New Internationalist

The United States of India

Spending more time than usual in Bangalore and Cochin, I am struck at the changes in urban Indian society. Twenty years ago, each state had a distinctly regional flavour. People were divided by language, food, ethnicity. Even within a tiny state like Kerala there is a north-south divide with distinct accents and food differences. But there was less flaunting of obscene wealth.

In Cochin station, I was bemused to hear Bengali all around. A train to Kolkata was packed with rural Bengalis who have migrated to Kerala in search of work. To my utter amazement, Cochin station was a cacophony of Bengali accents. It reminded me of boarding the tube in London and listening to all kinds of languages, every nationality and skin tone, and to the newly-landed foreign visitor, a mere handful of native English people!

On the one hand, it’s interesting to see Kerala become multi cultural, or indeed any part of India, but there's a great deal of tension beneath the surface. Kerala with its most educated, 100 per cent literate population, has the highest number of suicides in the country. There's an entire book waiting to be written about the societal changes and the turbulence taking place. Kerala's biggest import is its people. Like how the Irish left in waves, this tiny state sends thousands out every month, to every corner of the world. You have Keralite nurses in Ireland, Britain, the US, and Africa. Hordes of migrant workers head to the Gulf countries. Malayalis have a reputation for being reliable, hard working and intelligent.

Everywhere except at home. In Kerala, the economy is paralysed by strikes every week. Unions and communism have brought the state to an economic standstill. Agriculture is dwindling because land is so valuable, people sell it by the square inch. For educated young Malayalis it’s beneath their dignity to dirty their intellectual hands with manual work, so migrant labour does it all. But increasingly, even the rice bowl of Kerala is drying up and food is imported from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Around Bangalore, on the other hand, it’s the local population that does agriculture. The city has been invaded by the IT and MNC world. There's a plethora of pubs and restaurants on every corner. Young people with more money than they know what to do with have contributed to the changing face of the city. You can become a millionaire by opening a good restaurant. Pizzas, western food, ethnic Indian – it’s all there. From being a sleepy pensioners paradise, it has changed unrecognisably, in a mere decade, to being a more ‘happening’  city than Delhi or Mumbai.

Local Kannadigas, annoyed at the invasion of their city, attack shops which don’t sport signs in Kannada, the local language. The tension is often palpable. North Karnataka is poor, arid and drought prone, forcing its people to flock to Bangalore as migrant workers to build glass and chrome offices and upmarket Singapore-style luxury flats, while they live in squalor in shanty towns set up for them by building contractors. Television shows the poor how the 1% live. Not a good formula. Urban crime and theft is on the rise.

The headlines yesterday screamed that 42 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. A national shame, as our prime minister called it.

On the one hand we have millionaires flaunting their wealth, and then news that we have more malnourished children than Bangladesh and sub Saharan Africa.

There are no simplistic solutions but something has to give. 

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