over 10,000 drought-stricken farmers commit suicide annually (see Wikipedia here).  India has an average life expectancy of 63 years, 5.7% infant mortality, and 46% of kids under three years old are underweight – one million die of diarrhoea every year.

Living standards for the poor are increasing, but not as fast as for the rich, so the gap is growing.  In 1991 there was a single TV station.  In 2006 there were more than 150, bombarding the disadvantaged with advertising images of upper-class luxuries they’ll never afford.  This can fuel resentment.  I’ve heard compound fences in some parts are growing higher.

Another lecturer praised the high role of women in the earliest Indian religion, compared to their subservient status since.  Male children are strongly preferred because the bride’s family pays a high dowry, and a son must perform the funeral rituals.  Without these the parent’s soul cannot be reincarnated and becomes a “ghost”.  Female foeticide is rife, although many hospitals refuse to do prenatal gender testing and display a “no sex determination” sign.

India has 933 women for every 1000 men.  The paper reported the Northwest state of Punjab has only 739 women, so they are bought in from other states.  A woman costs about 3000 rupees.  A buffalo costs 30,000.  Baby girls are often abandoned in parks, trains, garbage heaps.  Sikh leaders have ordered Punjab gurudwaras to place cradles at the entrance so parents could leave “those innocent children at God’s door, not death’s”.

The custom of Sati, where a good widow is expected to burn herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is of course illegal, as is honour killing of women who have shamed their family by supposed immorality or bringing an inadequate dowry.  In rural areas, however, a remarkably high number of women are burned in “kitchen accidents”.

In our final class on Friday, an HR consultant talked about Bangalore’s rapid IT boom, especially since Y2K computer panic in the USA increased the need to outsource software.  Call centre workers typically work night shifts, are given English names, learn Western accents, and earn more than others, so they expect Western lifestyles ­– as seen in the many brand-name outlets lining the Bangalore’s Brigade Road (header image above).  As well as IT, many Western doctors and lawyers have their dictated notes transcribed in Bangalore.  In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) Thomas Friedman wrote:

It was somewhere between the interview with the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore and the one who wanted to write my software from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to read my x-rays from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage from Bangalore…  I was realizing that, while I had been sleeping, while I had been off covering the 9/11 wars, I had missed something really fundamental in this globalization story. I had lost the thread, and I found it in Bangalore.

A few weeks ago the newspaper reported that traffic through Bangalore’s airport increased 40% over the last 12 months and that every day 500 new vehicles enter Bangalore’s streets (fewer than 963 per day in Delhi).  It wasn’t for nothing that in 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

Bangalore is a brand the world identifies India with. It is also the single biggest reason why India has become such a hot investment destination.

But of course this growth has a cost.  Last night in town I had to queue one hour to get an autorickshaw, which then took nearly one and a half hours to get back.  Both we and locals curse the boom time traffic!