Recently, we had an interesting back-and-forth about whether the Indian economy was overheating. Touchy topic these days: investors are worried that the bears will win the war for the airwaves, property seekers are worried that land is too dear, the finance wonks are blanching at valuations, the policy wonks are complaining about a lack of reform and deregulation, organized labor is worried that there will be too much, everyone wants better infrastructure, and the businessmen and a few policymakers want to be left alone to accomplish all this. Most Indians want to ‘beat’ China (whatever that means), and this irks the Chinese – who appropriately point to the mess in our own backyard.
Welcome to India 4.0, the real economy.
Gradually, more and more people have a stake in what happens next. I lived in India not too long ago, and most of India just seemed to passively observe, taking for granted the slow pace of change. Having lived in the US for the last one and a half decades, and returning intermittently to see snapshots of a country in transition, the change is what sticks out most. More and more Indians are becoming market participants, and taking a greater degree of control over their economic future – hoping desperately that the government will take the necessary steps for this to happen. Of course, sitting 10,000 miles away, one can only admire – because one has thankfully become oblivious to the day-to-day struggle of living and working in India. That is what drove me to return.
I moved to the US in 1993 and did my schooling and college there; returning every summer to see all my cousins, aunts, grandparents, and close family friends. I got a good job in New York after graduating, and until recently, was carrying on with business as usual. I had always held in my mind that sooner or later I would come back to India and settle here – but, as I settled in to life there, every passing year made that a fainter and fainter dream.
Lucky for me, the Indian economy decided to really take off for the stars the same year that I entered the labor force (2003) – and I became completely engrossed in macroeconomics and international finance. I studied what was happening, talked to people about why, occasionally I wrote about it – but through it all, I had this nagging sensation that I was not really experiencing it. I was the quintessential armchair quarterback – bold enough to make suggestions about what the Indian government should do, and tell the pessimists that they’re wrong and India was going to boom – but not bold enough to actually give up my cushy life and move there.
So after much planning and deliberation, I finally managed to find a job in Mumbai and I left New York for good. This was a couple of months ago. (The logistical pains of moving continents are my excuse for my hiatus from blogging.)
Since arriving, I have had to reassess all my preconceived notions under the ruthless prism of the reality of day-to-day life in India. I see the poor people on the streets as opposed to merely in World Bank data files. I see corruption (the petty kind at least) in front of my eyes, rather than in Transparency International reports. I have gotten sick because of unhygienic street food. And I have had to spend tons and tons of time in traffic. In Delhi, there were a couple of power cuts, and the airport was a complete bloody mess.
I am fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the vicious contrasts that one encounters every day. Tall fancy buildings coming up next to dilapidated slums; companies who offer better service than any comparator in the West, and those which make transacting with them such a morass that you wish you were never born. Hope and misery coexist seamlessly here.
In a lot of the writings I read about India, there is a constant thread of presenting this as a struggle between rich and poor, left and right, public and private, market fundamentalists and socialists, etc. It’s not. It is an epic struggle between those who benefit from progress and those who benefit from the status quo – and there are characters of both stripes in every quadrant of society irrespective of income, job, or political affiliation. And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win. Because amidst the oppressive tyranny of mediocrity and despair, the blind are the first to see that things have to change.