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New York's Long Island to New Delhi

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-08

NEW DELHI - Some 30 years ago, I was a young correspondent for the New York Times, based in the New York suburbs of Long Island. It was a time of rapid growth in Long Island's two prosperous counties, Nassau and Suffolk: farms were giving way to housing developments, and on every corner, it seemed, shopping malls were sprouting.

A handful of environmentalists decried such growth, and their protests found some resonance in the legislatures of both Suffolk and Nassau counties. But the lure of lucre was too strong for real-estate titans and their political allies, and the transformation of rural areas into thriving semi-urban communities continued relentlessly. Indeed, all across the United States, there was urban sprawl as economically empowered people left city environs for the aeries of the suburbs.

Fast forward to the present. Here I am in New Delhi, India's capital. Once an elegant city of barely 400,000 people, it now contains more than 12 million. Not all of them live in housing developments; in fact, nearly a half of Delhi-ites sleep on pavements or in shanties that have risen in the shadow of manses of the wealthy. From their slums not only can these unfortunates resentfully observe the rich glide by in luxurious cars, they can also gaze wistfully at scores of shopping malls that have come up in recent years. The vast array of domestic and foreign consumer goods offered at these malls is well beyond their reach. But, as in Long Island, there's also a growing middle class of 300 million people in India who can afford these wares. They are unabashed consumerists, and they want what middle class people in Long Island and elsewhere are able to acquire without fretting.

It's almost 10,000 miles from Long Island to New Delhi, and my journey back to the country of my birth has taken me more than three decades. In this time, I have reported from more than 100 countries, mostly Third World nations attempting to leapfrog into economic modernity. I have witnessed the transformation of some colonial states into flourishing democracies. And I have also seen other countries collapse into becoming failed states.

In many ways, what's happening in New Delhi - and indeed, in most regions of the developing world - is reminiscent of the developing years of Long Island. The rural countryside is giving way to paved townships. The consumer culture of shopping malls, mobile phones, cable TV and FM-radio is ubiquitous. The housing subdivisions in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi, look just like those in Huntington or Islip, prosperous towns of Long Island. It's not unheard for middle class families to possess two cars. Smartly uniformed attendants even clean your windshield when you drive into gas stations. McDonald's is everywhere, as are Coke and Pepsi.

This is globalisation. Economists usually define it as the free flow of trade and capital across borders. But in my mind, globalisation will always be the Long Islandization of developing countries. This was driven home to me a few weeks ago in the southern city of Hyderabad. A new wine producing facility was being inaugurated there, and its owners were proudly discussing the merits of the local grapes. "We need to diversify our local production," one of them said. "Look what they did on Long Island."

I was slightly puzzled. Then it came to me: Just around the time that I covered Long Island, wineries were being started in the region's East End. Today, of course, they are flourishing enterprises. Hyderabad has produced wines for some years now, but the expansion that's being planned may one day result in export quality clarets and cabernets, just as in Long Island.

This globalisation is inevitable. The people of developing countries watch their counterparts of the industrialized nations, and they want to partake of their lifestyle. It's also inevitable in a country such as India, which for years was burdened by a rigid socialist system that penalized consumerism in favour of white elephant projects like steel mills and dams. Now, happily, India's rulers are liberalizing the economy, abandoning the "license Raj" of permits and controls, and encouraging competition in the market place. That's why the shops are full these days.

But there's a difference between Long Island and India, of course. Nearly half of this country's 1.1 billion people live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. The cohort of poverty is increasing, notwithstanding India's annual economic growth rate of nearly seven percent. For most of these people, the shopping malls and the townhouses will be beyond access, at least in the foreseeable future.

It's only when there's major poverty alleviation, when there's clean water, health care and primary education for the dispossessed, that India will be truly globalised. Come to think of it, Long Island - urban sprawl and all - may not be such a bad model when it comes to social and human development. At least they don't have beggars there, nor the terrible class divides of wealth and privilege that one still sees in contemporary India.

When I left India to go to the United States as a student 37 years ago, it was a dark time for the nation. There was a general sense that the country's endemic poverty was beyond remedy, and that Jawaharlal Nehru's Fabian socialism had resulted in nothing more than an indifferent form of Statism.

It's a very different India that I'm seeing today. It's an India of self-confident, highly educated young men and women who are full of enterprise and ideas for economic and social growth. It's an India that rightfully aspires to be an economic powerhouse. It's a nuclear India. Statism remains, but it's giving way to economic liberalisation.

It's an India of great hopes that I've come back to. It's an India that has many Long Islands.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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