A Billion Reasons to Care About India

ByABC News via via logo

March 1, 2006 — -- India is a country of contradictions.

Teeming slums exist next to five-star hotels, world leaders in science, medicine and engineering live with millions of illiterate fellow Indians, and devotees of ancient Buddhist traditions chat on the most-advanced cell phones on the market.

India, with a population of 1 billion, is also a country of enormous economic and political power with the potential to become the United States' greatest ally of the century.

"Imagine that if the one-fifth of humanity in India were living like the people of Iraq today, blowing each other up in their houses of worship every other day and on the street -- how different our world would be," said Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times and author of the book "The World is Flat."

"So to me, India is a miracle."

President Bush is flying today to the capital of New Delhi for his first visit to India during his presidency. ABC News examines the importance of the world's largest democracy, and how it affects everyday life in the United States.

There are an estimated 350 million to 400 million Indians living below the poverty line, 75 percent of them in the rural areas. More than 40 percent of the population is illiterate, with women and lower-caste members particularly affected.

Yet India's future is changing, evident in one Delhi slum where children use public computers to teach themselves English.

"Every kid here who is walking around is getting trained to be an entrepreneur, to hustle, and to get a little bit more than he or she has," said C.K. Prahalad, an Indian-born American and renowned business consultant.

"If you look at this, you're unlikely to see that this is a place where people are going to get educated on how to use computers. In other words, this is a metaphor for India. What you see outside is not what is inside. Outside, yes, this could be a shanty. But inside is a Pentium PC."

A huge English-speaking talent pool combined with widespread use of the latest technology has turned India into the back office of the world, and the destination for American business outsourcing.

"Specialized knowledge in India became the path to success," said Newsweek International editor Fareed Azkiaria. "And so, if you could acquire it, it became the Holy Grail."

There are 700 million Indians under the age of 35 -- 2.5 times the U.S. population. Less than a decade ago, many of these young adults would bring their brainpower to America. But after Sept. 11, 2001, visas became more difficult to obtain, and more Indians are excited about applying their talents in their own country.

Priyanka is a popular DJ in Delhi, and she conducted an on-air poll, asking if you had a choice between taking your skills to America or staying in India, what would you do? The text-message responses were almost unanimous in favor of staying in India.

"You're seeing an explosion of 10 years of pent-up aspirations," Friedman said. "If you want to know what India feels like today, it's very simple. Pull out a champagne bottle, shake it for an hour, and take the cork off. You don't want to get in the way of that cork."

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