Originally Published in the National Post: Thursday, December 28, 2006
BOMBAY â€“ About 18 months ago, the Post ran a series on India that reported two extraordinary facts. In the next 10 years, India will add 91 million new workers aged 25-44 to the workforce; and that fully one-quarter of the world’s youth are Indian.
Reading it is one thing, seeing it here is another. Both facts are evident on the streets of Bombay, as everyone still seems to call it in English, or Mumbai, which has been the official name since 1995.
Impressions are just that, but a few are striking about Bombay. There is, of course, the poverty of the shantytowns. But other cities have shanties too. What seems different here is that everyone appears to be going somewhere, doing something. People just hanging around all day on the streets, especially young men, is a common enough sight in many of the poorer cities of the world â€“ or even in the poorer neighbourhoods in Canada or the United States. Whether for lack of opportunity, ability or motivation, their idle presence indicates lives and livelihoods going to waste.
You don’t see that in Bombay. There some 15-plus million people here, and few of them appear to be idle. That means both that opportunities exist and that people are taking advantage of them. One young woman told me simply, “Any business can succeed in India today â€“ the market is there for everything.” It certainly appears to be the case in Bombay, and if it is also true elsewhere in India, then those 91 million new workers will be not only numerous but productive.
A second striking impression is how young Bombay is. Whether sitting in traffic (the congestion is overwhelming) or on the commuter trains (an adventure too extreme for novice visitors), or in shops, or offices, or temples or churches, you are constantly surrounded by young people. The schools and colleges are bursting, not only due to demographics but the high value Indians place on education.
That youthfulness explains something of India’s exploding IT sector. Hundreds of thousands of well-educated, innovative, tech-savvy 20-somethings are not only filling up call centres, but writing software and starting their own companies. If energy and creativity are the principal requirements of the information economy, then India’s youthful population has resources to spare.
This past year, it was hard to go a month without reading a feature about the rise of new economic giants â€“ India, China, and perhaps Brazil or even Russia, the last fueled by high oil prices. India seems the best bet of that bunch. Its democratic politics are remarkably stable given the staggering diversity of its billion-plus population, and it boasts a free press and the rule of law. There is corruption to be sure, as anyone here will tell you, but any grossly arbitrary actions are held in check by a court system which has the confidence of the people. Indeed, a common frustration heard here is that access to the courts might be too easy â€“ it can slow down the pace of new development.
The press is both free and robust, and mercifully not dominated by politics. The affairs of state have their place, but the weekend papers are more likely to be dominated by the affairs of Bollywood stars, or the country’s fascination with cricket. In a word, India seems to have achieved a normality often missing in other developing countries, in which the state assumes too dominant a role. Bombay in particular, but also India more generally, has achieved a capacity to manage the vast differences in language, ethnicity, region, religion and caste without suppressing everything under an omnipotent state.
Finally, what was long held to be India’s principal weakness is now increasingly seen as a strength: Indians. In the decades when India pursued a more state-directed development strategy, the fear of overpopulation led, on occasion, to measures as extreme as coercive sterilization programs. Yet now, with China facing a rapidly ageing population, and Russia’s population already shrinking, India can look forward to at least two decades of a workforce capable of doing the hard work of development. More than that, with a population that enjoys the cultural space provided by a democratic polity, the potential for social instability or political crisis is limited.
It is too soon to say whether India in the 21st century will match the strength of North America or Europe, with about as many people as both regions combined. Yet it is already a good bet that it, not China, will emerge as the leading large nation between Europe and the Pacific in terms of prosperity, liberty and stability.
Â© National Post 2006