Checking Up on India's Rush to the Future

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Commentator Edward Luce just came back from a trip to India and was astonished by the amount of cell phones and cars he saw in New Delhi since he lived there six years ago. He's the author of a critically acclaimed book In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India.


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Commentator Edward Luce recently moved from India to this country. Just last week, he was back in New Delhi on a trip and he was astonished by the number of cell phones and cars he saw. Luce used to be New Delhi bureau chief for the Financial Times and he's author of the book "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India."

EDWARD LUCE: There used to be a cliché that if China was a tiger, then India must be an elephant. I thought about that saying last week when I was passing through New Delhi. I could not help but conclude that the elephant metaphor no longer works very well for India. Elephants are supposed to be slow and plodding, but the speed with which India is changing better resembles a cheetah.

When I first moved to India in 2001, it had just three million cell phones. Now, just six short years later, India is adding seven million new cell phone users every month.

Pretty soon, India will have more cell phone subscribers than the entire population of the United States. Contrast this with the India that my wife, Pria, grew up in not so long ago. When Pria was a teenager in the late 1980s, it took on average 10 years for the government-owned telecoms monopoly to install a new telephone in your home. Even then, the quality of your fixed line connection was so bad that the wait hardly seemed worth it. It could take months for the repairman to turn up.

Naturally, only the privileged few had live connections. Last week, when I was staying with my parents-in-law, I couldn't understand why they had suddenly grown so fond of listening to such an eclectic range of Bollywood film tunes. Then I realized that what I was hearing were the competing ring tones of the mobile phones of the various people who helped out in their house - the cook, the cleaner, the driver and so on.

In fact, it was the incessant ringing of the driver's pelvic gyrating Bollywood dance hit that have prompted my thoughts about the outdatedness of the elephant metaphor in the first place. As we sat in a New Delhi traffic jam, listening to the driver talking to friends and relatives from around India, I marveled at what an instrument of liberation the cell phone presents for India's very talkative masses. I also marveled at the number of different makes of car we saw around us.

Again, as a teenager, Pria would have spotted mostly two types of car, the trusted, but impossibly uncomfortable Ambassador, which dates from the colonial era, and the cramped, inelegant Maruti, which always seems to be carrying more passengers that it has square feet. Nowadays, the clogged roads of India's large cities look like a kind of global auto sales room. Every make you can think of, from the new model Mini to the latest Bentley, is jostling for space.

But in one almost reassuring respect, things in India also remain the same. As the congestion got worse, and the tooting of horns around us became ever more insistent, it suddenly became clear what it was that was causing our interminable jam. Standing a couple of hundred yards up the road, stubbornly rooted to the spot, a proud Indian elephant was resolutely ignoring the increasingly frantic pleadings of its handler.

The brightly decorated elephant presented a magnificent sight. You might discard me as a metaphor, it seemed to be saying, but I'm still not budging an inch.

NORRIS: Edward Luce is author of "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India."

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