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Children of the New India

Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 By Jyoti Thottam

It's a Sunday afternoon in Bangalore's Total Mall and the staff at Killer are ready to sell some jeans. The lights are bright, the air-conditioning is on full blast, and the denim is stacked along one wall — dark to faded, skinny to distressed. The assistant manager, Emmanuel Mathew, with a trim mustache and slight paunch, sidles up to a gangly young man and shows him a popular style. "Slim fit, very nice." He doesn't respond, so Mathew tries another pair, another approach. "Stretchable, very comfortable." But this customer is only interested in making a deal. "No, we don't give discounts." Disappointed, he walks away.
It's a challenge selling high-end men's clothing in a shopping mall — the cheapest pair of Killer jeans retails for about $25 — when most Indians are used to bargaining with street vendors or in open-air bazaars. Every pair of jeans, Mathew explains, has subtle details that justify the price: pocket detailing, shanked buttons, finely woven fabric. He holds up two pairs in the same style, one of them in a deep indigo wash, and says knowingly: "These, you could wear to the office." (PHOTOS: Elephant Statues Covered in India)
Never mind that no one in Mathew's family has ever worked in an office. This is Bangalore, IT hub and symbol of the new India, and there's no reason why the son of a carpenter can't relate to the fashion dilemmas of software engineers. Mathew was born in 1991, the year that India started liberalizing its economy. He belongs to the generation that grew up during India's boom. They are as diverse as the country's people but have one key thing in common: the new India is the only India they know.
The Indian Dream In 1991, I was a 20-year-old college student, visiting India for a summer internship. No one was talking about economic reform; India had just narrowly averted a balance of payments default and the 20-somethings I knew fantasized about escape to the U.S. or Britain. No longer. "India is a fundamentally different country in this decade," says Narayan Ramachandran, former head of Morgan Stanley in India. "If you ask the average 25-year-old, they'd be interested in setting up a business, moving forward with their lives. It's exactly the opposite of the way it was 20 years ago."

India will need that optimism. The country's boom is slowing, amid deep concerns about corruption, woeful schools and violent land conflicts. India has the largest under-20 population in the world — nearly half a billion. They could prove to be a powerful demographic dividend, energizing India while the rest of the world ages — or turn into a massive cohort of unemployed, disaffected youth. These portraits of three Indians born in 1991 reveal much about the two Indias (one of promise, the other of despair), the gap between dreams and reality, and their determination to bridge that divide. (MORE: India's Antigraft Movement Isn't Just about Corruption)

The Bangalore Connection
Before Bangalore became an information-technology powerhouse, it was better known as a sleepy, southern state capital with a mild climate well suited to migratory birds and retirees. Mathew grew up in the city. "I walked to school," he says, in the days before the city's now infamous traffic.

Change came slowly. It took years after the initial reforms for the government to implement laws deregulating major industries from telecommunications to finance to power. "They went sector by sector and put in the plumbing," says Ramachandran. By 2000, India was primed to absorb some of the billions of dollars of capital surging through financial markets because of low interest rates in the U.S. and Europe. Some of that money poured into the campuses built by global giants like Microsoft and IBM, and the call centers set up by Indian firms like Infosys, Wipro and TCS.

India's tech sector now employs more than 2.5 million people — a tiny fraction of India's labor force but a tangible presence in Bangalore. The gulmohar trees are plastered with ads for rented rooms for single men or women — IT workers — and shopping malls have proliferated. They cater to a young population flush with disposable income and, thanks to late-night call-center shifts, hours to kill during the day.

Mathew tried to get his father's old job in a post office when he died in 2008. "He told me when he was dying that they would give me the job on compassionate grounds," Mathew says. It's a common practice, but Mathew says he found that the job wasn't a proper government position at all — it was just temporary — and he would have to pay a "commission" for even that.
A year later, Total Mall opened. "I just asked," Mathew says. "They gave me the job." He proved to be a natural salesman. Mathew worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for about $115 a month, barely enough to cover expenses. It might look respectable, but it is much like any work in India's informal sector — off the books, with no benefits. And no security: the store closed several weeks ago for lack of customers; now Mathew has a new job selling CDs — for even less pay.

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Mathew wants better for himself. His ambition is to save enough money to open a mobile-phone-accessories kiosk. He has figured out that the profit margins are huge — about 50%. "That is the perfect job," he says. "I should have 100,000 rupees [$1,900] in savings; after that I'll open a shop." But while the 1991 reforms freed up the financial sector, small businesses still find it difficult to raise capital. Banks lend only to established companies, so entrepreneurs have to rely on family networks or, failing that, moneylenders. Successful small businessmen tend to come from successful business families; Mathew's friends are skeptical he can be an exception. "If you're clever, you know a lot of tricks, you'll move up," says Farooq Basha, the shop's former manager. "Someone like Mathew, he may just end up working hard."

Not Cricket in Cuttack
If Mathew is on the outside looking in, Abhilash Mallick is in the middle of the action. That unfolds, on a recent afternoon, under a hot, cloudless sky on the cricket pitch of Ravenshaw University in Cuttack in eastern Orissa, where Mallick is playing for the state's under-22 team against West Bengal. It's an old-fashioned grass oval surrounded by Ashoka trees; the scoreboard is turned by hand. But Mallick is a thoroughly modern cricketer, an aggressive batsman with a fondness for off-kilter haircuts and Manchester United. "Cricket, it's the same as football," he says. "Nowadays everyone has tattoos, piercings. The first thing is cricket, then style." (VIDEO: India's Passion for Cricket)

Aside from a few officials and their drivers, there are no spectators (Orissa lost badly), but plenty of glimpses of the glittering pyramid of money, fame and advertising that is Indian cricket. The scorekeeper's umbrella is sponsored by Pepsi; the Orissa team's uniforms by Nike (Adidas in the off-season). Mallick will make $190 for this match, and as much as $9,600 this year from match fees, club contracts and sponsorships. In 2010 he was India's top-scoring batsman in his age group, and he has a shot at the new professional Indian Premier League (IPL), where he can expect a minimum of $58,000 a year. Traditionalists lament cricket's commercialization, but Mallick says it has democratized a sport once played only by wealthy amateurs. "It was a rich man's game," he says.

The story of cricket in India is less about upward social mobility than it is about television, the industry that has been most thoroughly transformed by liberalization. In 1991, there was one state-run channel; today there are more than 600 private ones. More than 60% of Indian households have a TV. To reach them, consumer-goods companies are spending billions on TV advertising, which grew 24% in 2010 in India, faster than any other major nation. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) quickly saw the money in selling rights to matches on deregulated TV; revenue from India accounts for more than 70% of the game's global revenue. India is now the cricket world's most powerful nation, and its players are celebrity pitchmen rivaled only by Bollywood. Television has also made it possible for boys from Cuttack to get noticed. "It was difficult for small-city players," Mallick says. "No one was telecasting our matches. Now, with IPL, if you get runs, then everyone will see."

Playing cricket in Cuttack is a far cry from the glamour on TV. Subsidies from the BCCI help put up the team in a three-star hotel during matches, where the chili prawns are tasty but the furniture is worn and grimy. "Partying" after a match usually means a few beers in cramped shared rooms; inviting girls is out of the question in a town where daughters are expected home after dark. Mallick and his mates are willing to forgo all that for a shot at the national team. "If you play for India," he says, "then you can do anything." (MORE: Why a Battle with Bat and Ball Is Exactly What India and Pakistan Need)

The odds are slim: only two cricketers from Orissa have ever played for India. A more realistic hope is a spot on the state senior squad and the "sports quota" job that goes with it, with the railways or a mining company. The competition is intense; the team roster changes every two matches. "Whoever is not playing well, he's out," says Mallick. The system is especially tough on those who support their families with cricket earnings. "For them, it's a lot of pressure." Mallick, at least, has the backing of his father, a petroleum engineer and alumnus of one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. His older brother followed their father's path, but Mallick has bet his youth on cricket. "It's just like gambling, but if you gamble well, your life will be changed."

Struggling in West Bengal
The Indians most resistant to economic reform were perhaps the leftists of northeastern West Bengal state. Their intellectual heart is Kolkata, the state capital, and they ruled West Bengal practically unchallenged for more than three decades (they lost power in a state election last May). "Their first reaction was to reject globalization," says Abhirup Sarkar, a professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata.
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Bengali villages can seem like time capsules. In Biswaspara, most of the 50 families are related, and children run barefoot among the lychee trees wheeling homemade bamboo toys. Cheerful and broad-shouldered, Rina Biswas lives in a two-room mud-and-brick house with her parents, her older brother, his wife and their two young sons. Between dawn, when she wakes up, and midday, when she bathes in a nearby pond, Biswas has swept the house, fetched drinking water, fed the cow, stacked its dung and watered the family's fruit trees and vegetable patch. After evening prayers, the whole family gathers to have tea. "That's my favorite time of the day," she says. "We're all together, and we just talk."

Neither West Bengal nor Biswaspara has been untouched by 20 years of reform. Despite official indifference to liberalization, West Bengal has kept pace with the national average in per capita income. "What Kolkata survives on is trade, international and national," says Sarkar. Its port, a jewel of the colonial era, is still the only way to move foreign goods — now more freely available — through eastern India. Belatedly, West Bengal also attracted a handful of IT and pharmaceutical companies, whose offices have sprouted up in what was once farmland on the outskirts of Kolkata. (PHOTOS: Diwali, the Pan-Indian Festival of Lights)

That wealth has generated a wave of real estate speculation, as land dealers turn stately old homes and paddy fields into luxury apartments and offices. The outer ripples are visible in Biswaspara. About half of the homes are concrete — a sign that those families have already sold their agricultural land to developers and used the windfall to upgrade their houses. They have given up farming, taking up jobs as construction workers or vegetable vendors. The Biswas family is one of the last making a living primarily by farming, and also one of the poorest. The cost of fertilizer and diesel to run their water pump is rising, while yields are falling. In a good year, the family might earn as much as $960; in the past few months their income has been close to zero.

Poverty has left Biswas and her family vulnerable. Her two other siblings both died within the past few months, and hospital bills have left the family nearly $1,730 in debt. Lately, they have spent their evening family meetings worrying over the cost of a ritual feast for some 500 people to mark the end of their mourning period. "How can we get the money? That's a big issue in my family." She is trying to complete her first year of college, but can't afford to buy books.

Nevertheless, she is determined to become the first woman in this conservative Muslim village to have a job. Her dream is to become a primary-school teacher or village health worker, and with a B.A., she might qualify. To earn tuition money, she sews sari blouses — 25 cents per dozen. She gets her pluck from a women's group that she joined about three years ago. "I learned that you don't need anyone to support you," she says. Her mother is worried that, at 20, she is still unmarried, but also seems in awe of her. "I can't go anywhere alone," she says. "I always take my daughter with me. Rina can speak to anyone, for any kind of problem."

On a recent Saturday, Biswas spent the morning with the women's group talking to new members about a course in women's empowerment, which she completed in 2009. The talk is practical — home remedies, vocational skills like sewing and making jams — and the women seem excited just experiencing life outside of their families. By the end of the morning, Biswas had shared tips on treating yeast infections with one woman; another promised to help her get some college textbooks. (MORE: India vs. China: Whose Economy Is Better?)

It was an odd mix of consciousness raising and professional networking, but the real lesson was something subtler: how to make your way in the new India. "Yes, there are shops and call centers, and girls are getting jobs," says Nupur Sanyal, founder of the Institute of Social Work in Kolkata, which runs the program. "But there's a big gap ... There is another class, they are deprived in every way, who have no access to any of this. They have their talents and their capacities, but they didn't have the confidence."

Confidence only goes so far. It won't provide the capital for a young man in Bangalore to start a small business. It won't turn the glamorous mirage of cricket in Cuttack into a lasting career. And it won't make a failing family farm in Biswaspara profitable. Biswas' parents will probably find a husband for her sooner than she can find a job. When they do, her father plans to sell their land for her dowry.

Meanwhile, Biswas is earning as much as she can by sewing piecework. As her machine whirs, she pauses every so often to answer my questions. With enough money, she would love to visit the Taj Mahal. With luck, she'll find a husband who will appreciate her independence. Her cousin next door is getting married soon; Biswas wanted to buy for the wedding a new blouse with sheer sleeves like the one she saw on TV, but her brother's death put an end to that idea. She pauses as the call to prayer sounds and covers her head with the end of her scarf. "We have so many dreams," she says. "Not all of them come true." She bends and goes back to work.

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