POSTCARD: Bombay Dreams

MUMBAI, India—Every time I visit India, there are three things that never cease to shock me: the diversity, the disparity, and the opportunity. There are so many different Indias – the rich, the poor—the super rich, the super poor—the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian India. There is no archetypal “Indian”—faces, food, mother tongue and politics vary widely.

But I think it is the economic disparity that always moves me the most. In America we certainly have our haves and our have-nots, but the contrast in the standards of living don’t always make you cringe—those of us living in the cushy suburbs may hardly notice them. Around the world, any big city with Fendi, Gucci and Canali will probably have poor people nearby. The difference is that in big Indian cities you actually see the poverty and you see it virtually everywhere. China by contrast notoriously restricts its poor inhabitants from entering large cities. “Where are all the beggars?” was the first question on my lips when I visited Shanghai (a city akin to New York on steroids) in April—It was a shock to my Indian perspective.

The financial hub of the Sub-Continent, Mumbai  (everyone who grew up here still calls it Bombay) is a city of extremes. My first night here I was jetlagged and hungry for paneer pizza. Walking into the hotel restaurant at 2:30 A.M. on a Thursday night, I was shocked to find it filled with aimlessly partying yuppies. Mumbai is simultaneously a playground for these rich, educated kids and the infamous home of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.

These extremes aren’t neatly segregated either.  Slums and poverty sprawl throughout the city—not just an accepted fact, but also an integral part of the nation’s social fabric. Ragged children beg throughout the city, along major highways and on the streets of the towering Financial District in Nariman Point. Thousands of slum dwellers live within a short walk of the new Four Seasons hotel and Industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s soon to be finished $2 billion home (no, $2 billion is not a typo).

Like any visitor, I feel overwhelmed by all this. But when I gloomily turn to my Dad with my observations, he reminds me just how far India has come. His reply would resonate with many older Indians who grew up here in the 1960s and 1970s.

“India’s come a long way in the last 20 years—you can’t even imagine how things once were. Life has really improved and will continue to improve,” he says.

And he’s right. Since the country embraced free market reforms in 1991, it has undergone tremendous growth and change. The middle class has swelled to 300 million people, more billionaires live in India than both Japan and China. In recent years (a testimony to entrepreneurship here), the economy has grown at an unbelievable 8 percent per year. The raw number and the percentage of people living below the poverty line has decreased significantly.

The economic shift has been aided by a unique set of habits and mores engrained in the Indian psyche. From the village woman who shakes down the local vegetable vendor to save a few rupees to the Investment Banker who finances IPOs of hot Bangalore IT companies, deal making, entrepreneurship and business savvy are part of Indian culture.

Still, India’s development as a first-world nation is nowhere near complete. A few figures are very telling. Right now, only of 10 percent of Indians have credit with banks, 4 percent use credit cards, and .25 percent of people own stock. As the government becomes more and more hands off, domestic entrepreneurs and big multinational companies will  figure out a way to service and empower both the poor and rich in an effort to enrich themselves.

Opportunity here is so palpable it’s tremendous—the domestic market alone is 1.1 billion people. In a fortuitous paradox, it just might be that  the very backwardness of the country provides the perfect backdrop for India’s entrepreneurship, demographics, and free market to come together and bring prosperity to a billion people.

Hemi H. Gandhi’13 is an editorial writer in Levrett House.