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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  1. #1 Karam C Ramrakha 14 Jan 12

    There is an English saying ’ A worm will turn ’
    At some point India has to acknowledge its poor and as a Fiji born Indian on my three visits to India I could not stomach the cruel grinding poverty of my Motherland, and Soul Country. Mohan Malgonkar described India's poverty as ’ quivering’ . On the other hand it is the poor who subsidise the rich.. no wonder with the wages paid a millionaire is born so quickly.. Each one help one should be the motto

  2. #2 mari 16 Jan 12

    Thanks Karam for yr response. Here's something which might give you hope. An initiative attempting to ’Just Change’ India. The idea resonates with yr comments

  3. #3 Kalpana 30 Jul 13

    it's a new India -

  4. #4 MB 27 Jan 15

    Did your ancestors sold out for xianity or you?

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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