The Success of Ordinary Indians

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

PONDICHERRY, India — I spent the start of this decade in the same place that I spent the start of the last: outside the town of Pondicherry, in the countryside, amid the sound of firecrackers and the glow of oil lamps from surrounding villages.

Apart from my location, though, little else remains the same. Over the last 10 years, the countryside has been transformed. Villages have become towns. Mud huts have given way to concrete structures. Fields have been replaced by shopping complexes.

This has been a momentous decade for India. Economically, in particular, the nation has made huge strides. Although its revitalization began in the 1980s and ’90s, the last decade has been marked by a noticeable acceleration of growth rates.

In the 1960s and ’70s, India’s economy grew about 3.7 percent annually — the so-called (and much derided) “Hindu rate of growth.” By the end of the 1990s, the economy was growing about 6.5 percent. More recently, that figure has hovered between 7 percent and 9 percent.

High growth rates have not automatically translated into universal prosperity. India is still haunted by tremendous, often mind-boggling, poverty and inequality. Nonetheless, the widening of horizons and prospects is unmissable, and undeniable.

As the new decade begins, I want to focus on the lives that have been lifted up since the start of the millennium. I have room to tell only four life stories. There are millions more like these. But these four men and women capture some of the hope that marks India today, and that casts little pools of light amid the shadows of deprivation that have for so long defined this country.

I want to tell you, first, about a 38-year-old woman named S. Rajalaxmi, from the South Indian village of Kuilapalayam. She was widowed at the age of 25, when her husband was hit by a bus. She had two children, a son aged 3 and a daughter aged 8. She was illiterate. She lived in a single-room thatched hut without running water.

No one would have bet on Ms. Rajalaxmi’s future, or on her children’s. A few years ago, though, a women’s college was built near Kuilapalayam, and today Ms. Rajalaxmi’s daughter is studying there for a degree in computer science. Her prospects are infinitely brighter than her mother’s. Ms. Rajalaxmi believes — she knows — that her daughter will get a good job and take care of the family.

In the village of Molasur, an agricultural hamlet that has recently been transformed by a new highway, I met a 52-year-old farmer named D. Ramnathan. Farming is a tough, unpredictable business. Mr. Ramnathan, who dropped out of high school, has worked hard and saved all his life.

His children have reaped the benefits. His two daughters have technical degrees, and his son is finishing a course in commerce. His eldest daughter worked for a technology company in Chicago for three years. She is back in India now. She plans to start her own software business.

“My children have many more possibilities than I had,” Mr. Ramnathan told me. “This is all I ever wanted.”

I met another man from Molasur, a 36-year-old autorickshaw driver named D. Sedhuraman. Ten years ago, he said, he had few customers. He had a hard time making ends meet.

But the area around Molasur has grown richer, and more people can afford to take autorickshaws today. Things have become better for Mr. Sedhuraman. He has bought a refrigerator and a computer. His daughter attends private school. Her ambition is to become a doctor or an engineer.

Not all the progress has come in villages, of course. The most obvious signs of prosperity are evident in urban India. And although a lot of the attention goes to the big cities — metropolises like Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai — much of the new wealth and opportunity have actually been generated in less flashy places, small towns where middle-class dreams are being played out.

In Pondicherry, a once-sleepy town that has in recent years reinvented itself as a chic tourist destination, I met a 55-year-old woman named Archana Somani. At the turn of the decade, she and her husband ran a small souvenir shop and a travel business. They did fine back then, but now they do much better.

With the advent of capitalism in India, businesswomen like Ms. Somani have expanded by opening franchise stores for established brands. Over the last decade, she and her husband have opened stores for Nike, Lacoste, Kodak and Titan (an Indian watch company). Their travel business has grown, too. Ms. Somani said that while in the past almost all of her customers were foreign tourists, she now increasingly caters to Indians who can afford to travel internationally.

I met Ms. Somani in her first-floor office, above a street jammed with holiday shoppers. “When we bought this place, it was a dead place,” Ms. Somani said. “Everyone told us we were making a mistake.”

Now, she said, the area was so busy that there was not enough commercial space to keep up with demand. The future was bright; Pondicherry would continue to grow, and with it, she knew, would her business.

Ms. Somani’s optimism is not at all unusual. It is very much the norm in India today. The stories I have included here are likewise common, though they may not be the ones you typically find in the news media.

These are not stories about the nation’s rising population of billionaires, nor are they are about India’s wildly successful technology entrepreneurs. These are stories about ordinary lives.

It is this very ordinariness, the commonness today of a journey that leads from deprivation to hope, from poverty to something that is at least within striking distance of prosperity, that is the real indication of India’s progress over the last decade.

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