India at Crossroads on Path to Superpower Status

When asked whether India's progress is sufficient to catch up with China and the West in the long term, the elite students aren't quite as confident. They are quick-witted, fun and cosmopolitan. And yet none of the budding business professionals has any idea what the words "red sorghum" mean. "Red sorghum? Never heard of it," they say. And what about "Protex?" The students shake their heads.

These are terms from another world, a world with which the ISB graduates will probably never be confronted. They will soon become members of the top echelon of society, people who will remain largely insulated from ordinary Indian life in the rest of the country. They will have drivers and air-conditioned cars, and they'll live in guarded, gated communities. One of these developments, near a downtown highway in Hyderabad, is advertised as a place "where the gods are envious of humans."

Desperation and Despair

For people who work 100 kilometers (62 miles) north and east of "Cyberabad" in the same state of Andhra Pradesh, "red sorghum" and "Protex" are terms that relate to their fight for survival. They live in the other India. They slave away as migrant workers in chemical plants and steel mills, usually without protective clothing. Not even China has such a horrendously high rate of industrial accidents. The current accident rate on construction sites is 165 in 1,000. Or they farm on barren land and are often unable to say whether they will be able to put food on the table for their families in the coming week.

Any trip through the vast Indian countryside is a journey through time, back to era of bonded labor and Manchester Capitalism.

The village of Hasakothur, a three-hour drive from Hyderabad, is a case in point. Farmers there experimented with seeds sold to them at rock-bottom prices by international corporations. Red sorghum and the pesticide Protex, which was applied to the fields at the same time, were seen as miracle products because of the initially high yields. But, today, the villagers view them as a curse.

After three or four harvests, the soil is depleted and requires more and more fertilizer. By artificially pushing down sorghum prices and thereby forcing the farmers to take on more and more debt, distributors were the only ones to profit from the higher crop yields. Thousands of farmers committed suicide out of sheer desperation, many taking their lives by drinking the highly toxic pesticide that they had once hoped would bring them economic success.

More than half of Indians work in agriculture (generating about 14 percent of the gross domestic product), while some 2.5 million people work in information technology (generating about 6 percent of GDP). "We send our children to the city. Any job there is better than here," says Kiran, a farmer.

Kiran believes that he is about 60, but he doesn't know his exact age. He looks very old. Like everyone in the village, he is in debt to his distributor, and any farming profits are offset by the interest on the debt. "It's like a race against a clock that's ticking faster than you are," he says. Indian farmers are also harmed by New Delhi's policy of allowing major Indian corporations to lease agricultural land in countries like Ethiopia. For someone like Kiran, democracy doesn't translate into having an effective and competent government, nor does strong economic growth mean that he and millions of other people in rural areas are better off by an iota.

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