Farewell to poverty, with jitters

KUILAPALAYAM, India — The other day I went for a drive on my motorcycle and realized that my world had changed completely.

I drove along a concrete road that was once a dirt path. The road leads to the ocean. I used to be able to see the ocean from the top of the road. Now the view has been usurped by apartment buildings and guesthouses and shops.

When I was a boy, the road was bordered by emerald-green rice fields. There’s not a rice field in sight anymore, only the neon greens — and pinks and purples and oranges — of the concrete blocks that have taken their place.

The area around where I live was once an isolated rural hamlet. It was a hundred miles, along a potholed road, from the nearest big city, Chennai, or Madras, as it was called then. I grew up here, in the country, surrounded by five villages. I had an idyllic childhood. My life ran to the rhythms of an agrarian world: bullock carts and hand plows, bicycles, windmills.

But for the men and women who lived in the villages, who eked out a living from the eroded land, life was much harder. Their existences were circumscribed by poverty. In many respects, their conditions were little improved from those of their grandparents.

Things started changing in the 1990s. In 1991, the Indian government, facing an economic crisis, liberalized the economy. The currency was devalued, import barriers fell, and the state loosened its grip. A country that had been guided by the motto of self-reliance — the government used to exhort us, “be Indian, buy Indian” — joined the world.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the reforms initiated in New Delhi trickled down to rural South India.

Farmers sold their bullock carts and started going to the fields in shiny red tractors. I noticed color televisions, and then satellite dishes, in the houses in the villages. The houses themselves were changing — there were fewer thatch huts and more concrete structures.

In the late ’90s, the road to Chennai was turned into a highway. Tourists started making their way down the coast, eager to visit the beach, the international community of Auroville, or the colonial villas in the town of Pondicherry, a former French outpost just down the road from here.

Development has for the most part been kind to this area. It’s created new wealth, new jobs, new opportunities. The men and women who have set up shops and restaurants and yoga centers on the road to the beach have done well for themselves.

But development has also disrupted existing ways of living. It has strained the social and cultural fabric of the villages. Kuilapalayam, a village at the head of the road leading to the beach, has had at least seven murders in recent years. Gangs of young men roam the village, extorting money, exacting revenge. Once, the panchayat, a traditional assembly made up of village elders, would have controlled the violence. But the new generation has modern ideas; they don’t heed their elders, and the panchayat members are powerless, too scared to step in.

Development has led to new resentments and torn-apart families. Farmers who used to toil over barren patches of land suddenly find that that land is worth a small fortune. They’ve built new houses, sent their kids to school, bought motorcycles and maybe even cars. A couple of universities up the road have widened people’s horizons.

But neighbors who didn’t own land, who watched their friends get rich, often don’t feel quite as sanguine about the changes. And long-forgotten relatives have appeared, perhaps returning from the cities to make a claim on the land. The papers are full of often-violent stories about disputes over property.

A real-estate contractor I know grew up in one of the villages around here. He started when he was 16, a dropout from school, as a helper on construction sites. He now has 75 people working for him. He has built mansions for the newly rich, and even a couple of beach resorts.

He told me recently about his hopes for his children. His eldest son wants to be a doctor, his middle boy plans to be an aeronautics engineer, and his daughter wants to be a teacher. He’s excited for their futures, happy to know they won’t have to leave the country to build better lives.

But he told me, too, about his fears. He worries about the violence in the villages; he won’t let his son go to school alone. He’s concerned, also, because his son refuses to go to the temple. He knows that his children will probably move to the cities. That makes him sad. He feels they’ll lose their sense of community.

Development is a complicated phenomenon. Decades before he popularized the phrase “creative destruction,” Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian School economist, was honing his ideas about innovation and disruptive change in “The Theory of Economic Development.”

Disruptive change, creative destruction, is what I’m living every day. In the big cities, India’s economic development can seem so simple. Business thrives, the middle and upper classes are celebrating, and the country is moving inexorably ahead.

But around here, where a way of life is disappearing and no one knows what will take its place, where someone seems to lose for everyone who wins, it’s a lot harder to know what to make of India’s economic boom. From my vantage point, development seems both wonderful and frightening; it is both inspiring and, at times, dispiriting.

People sometimes ask me how I feel about India’s economic development. I tell them the truth. I say I don’t know. I say I feel ambivalent about the passing of a world I knew as a child, a transition that I know is inevitable and probably even desirable. But I haven’t reconciled myself to it yet.

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