NEW DELHI and LONDON — The image of India that too many people still have in their minds is one of teeming millions, timeless customs, monstrous poverty and a giant, sluggish economy.
That picture needs to be severely modified. Of course, the poverty and the overpopulation remain, as do some of the tragic and hideous consequences, such as the recent huge death toll from the appalling floods in the state of Orissa.
But alongside the old, a new India has arisen with amazing speed, so new and rising so rapidly that even local opinion, and certainly local officialdom, seem hardly to have caught up with what is happening in their midst.
This new India is the place where Microsoft has decided to put its first and largest development center outside the United States. It is the place that exports electronic-software products to 86 countries, that provides data-handling services for a large slice of the world’s great corporations, that is developing new Internet and e-commerce applications faster than Silicon Valley, and that is attracting the smart money from every conceivable software multinational, global financial institution and investment agency wanting to build up stakes and get in on the ground floor.
The annual growth rate of the new Indian information-technology sector is said to be a staggering 500 percent. And it has all taken place in the last few years, some of it in the last few months. From being a tiny blip of prosperity on the slow-growing Indian scene, it has now mushroomed into a major part of the economy. Estimates suggest that within three years, no less than one quarter of all India’s exports will come from IT services, software and other related industries, with export earnings jumping from the present $4 billion level to $50 billion by 2008.
What India is experiencing is the latest and most dramatic manifestation of the effects of globalization. Suddenly outdated geographic, sociological and even political precepts have to be turned on their heads. In the global electronic network, location matters little — in the case of so-called remote communications services, not at all. It makes not the slightest difference whether your theater ticket or airline ticket is processed in Manchester or Mumbai, Nagoya or New York. The inquiring customer does not even know whether the helpful voice on the phone is answering from the next block or from some distant city. Nowadays it is more than likely to be from Bangalore, Mumbai or New Delhi, for the very good reason that these are the places that provide the best service and the lowest cost.
What makes the difference and draws the investment in the IT age are low manpower costs and high technical skills — and this is a mixture that modern India has in superabundance. Indian universities turn out 115,000 engineering graduates every year. English is the language; agile innovation is the instinct and the culture.
The bureaucracy and regulations that have traditionally tied down so much of Indian industry and kept it so far out of the league of economic “tigers” have simply not had the time or reach to catch up with the booming IT sector. Its growing cascade of software exports can hardly be tracked by the authorities, let alone controlled.
The revolutionary result is to transform India’s status — or at any rate that of some of its urban centers. From being part of the sluggish emerging world, they have leaped into a new role as hub points in the global information network, comparable in vitality with Western capitals, buzzing with enterprise and outpacing the global competition.
Familiar household names like Nokia and Motorola jostle with the new darlings of Wall Street, like Cisco and Lucent, as well as those who finance them like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Chase, to expand their Indian operations.
Of course, there are those who say it is all a flash in the pan, with a handful of Indian millionaires created while the vast majority of Indians remain untouched by this vein of high-tech gold running through their midst.
But this would be to misunderstand the nature of what is actually happening and of the fundamentally transforming force of the global information revolution when it impacts on a society such as India, which despite all its poverty is highly educated, highly open and democratic.
We are clearly only at the beginning of a vast and long-term change in the social landscape that shapes human affairs. The situation is comparable to the outset of the railway age, or the invention of electricity, but perhaps even more pervasive. Information and open communication are the stuff of human relations, and when information becomes 1,000 times more accessible — either by wire or satellite — and 1,000 times more speedily and easily transmitted, a rethink becomes necessary about the position and prospects of every society and every way of looking at the world. Old assumptions are turned upside down.
Rethink India, and one comes up not with a subcontinent of underdevelopment, overpopulation and impoverishment, but with a vast new resource on the global scene: millions of agile and quick minds ready to be mobilized at the leading edge of the network age.
No wonder the more forward-thinking multinational corporations and the sharper global investors are all hurrying to get involved in India before the rest of the world wises up to what is happening.
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