Author Weighs India's Economic Future

From the outside, India's swift economic growth can be misleading. Will the wealth be spread around to address daunting poverty? Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India offers some clues.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In India, a first time visitor need only leave the Delhi airport to see in the sweep of an eye streets cluttered with trash and wandering cows, and palaces ablaze in light. Which is why NPR correspondent Philip Reeves devotes his latest letter from India to a book about what this disparity in wealth could mean to India's future.

PHILIP REEVES: Early each day, I open my front door to pick up the newspapers. Every now and then I catch sight of the aristocrats taking their morning promenade. That's my name for them. The aristocrats are two portly cocker spaniels. New Delhi has been cold in recent weeks, so they've been wearing thick, brightly colored coats. They look as groomed and manicured as cavalrymen on parade, even though they're waddling along at the end of a leash. The other end of the leash is attached not as you might expect to the dog's owner, but to a gloomy man wearing a starched white uniform with shiny brass buttons and carrying a stick for beating off strays. He's a servant from one of the neighborhood's more prestigious households.

The same lane used by my canine aristocrats has also become a play area for children from some rundown apartment blocks nearby. The children, like millions of others in Delhi, wear little more than rags, no matter what the weather. The dogs are noticeably better dressed, better nourished, and warmer than them.

To say that India is a country of extremes of wealth and poverty is a statement to the obvious. The more interesting issue is why, and what will happen if India's economic boom continues and it becomes, as some predict, one of the top three global economic powers? These are among the questions Edward Luce tackles head on in his excellent book, "In Spite of the Gods."

Luce, who spent five years as the South Asia correspondent for Britain's Financial Times newspaper, sets out to explore what kind of boom India is undergoing. He guides us around a complex world, a country with a nuclear arsenal, a much admired information technology industry, and a reservoir of intellectual talent - yet which also includes 300 million people in absolute poverty - a secular democracy blighted by violent religious chauvinism and a criminalized political class.

He's optimistic that India will achieve its huge potential, though he believes there are some big challenges ahead, for instance, the twin threat of a massive surge in HIV-AIDS and severe environmental damage. If all this sounds a little heavy going, don't worry, it's not. Luce's analysis is highly readable and he mixes it with some wonderful personal anecdotes. My favorite is about a bright-eyed and extraordinarily well-informed 10-year-old Indian boy who he meets on a train.

Luce is weary and desperate to sleep. But for hours the boy peppers him with questions and with demands for more conversation. Closing Luce's book, I found myself thinking that this boy represents the India that must surely prevail over the world of the waddling aristocrats and ragged kids just beyond my front door.

MONTAGNE: Philip Reeves is NPR's South Asia correspondent. Edward Luce is the author of "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India."

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