India Rising

Released in March 2009, veteran public radio journalist David Brown takes listeners on a journey around this potential superpower: “India Rising.”

(subway sounds)


David Brown: India, like New Delhi’s brand new subway system, is country on the move.

(subway car door close and leaving platform)


Anand Sharma: In the coming decades, India will be in a leadership position in the world.

Brown: Nuclear arms, a rising economy, and new ties to the US have given India a prominent place on the world stage.

Swapna Nayudu: We are an important global player and we feel the need for the rest of the world to recognize that.

Brown: But the country faces many challenges.

Harsh Pant: India now needs to get its act together.

Brown: Will poverty, terrorism and the global financial crisis derail India’s super power ambition?

(music ends)

(subway train screeching to halt)

Brown: And succeed or fail what does this mean for the rest of us?  I’m David Brown and this is the story of “India Rising,” from the Stanley Foundation, KQED Public Radio, and KUT Austin.

Suhel Seth: India is on the move, but it doesn’t know which direction it needs to go.

(subway door sound)

Brown: Our journey gets underway after this.


(gated community sounds)

Brown: You slowly open your eyes in The Springs…and even though everyone says expect the unexpected; nothing really prepares you for this.  Dogs dart through lawn sprinklers in front of row after row of new stucco homes.  Palm trees dot the meticulously manicured yards. And children pack into the back of their parents’ Mercedes for the drive to school…

(woman says, “bye baby”)

Brown: ….welcome to India.  This may very well be the future of India, and yet just beyond these gates, literally a few dozen feet away…

(loud horns and street noise)

Brown:…over packed rickshaws and spindly mopeds battle with tinny taxis through congested streets, past mothers cradling infants—begging for food or money. Power lines sag as if from the weight of age and over consumption—and it is hard to imagine this as a country prepared to take its place with the established powers of the world.  Welcome to India.

(street noise)

I’m David Brown.  Over the next hour, we’re going to be exploring a place of such enormous human capital and economic potential—a nuclear armed, English-speaking democracy over a billion people strong—that its little wonder India’s been called the world’s next superpower…

(sounds of people talking near Gateway of India)

…and yet it is a place so burdened by its infrastructure, by illiteracy and by poverty that its claim for a place on the world stage may be seriously threatened. This is India Rising, a production of the Stanley Foundation, KQED Public Radio, and KUT Austin.

(news coverage of 26/11)

Brown: If there were any doubts about whether India ‘matters’ to the rest of the world, they were silenced by an event known here as 26-11.  On the 26th of November 2008, the world’s attention turned to a frightening chain of events unfolding in Mumbai—the great cultural and financial center located on the west coast. If the terrorist attacks on Mumbai were, in fact, India’s 9-11, well correspondent Simon Marks is at the place that one might call its ground zero.

Simon Marks: David—I’m standing the shadow of the Gateway of India, right opposite the Taj Hotel. That’s the domed building you saw burning on television last November after terrorists attacked it and a handful of other prominent targets here. Once a war-zone, as terrorists inside the hotel fought pitched battles with commandos below, this cobbled pedestrian precinct is now open to tourists again. The Taj is open for business and Mumbai is in recovery.

(cafe sounds)

Marks: Business is booming at the Cafe Leopold in Mumbai. For 138 years waiters here have delivered frosted pitchers of beer, and hot plates of spicy Indian nibbles to the tourists and locals who frequent this popular, wood-paneled watering hole. It’s just half a mile from the Gateway of India—the colonial-era monument that looks out on the Arabian Sea. Visitors from cruise liners, along with employees of local businesses, all gravitate to the cafe to quench their thirsts and satiate their appetites in South Mumbai’s hot-and-humid climate.

Eric Anthony: South Mumbai, like, we never expected this to happen in South Mumbai.

Marks: Eric Anthony has managed this family-owned cafe for years. And what he never expected could happen—did happen—last November 26th. At 9:30pm, he and his customers found themselves under attack, by two heavily-armed men bearing sub-machine guns. The terrorist attack on Mumbai that would take more than 170 lives, and more than three days to subdue, had begun.

(cafe sounds)

Anthony: This is the bullet that went from here, came out from here.

Marks: Today, the cafe has hung pictures to cover up some of the fist-sized bullet holes that the gunmen left in their wake. One of the pictures, with a hint of black humor, is a sign that reads: “All Rights of Admission Reserved”. Outside, three armed guards now protect the cafe; a reflection of the added security costs being borne by thousands of businesses in India’s financial capital after the terror attacks revealed gaping holes in the country’s national security infrastructure.

Anthony: I think that after the attack, the people – the people are more responsible now, not the government.  The government cannot do anything because the police also has done nothing.

(protest sounds)

Marks: Immediately after last November’s attacks, there was intense anger on the streets of Mumbai over the remarkable ease with which ten terrorists had brought mayhem to the city. Thousands of protesters jammed the lanes around the Cafe, and the terrorists’ other targets:  the Taj and Oberoi hotels, the city’s central railway station, and a Jewish community center.

(protestors chanting and screaming)

Marks: “Down with politicians, down with Pakistan” the demonstrators chanted. Their anger directed in equal measure at two governments they held responsible for the attacks: the country’s immediate neighbor, where the terrorists were trained, and their own for failing to protect India’s people.

(phone sound)

(newsroom sounds)

Ronnie Screwvala: I think the expectation, and that was pretty much the youth of India actually crying out, it was really for some sense of action. Unlike most terrorist attacks one needs to keep in mind that this particular one was pretty much a sort of a 50 or 60 hour war.

(newsroom sounds)

Marks: But Ronnie Screwvala, one of Mumbai’s most successful entrepreneurs, says the public’s cry for action has been mostly met by rhetoric. He’s the founder and CEO of UTV, an entertainment conglomerate operating six commercial television networks, including an all-business channel. Its newsroom hums with the quiet efficiency that can be found at any of its American counterparts. But the network’s owner worries that little has been done in the months since the attacks to make Mumbai any less vulnerable to a band of dedicated terrorists.

Screwvala: I don’t think they’d find it harder or difficult at this point to do anything differently.  That’s primarily because there’s no central chain of command. Until we actually get that into place, its multiple authorities looking at their own jurisdiction or their responsibility, and, therefore, no.  It can reoccur again at any time.

Mahendra Pratap Taneja: I think the city has gone on to business as usual.  The sad part is that what should really happen on the ground as it should.

Marks: Rear-Admiral Mahendra Pratap Taneja retired from the Indian Navy three years ago, capping a 36-year career. The government, he says, is creating a National Investigation Agency empowered to battle terrorism, and has plans to base elite commandos in four of the country’s major cities. But he says agencies like the Coastguard still lack the basic assets—ships, aircraft, and radar systems—that they need to police the waters surrounding India effectively. Change, he suggests, is taking too much time.

Taneja: I’m not sure we reacted quite as fast as we should have. We as a people, I think, don’t do things so quickly.  We like to think, mull over, and then actually take action.

Anand Sharma: There is no country in the world which can provide ironclad security.

Marks: That’s Anand Sharma, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs—one of the country’s top government officials. Speaking from his office in the imposing warren of colonial-era government buildings in New Delhi, he says India is now facing the same terrorist scourge that bedevils the developed world.

Sharma: There were bombings in Madrid, bombings in London, New York was attacked. Yes, we had failures. We must admit that as a government. The Prime Minister of the country had the humility to apologize. But it was a very difficult situation. I’m sure, God forbid that if such a situation arises, many of the lapses which were there in Mumbai will not be there. But there is no country which is safe.

(Bollywood film set sounds)

Marks: Back in Mumbai, it’s business almost-as-usual for Bollywood—the financially-flourishing movie industry born in the city that has helped propel India on its journey to “developed world” status. On stage in a disused theater, not far from the scene of the terrorist attacks, actor Shahid Kapoor, a Bollywood heart-throb, is being made up ahead of a scene in his next big love story. The stage is bathed with light. The actor stands alone, surrounded by gaudy red and golden set.

Ken Ghosh: It’s a nice, happy story, that if you dream, you can make it.

Marks: But, says the film’s director Ken Ghosh, that’s because he started work on this project 18 months ago. Today, he says, with the terror attacks fresh in the public’s mind, audiences are demanding more.

Ghosh: There are a lot more things in the pipeline where it’s not only about songs and dances that we are normally known for, but our films need to say something now. Obviosuly, cinema is a mirror of society. So we’re only going to make films that the audiences want to see.

Marks: It’s also an indication that the terror attacks raised fundamental questions about whether India’s governmental and strategic infrastructure will hold it back from achieving its potential—questions that many in Mumbai say have not been properly answered yet.

(Bollywood film set sounds continue)

Marks: For India Rising, Simon Marks, Mumbai.

(Bollywood film set sounds continue)

Shashi Tharoor: The arduous task of reconstructing, of rebuilding, even of re-imagining the structures and the institutions which have let the Indian people down is now beginning.

Brown: That’s Shashi Tharoor—Indian writer, politician, and diplomat; the former Undersecretary General of the United Nations. Prior to what Indians call 26-11, there’d been other terrorist attacks on big cities in India. But this, he says, was “the final straw.”

Tharoor: There’s now a very, very large consensus across the political class yes, but also across the middle class, across ordinary people, voters, north, south, east and west that there has to be real change in this country, as well as real accountability both here and abroad.

Brown: Tharoor argues that the terror attacks threw a klieg light on India’s weaknesses, just as the world was starting to think of the country as a rapidly-growing economic power—a regional up-and-comer. Suddenly, there was evidence that the young generation of Indians driving economic growth doesn’t necessarily represent the rest of the nation.

Tharoor: Well, the curious paradox about India is that it is indeed a land of paradoxes.  And, that both were happening simultaneously. That we were having people struggling along in bullock carts, while shooting rockets off to the moon. I mean this is something that has always been true about India.  But the broad approach has been fairly relaxed and lackadaisical, and that’s where the areas of Indian excellence—IT, medical research and of course many aspects of our military; those areas of excellence stood out precisely because they used a level of energy, of creativity, of dynamism, of determination, discipline, hard work that is not typical of the rest of Indian society. It’s not that Indians are not capable of it. It’s that the system didn’t require it of them. The system therefore has to change.

Brown: Sashi Tharoor, Indian diplomat, politician and author of, “The Elephant, The Tiger, and The Cell Phone…India: the Emerging 21st Century Power.”  But its one thing to be reflecting on all this from a modern hotel suite in Mumbai and nearly impossible to do from this vantage point…

(dog barking)

 …a typical farming village in the center of India. From here, the country’s 21st century potential could not feel more distant.

(radio playing music)

The only light, apart from a naked bulb dangling from a lonely power line, is the glow from the dial of a rickety radio hung on a nearby tree trunk.

More than half a billion Indians live in rural villages—many without even these modern conveniences. And yet only a half days drive from here, are the supermarkets, schools, shopping malls, and high-tech offices that suggest a new land of opportunity.  Coming up next—a day in the life of two Indias—as our special report, India Rising, continues.

(music break)

David Brown: From the Stanley Foundation, KQED Public Radio, and KUT Austin, you’re listening to India Rising.  I’m David Brown.

(gated community sounds)

On the outskirts of the central Indian city of Hyderabad, in a district called Hi-tech city, it is 6:30 in the morning.

(water pouring into glass)

The day begins with juice and breakfast—getting the kids ready for school…

(Sirisha Gummaregula saying “goodbye…I’m going to the office, OK” and “don’t run”)

(sound of someone sweeping with broom)

In some ways, Sirisha Gummaregula’s daily routine is not much different from that of her old life, as an attorney in Manhattan—only here she has three domestic helpers, a beautiful modern two story home in a handsome gated subdivision. But alas, no Starbucks. At least, not yet.

Sirisha Gummaregula: I think the 6:00 coffee shop may not work yet because Indians are not early risers. (laughter) But I think once now, at least in Hi-tech city, most offices start at 9:00 so there definitely is the need, you know.

Brown: Sirisha is part of a new generation of Indians who left their country for the US and Europe in the early 90’s, only to discover that India was fast becoming the new land of opportunity. Five years ago, Sirisha returned to India to launch a new business here—from scratch.

(car door shutting)

At sunup, she gets in her chauffeured luxury sedan, and begins a brisk fifteen minute ride to the office. At this pace, who needs coffee?

Gummaregula: I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I don’t particularly like being rudely woken up at 6:30 by both my kids jumping on me, but once I get past that, there’s always something new that you’re doing.

(car horn)

The fact that you have a young workforce. They have not been impacted by people or by experiences which teach them that you can’t do certain things.  So for them, everything is possible.

Brown: According to some estimates, more than percent of India’s workforce is under age 35.  Sirisha, a COO of her own company, has yet to turn 40.

(Sirisha Gummaregula saying “thanks Krishna”)

(car door shutting)

When we pull up to her office, in a handsome high rise, we notice other tenants of the building—Google, Symantec; familiar names all.

(door opening)

(office sounds)

Past the doors of Quislex, Sirisha’s startup, a battery of some two hundred young attorneys work in cubicles analyzing legal documents emailed to them overnight from the states.

(copy machine)

They comb through depositions, draft contracts—that sort of thing— then email their work back to law firms in New York, Washington, Chicago and LA.

(office sounds)

(Gummaregula, “Welcome to everyone to this week’s training.  And, you know, as part of our series on how can we approach an issue differently.”)

Brown: Forget call centers—this is outsourcing on an entirely new level. Professional work. Intellectual heavy lifting. And it’s not only forging a new business model here, it’s changing how business is being done back in the US. And just how is business? Well it’s so good they have to turn away clients. But that’s not the best part, Sirisha says.

Gummaregula: Having roots in India, I always wanted to come back to see how I can give back to the country. So to a certain extent, I think the vibrancy and the energy of coming back and playing a big part in molding, particularly to women, to women employees.  I’m cognizant of the fact that even today, you are not allowed to get results of your natal testing because most of the time if it is found to be a girl, they abort the kid.  So to a great extent coming back and being able to empower women, at least in our organization”.

Brown: The government here in Hi tech city, is trying to make the climate more business friendly—lifting ancient, paternalistic laws that forced women to stop work by 6pm; laws that would make this business impossible to run if enforced.  But on another level, just look out the window at the streetscape below and there are reminders all around of how she count on the government looking after her interests.

(office sounds continue)

Gummaregula: I can’t guarantee that the busses will come on time. I can’t guarantee that the trains will come on time. So what do I do? I take charge of transportation. So there are several things like that. All of the power—you know there are power cuts. So I have three backups where if one failed the other one comes in.  If two fail, the other one comes in. So your entire business model is built on trying to address some of the uncertainties you have in a developing economy.”

Brown: But perhaps the greatest uncertainty in this developing economy is a global economic downturn, and whether India can weather the winds from the west.  This year alone, the world’s economy is projected to shrink by at least two percent.

Yet by those same projections, India’s economy will remain one of the most buoyant in the world, with a growth rate of seven percent.

Amit Mitra: Having a positive seven percent growth rate is an advantage, but is it enough?  No.

Brown: Economist and author Amit Mitra is secretary general of the Indian Federation of Chambers of Commerce.

Mitra: Why do we need this kind of growth? Because every year nine million young people join the labor force in India because of the young population, and then need jobs. For that, we need nine to ten percent growth. So seven percent, which is what we are growing at today, for us is not enough.

Brown: To put it another way, for every million new people entering the workforce, India’s economy has to grow by about one percent. That means that this year, even the most optimistic growth projections, that will leave two million new workers unable to find jobs. And next year they’ll still be looking for jobs as even more people join the workforce. You don’t have to be a math wizard to figure this one out: at this rate, India’s boom is simply unsustainable.

(Inside vehicle with horn honking)

Brown: But if you get in a car, and drive just a little ways outside the city—twenty, thirty miles, in just about any direction, you might fairly ask what boom we’re talking about. A half days drive from Hi-tech city, it could scarcely be any more low-tech than this place…

(birds and goats)

…a village of about 500 homes in the middle of, for all intents and purposes, the middle of nowhere.

(village sounds)

Town center consists of a pile of rocks surrounded by goats that provide milk. There’s a simple landing—a place to sit and chat illuminated by a single light bulb and a radio hanging from a tree trunk that’s constantly playing a Hindi station. Few here speak much English at all.

(radio playing)

(bicycle bell)

The only vehicles we see are ox-carts, bicycles, and the occasional motorbike.

(motorbike driving by)

(sound of digging followed by flowing water)

There’s a tiny well, some handmade canals, and a network of garden hoses provides a weak but rather ingenious irrigation system of sorts for a small portion of a typical ten acre farm. But there’s no water pressure. And except for a little triangle of dirt, this farm is vulnerable to drought and heat, not at all uncommon here in central India.

(farmer speaking in Hindi about ginger crop)

Brown: So we’ve been talking to the head of a family of five who farms this land here in this small village. He tells us he farms ginger, watermelon, and a little bit of wheat, potatoes…some other crops. At the end of each year, he and his family earn about —if he is lucky—about 45,000 rupees. That breaks down to about a $1000 for his family of five over the course of a year. Let’s break that down further. What that means is that each person in that family has to get by over the course of a year on about $200. Which means everyday, each member of this family lives on roughly 50-cents a day.

Unnamed Farmer: There’s nothing here, there’s not enough electricity, not enough water. One has to work very hard and you don’t make enough money. There aren’t enough rewards for the work that we do.

(school bell followed by children standing at attention)

(school children reciting prayer)

Brown: In an open air school, nearly a hundred village children from ages five to fifteen learn the basics. But what then?  Well the majority will head to the cities in search of education, new jobs. But for those unable to find new jobs, the future is this:

(sound of ginger dumped from baskets)

…hauling ginger from the fields in heavy wicker baskets. Trying to eke out a subsistence living in conditions only incrementally better that what one would find in some of the least developed countries in Africa.


And keep in mind this is India for almost two-thirds of the population—or roughly six hundred million people.

Suhel Seth: I believe by not concentrating on agriculture, we have created a quagmire of absolute concern at the lowest level. And here lies the dichotomy.

Brown: Suhel Seth is a Delhi based economist and cultural commentator.

Seth: For a government which swept to power talking about the common man and saying that we’ll work for the common good – who’s actually grown? Who’s become wealthier? Where are the riches concentrated?  The basic problem is that India is on the move but doesn’t know which direction it needs to go to.”

Brown: Modern India is sending rockets to the moon, yet it hasn’t found a way to get tractors onto farms.  There’s not even the most basic chain to keep food refrigerated once harvested. In fact twenty-seven percent of all the food produced on Indian farms simply rots before it gets to market. Suhel Seth calls it shameful. It’s something else, too. It’s a recipe for long term instability. In rural districts across India, and especially in the west, Maoist insurgencies called Naxalites have emerged as a serious threat to western-style development.

Seth: Is it a danger? It is a huge danger because with that there is an armed struggle going on between the government of India and these Naxalites. But the struggle is based on real reasoning.  You cannot keep an entire pool of humanity within this country out of real progress. So if the politician can’t fight for that poor farmer in Guntur someone else will. It just so happens that that someone else has a gun. He doesn’t care for the ballot.

Brown: In fact, the Indian government declared the Naxalite movement the most serious threat to India’s national security. Of course, that was before the Mumbai attacks.

(street traffic)

The sun has set back in Hy-tech city—just sixty miles from the village and yet a million miles away.  Young professionals, the people who populate India’s rising middle class, wind down their long days with long nights on the town. For Sirisha, our legal outsourcing entrepreneur, this is an exciting, golden age. One that, from this vantage point at least, looks like it will only get better. She decides to call it a day after a mere twelve hours at the office.

(street traffic continues)

Gummaregula: Today I managed to finish up one of the trainings that we had scheduled a little early. So I decided to take a break. So there’s nothing to complain. It’s been a great day.

Brown: You can appreciate her enthusiasm—feel the pulse of something exciting here—but at the same time, there’s no escaping a reality about modern day India. That it is, in effect, two Indias. An economic miracle; sure. But for just a narrow portion of the Indian people.  In Hy-tech city it is almost Midnight and almost midday in New York.


Brown: New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo—in every hotel and in many modern places of business one clock will not do.  Although physically India is roughly a third the size of the US, or everything east of the Mississippi, its ambition is nothing less than global in scale, though its tone can sometimes be misleading. Correspondent Keith Porter has been reading between the lines, or maybe reading is not quite the right word here…..


Keith Porter: David, listening is probably more like it.  You are listening to the official soundtrack of India’s Foreign Policy. Relaxing, therapeutic music recorded for the Indian government on CDs that are given to people who visit the Foreign Ministry building in New Delhi. We were handed our copies by Anand Sharma— the country’s Minister of State for External Affairs. India’s foreign policy he says, is like the music: smooth and easy.

(music continues)

Anand Sharma: We believe in creating a better understanding so that we can co-exist in harmony. We want this region to be a region of stability, peace and progress. That’s what India’s endeavor throughout has been.

(ABC archival newscast: “I’m Harry Reasoner in New York. These are tonight’s headlines. India claims and Pakistan denies that Indian forces have scored major victories in east Pakistan. India recognizes the rebel Bangladesh government in east Pakistan…” )

Porter: But the quest for harmony has not always proved easy for India. In December 1971, the country was fighting one of the three wars it’s waged with Pakistan; this one over the struggle for independence in neighboring Bangladesh.

(ABC archival newscast continues: “The United States, Russia, and mainland China were in action again today on the diplomatic front as the UN Security Council met to resume debate on the India-Pakistan war…”)

Porter: It was the height of the Cold War. India was an ally of the Soviet Union…Pakistan a friend of the United States….and as the battle raged, superpower politics were in play.

Sharma: Well, historically we have had problems in finding a harmonious environment in our neighborhood. Now, it’s not a situation of our creation. No country chooses its geographical neighbor.  We do not control or influence what happens beyond our territory.  We do not have the luxury or comfort of a quiet neighborhood.

Porter: The Indian government argues that the country has been a victim of geographical circumstance—that its lack of positive relationships in its own backyard is due to the behavior of its neighbors and should not be seen as a negative reflection on India.

Harsh Pant: And in that context, whether it’s Pakistan, whether it’s Bangladesh, or it’s Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, all of them have in some ways or another tried to balance Indian preponderance.

Porter: Dr. Harsh Pant of King’s College in London has written extensively on Indian Foreign and Security Policy.

Harsh Pant: If you look around the periphery, first of all, India is surrounded by weak states, which many of them are on the verge of failing states.  So I think there’s a tension there inherent in the structural limitations that India faces in its neighborhood.

(Republic Day sounds)

Porter: And yet India certainly is not backward in displaying its military prowess. Every January 26th, Republic Day is marked by an enormous display of firepower in New Delhi.

(Republic Day sounds continue)

The country’s nuclear-equipped armed forces march past the President, their commander-in-chief. He also reviews some of the military’s advanced hardware. There are tanks and APCs rumbling through the center of New Delhi, as well as missiles and a traditional fly-past by the country’s Air Force.

(Republic Day fly-past)

The Indian military is growing. It’s acquiring new aircraft carriers to modernize its Navy and wants at least one nuclear-powered submarine.

Swapna Nayudu: I think it’s more about being a regional power than hegemony. India is not really looking at a belligerent, aggressive, proactive foreign policy.

Porter: Swapna Nayudu is an associate fellow at the Indian Army’s own think-tank, the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi. She says the country must resolve its disagreements with its neighbors if it’s to achieve its goal of becoming an effective facilitator of regional diplomacy.

Nayudu: I think the resolution to these conflicts is the first step towards anything positive and a lot of these conflicts are seen as intractable. And, the fact that that perception has been there for so long—that view with the Indian public is almost as old as India’s independence. So there are a lot of issues to be solved. There are a lot of problems.

Porter: There are old problems, like the disputed territory of Kashmir over which India and Pakistan have been wrangling since 1947. External Affairs Minister Sharma says progress on building a more productive relationship with Pakistan was completely derailed by last November’s terror attacks on Mumbai.

Sharma: We cannot have these attacks, and talks.  And we cannot just be smiling at each other saying that ‘the peace process is on, and you come and kill our people.’ And don’t act against the perpetrators.  That’s not on.

Porter: And then there are new problems—like the battle for influence in the region between India, and a rapidly-growing China. Again, Dr. Harsh Pant of King’s College in London.

Pant: India feels that it is surrounded by these weak and fragile states that have started establishing ties with another of its potential adversaries, which is China.  So it’s a structural conundrum that India faces.  How to get out of this logjam and India has not yet found a meaningful way of doing that.

(President George W. Bush: “Today I have the honor of signing legislation that builds on the ties of the world’s largest democracies, India and the United States.”)


Porter: What India has succeeded in developing is an entirely new relationship with the United States.

(President George W. Bush: “This legislation will enhance our cooperation in using nuclear energy to power our economies.”)

Porter: And the signing of the US-India Nuclear Cooperation Act by President George W. Bush at the White House in October 2008 was perhaps its crowning moment. The US and India argue the deal will help New Delhi develop more nuclear energy for peaceful use. Critics contend that India, which refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, should not be rewarded by pledges of US support for its nuclear program.

Nayudu: Energy security has been very important to India’s foreign policy for the past few years. India is an energy deficient country, and that has been a concern for a long time now.

Porter: Analysts like Swpana Nayudu of New Delhi’s Center for Land Warfare Studies argue that whatever its merits, the nuclear deal has helped further India’s quest for global respect.

Nayudu: Especially in India there is a perception that we are an important global player, and we feel the need for the rest of the world to recognize that.

Porter: From Washington’s perspective it’s too early in President Obama’s term to know whether ties with New Delhi will turn more on India’s relationship with Pakistan and the so-called war on terror, or on India’s economic prospects. At her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed to suggest the US could have it both ways.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: We will build on our economic and political partnership with India, the world’s most populous democracy and a nation with growing influence in the world.

(gavel sounds)

(UN Security Council Archival Audio: “Good morning, the 6018th meeting of the Security Council is called to order.”)

Porter: But Washington—and the world—are going to have to contend with India’s unapologetic campaign to play a greater role on the world stage, symbolized by its quest for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, The US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China all have permanent Security Council seats, giving them veto powers over any measure that comes before the world body. India’s External Affairs Minister Anand Sharma.

Sharma: You cannot have a multilateral system and to be called representative if it does not include India. You cannot have a world order of multilateral institutions which remains frozen in what emerged after the Second World War, when more than two-third member states of the United Nations were not independent nations.

Porter: But changing the permanent seats on the Security Council has proven impossible over the last 60 years. So India may have to seek other venues where it can exercise a global voice, and it’s already a regular guest at the annual G8 meetings of the world’s largest economic powers. Minister Sharma says the country is already assuming the larger global burdens that come with a greater global role.

Sharma: India has an impeccable record as a responsible member of the global community. We have contributed hugely in UN peacekeeping operations. And we will continue to do that, along with other countries, to create a world where there is justice and equity and there is security and hope.


Porter: It’s a global ambition that India is pursuing from the heart of one of the world’s most unruly neighborhoods. The relaxing, therapeutic music distributed by the country’s Foreign Ministry expresses peaceful harmonies that, for now, are drowned out by the discordant geopolitical dissonance in India’s own backyard.

(music continues)

Porter: For India Rising, I’m Keith Porter.


Brown: India’s bright dreams cannot obscure a darker backdrop. Can a nation become a major player on the world stage—a political, military and economic force to be reckoned with, while leaving millions of its own people behind in conditions beyond mere poverty-as-most-of-us-think-of-it? Coming up, we go the slums of Mumbai as our special report, India Rising, continues.

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David Brown: From The Stanley Foundation, KQED Public Radio, and KUT Austin, you’re listening to India Rising.  I’m David Brown.


Brown: For most Americans, the Oscar winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” is their only real connection to India, and yet at its heart, the film a shamelessly romantic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy does everything to get her back again.  Far more Frank Capra than Bollywood, truth be told. But there’s one fleeting scene that really says a lot about the India of today, two brothers, in their twenties, sit in the skeleton of a new high rise being built in downtown Mumbai. Looking down in bemusement on all the construction below, one says to the other–that used to be our slum down there… talk about romance. In fact it may be a measure of how much India’s ascent is becoming popular wisdom, that one wants to believe the Dickensian squalor of old Bombay has been replaced by the new growth of urban Mumbai. Correspondent Kristin McHugh discovered something quite different.

(women and men beating laundry against concrete in sewage dump)

Kristin McHugh: David, I’m standing in the very place where parts of “Slumdog Millionaire” were actually filmed.  This is Mumbai’s Dharavi neighborhood and it is Asia’s largest slum.  As many as one-million residents live here in an area roughly the size of New York City’s Central Park. Many residents live in make-shift brick and concrete buildings perched between narrow alleyways.  But far from the bright movie set lights the story of Dharavi is much more complex than that of extreme poverty.  It is a hub of economic activity and at the center of a large controversy—one that could have huge implications for the rest of India’s slum dwellers.

(bicycle bell and Dharavi street sounds)

McHugh: On a crowded, dusty street sits a spotless white delivery truck bearing the words Medhe Tempo Service.  It represents Siddharth Medhe’s future.

(keys jangling followed by truck starting)

Siddhardth Medhe: I work as a driver and I also have a business called “Sound Service.” I’ve just bought a small truck.

McHugh: Siddharth Medhe has lived in the Dharavi slum for 40 years. Wearing a crisp white shirt that matches the shine of his new truck, he tells me he sometimes makes as little as 1000 rupees a month, or roughly twenty-dollars.  Siddharth Medhe believes his truck gives him a fighting chance to make ends meet for his family.  But feeding his family isn’t his only challenge.

(crows squawking)

(laundry and street sounds continue)

McHugh: Siddharth and his wife live in tidy 10×10 foot room nestled along a small courtyard that doubles as a make-shift laundry and kitchen sink.  Every available inch of Siddharth’s home is stacked floor to ceiling with the family’s personal possessions, leaving very little floor space for actual living.  One of Siddharth’s two sons lives in a similar dwelling next door.  Though the living conditions are not ideal by Western standards, it is space Siddharth proudly claims as his own and he doesn’t want to give it up without a fight.

Mehde: They want to demolish our huts and make a green park.  That’s what they’ve told us.  This spot where I am standing is going to become a garden.

McHugh: The green space Siddharth refers to is part of a public-private initiative called the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.  Officially backed by the local government the plan calls for private investors to transform all 535 acres that comprise Dharavi to make way for a new middle class neighborhood.

Shaan Mehta: We brought this plan to the government.

McHugh: American educated urban designer Shaan Mehta, along with his father Mukesh, is spearheading the drive to redevelop the Dharavi slum.

Mehta: 55 percent of Bombay’s population lives in slums. Another 25 percent of the city live in old and dilapidated buildings, which are ready to collapse. So if a city has ever had a chance to reinvent itself, to make its mark in the international world, I believe that the process through which it will happen is through slum rehabilitation.

McHugh: Under the plan, residents will receive a 269 square foot apartment located in a new high-rise building. The new neighborhood will include health care facilities, public schools, and opportunities for economic development. It will also include green spaces and recreational areas.

The Dharavi Redevelopment Plan presently covers 57,000 families.  But residents and opponents question how that figure was calculated.  There is no official census on record for Dharavi.  Some estimate the population is as high as one million.  Shaan Mehta believes there are only 350,000 residents.

(Dharavi street sounds)

Medhe: We have only one plea.

(street sounds continue)

McHugh: Again resident Siddharth Medeh.

Medhe: He says he’s taken an official survey, but it was done from the air, by helicopter.  Tell him to come into Dharavi. He should meet with all of us personally. Then he will actually realize what Dharavi is all about.

McHugh: Shaan Metha says Siddharth Medhe is outright wrong.

Mehta: We’ve distributed 70,000 pamphlets in six different languages explaining exactly how the project is gonna work and what amenities and I’ve taken a signature or a thumbprint against each of those pamphlets incidentally.  So if there’s any hut that can tell me that they’ve not gotten information on this project I’m fairly certain I can prove them wrong.

McHugh: No matter how you look at it, the plan is complicated.  But there is no question as to why Dharavi’s land is so valuable.

(train horn followed by train passing on tracks)

McHugh: Mumbai’s major transit lines run through Dharavi—making it a perfect location for the commuting class the new plan hopes to attract.

(kitchen food preparation)

McHugh: John Bai’s kitchen overlooks some of the valuable rail lines.  John Bai is a member of the Slum Dwellers Federation a coalition looking to negotiate with local governments for better land and services. As one of Dharavi’s more fortunate residents, Bai lives in 2-story…1500 square foot home and stands to lose much of that space under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan.  He’s not opposed to improvements but he’s concerned about the loss of business space.

John Bai: Everybody wants good facilities, good amenities, safe water, toilets, all these things, schools and all kinds of facilities, everybody wants.  But not at the cost of our bread and butter.  See most of the people they are earning the living in their house itself.  They’ve got small home industries.  Now if we are displaced from this place, in buildings we can’t do all these businesses.

(person slapping wet clay pottery)

McHugh: Blocks away from John’s house is the home of one of Dharavi’s most celebrated trades: pottery.  Here among narrow and smoke filled alleyways artisans hand throw and spin clay into ceramic wear.  They use traditional methods including earthen kilns that belch out polluting smoke.

Jayesh Dank: They don’t understand, actually.  The kind of space we need.  They don’t understand that.

(pottery sound contiues)

McHugh: Jayesh Dank is the grandson of a ceramic maker and a fifth year architect student still living in Dharavi.  He worries the current redevelopment plan will eliminate manufacturing space and the ceramic artisan tradition.

Dank: There will be no drying space, which this pot needs.  No manufacturing space—we will only have residential space, not commercial place for this pottery.

(pottery sound continues)

Mehta: I’ll tell you the potters are actually a slightly more complicated issue because they have larger homes so they’re not fitting into what the norms are that the government has described at 269.

McHugh: Again Shaan Mehta.

Mehta: Right now those negotiations are going on so we’re trying to formulate a separate policy for the potters, but until then they’re not gonna say the kindest things about the project.

McHugh: Shaan Mehta says the redevelopment plan includes vocational training, upgraded trade and manufacturing facilities and the opportunity for residents to work their way out of poverty.  But, not everyone is convinced the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, or any slum redevelopment project for that matter, is about improving lives.

Suhel Seth: The Dharavi issue is not about relocation. It is not about genuine benevolence. It is about greed. And it is typical of Bombay. It’s typical of what we’ve seen as far as land-grabbing is concerned. It’s all about the land.

McHugh: Suhel Seth is a New Delhi-based economist and cultural commentator.

Seth: It’s not about the people. And when you run a country when the people don’t matter, when the people are irrelevant, when people are marginalized, you will face some form of dissent and you will face some sort of upheaval.

(children yelling)

(women and men beating laundry against concrete in sewage dump)

McHugh: Back in Dharavi, women and men beat garments against concrete blocks in an open sewage pit amid the site and stench of human waste.  Steps away, John Bai sits on his rooftop under a maze of electric transmission lines and doesn’t seem to mind.  To him Dharavi is home.

Bai: I’ll be staying here at least 10 years. We’ll be here.

McHugh: Dharavi’s developers disagree.

Mehta: This project is going to happen. It’s a necessity for the city. It’s a lot of money for the real estate developers, it’s important to the city as a whole to get this area back.

(truck horn honking)

(Dharvai street sounds)

McHugh: As Siddharth Medhe drives his truck down the familiar streets of his neighborhood, he doesn’t have any plans to leave soon.

Medhe: Our representatives are talking to the government because they know what’s best for us.  All of us collectively, people of all religions, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and all religions, we are all fighting united for Dharavi

(train passing on railroad tracks)

McHugh: For India Rising, I’m Kristin McHugh, Mumbai.

(train sound fades away)

David Brown: It’s worth contemplating that last point a little further because its that observation, right there in the slums, that may well be the key to getting a grasp on India’s future. For when we put the words together—India—Rising—there’s the risk that we have in mind a mythical India. A single people.

But what does one make of hammers and sickles on posters adjacent to sparkling new shopping malls? If this is the India of the future, what then for the crowded alleys which wind their way to the sacred temples? What will this modern India look like?

You try to imagine it by walking the streets of India’s great cities riding the buses and trains, visiting its villages. And yet the more you see, the less it seems to make sense. Until you begin to allow for the idea of more than one India, but rather something a lot more like Dharavi—Hindus, Muslims, Sihks, Christians—a society of coalitions. A society that works because of mutual accommodation and for the same reason seems to be something of a shambles—in a state of constant chaos and disrepair.

When we in the west talk glibly about India’s promise and potential as the largest democracy in the world, our experience and imagination fail us. India is a much messier business than much of the West perceives.

Globalization, that seemingly irresistible force, is changing India in ways that both exacerbate existing tensions and yet galvanize and polarize interests in India in such a way that for the first time it is possible to conceive of one Indian nation unified on the ascent, growing at a pace that grabs global headlines and yet at precisely the same time, more sharply divided than ever before, and at its center, growing desperate and lean.

Dunu Roy is a political economist and a leading Indian thinker.

Dunu Roy: That tipping point is going to come because if 29 percent is benefiting, then there’s a 71 percent which is not. And what has got? What is that 71 percent going to be doing in due course of time? This is never talked about by economists. And that 71 percent, I suspect, is going to have much to say in the near future.

Brown: It’s an ominous vision to be sure but not universal. Novelist Gurcharan Das is a prominent Indian commentator and newspaper columnist.

Gurcharan Das: My mother, she once asked me, she says, “You write in your columns about India growing at eight percent, China growing at ten. And you get very upset that this two percent gap is there. And explain to me, what does this two percent gap mean?”

So I said, “Well, it’s very important because 2 percent means that we could save 20 years. That 20 years is a whole generation that could be lifted out of poverty if you grew faster.”

And she thought about that. And then she said, “Well, we’ve waited 3,000 years for this moment, so let’s do it right. Let’s do it the Indian way. Let’s do it with democracy.  Let’s not do it the way Chinese are doing it.”

Brown: This is definitely not the way China is doing it.

(hammer hitting metal)

From where I stand, on the lush green campus of the India school of business, one of the top 15 business schools in the world, a new batch of Indian capitalist leaders is being minted every four months or so. And on the horizon, literally as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but desert and new construction. Dozens of new skyscrapers emerging from the clay and rock, like a 21st century Vegas rising from the middle of an Indian Mohave. It’s all connected by a new superhighway still under construction which leads to a gleaming new airport, Rajiv Gandhi International. All over, the billboards carry the same message: “imagine your brand here.”

(acetylene torch and hammer hitting metal)

When the dust settles on this new city dubbed Cyberbad, local leaders believe it will become a new hub, a new India gate, a new kind of port for a new world. At the moment, however, Cyberbad is more a wish cast in concrete—a ghost town under construction—waiting for the dawn of the Indian century.

(aircraft call bells)

On the long flight home, I’m feeling somewhat disappointed. I didn’t get to see the Taj Mahal. I saw, instead, the Taj hotel. For some reason, it seemed more important. I don’t know; maybe next time.

(flight attendant saying, “We’ll be arriving at gate fox two)

(aircraft call bell)

The plane lands back in the states, and I hop in the taxi, exhausted, and reach for my wallet. And pull out nothing but leftover rupees.

And I can’t help but laugh a little on the inside. Not just because I forgot to hit the ATM machine. But as I fan those notes in front of me, I notice for the first time that each one bears the same picture of a smiling Mahatma Gandhi. One of those tiny, inconsequential details that you’d otherwise overlook. But in the quiet of the taxi, enveloped in fatigue, it’s almost as if the moment begins to tell its own story.

It was Gandhi who told a desperate people fighting for their place among the independent nations of the planet to be patient. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world,” he promised.  With a hand full of rupees, it occurs to me that that promise is still playing out—slowly, gently; at its own pace but no less inevitably shaking the world.  And maybe that’s the real story of India rising.


Brown: India Rising was produced by Simon Marks, Kristin McHugh, and Keith Porter for the Stanley Foundation, KQED Public Radio, and KUT Austin. On the Web at,, and

Our associate producer is Christina MacGillivray. Our sound engineer was Rima Snyder of Red Wagon Audio. Special thanks to Ken Mills, Sapna Bhatia, Mahima Kaul, Carl Bergman and the staff of Feature Story News. For more information about India Rising, or to share your thoughts about this program, visit us online at

I’m David Brown. Thanks for joining us.

(music ends)