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Boom splits India's middle class

(Page 2 of 2)

"For five years, they haven't created one job, but they've added 5 million new unemployed people," says Prem Shankar Jha, a senior political analyst. "They haven't done a thing for the real people of this country."

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Mr. Jha points out that the BJP, bowing to middle class demands, have augmented consumer subsidies that divert government resources away from improving public services and infrastructure. "This is a response to organized middle class groups, and they get the [larger] benefit."

Income Gap

But not all middle class Indians feel the benefit equally. In Bhopal, a lovely city with a tragic recent history of industrial pollution, one sees none of the jaldi-karo, or "speed it up," enthusiasm and competitiveness of India's high-tech or trading centers. The city remains a transit hub for food grains and cotton fabrics, but here middle class families like the Devgans of Green Park Colony have remained relatively untouched by the Indian "shining effect."

Suresh Devgan, an electrical engineer who works for the municipal power company, often admits that he could make a lot more money in the private sector, as a power consultant or even designer for a computer firm. But he just can't bring himself to leave his post. "If everyone left their posts, then who would run the country?" he tells relatives.

His wife, Chanchil, an elementary school teacher at a private Catholic school, says that she sees some Bhopal families spending more money and living a more lavish lifestyle, but most are still getting by and making do. Her salary, and that of her husband, has increased, but not at the same rate as inflation. The saving grace is that a decade ago, they purchased their current apartment in full, using Suresh's mother's jewelry as a down payment. Back then, rents cost 2,500 rupees, or $55; now they are 10 to 20 times that amount.

"If both parents are educated, if both parents are working, and if you are able to get job satisfaction, then definitely things are better now," says Mrs. Devgan, sitting in the modest but immaculate living room of an apartment her family shares with Suresh's brother and his family. "But if you don't have a support network, and are alone, then you get disgusted."

As in the West, competition has filtered into children's education. Every parent wants his child to succeed, says Mrs. Devgan, and will argue with teachers over grades. Sometimes they offer bribes even to raise a grade by one half percentage point. "Everybody thinks their child should be best, and the children grow up watching their parents, and thinking that money can buy everything."

In the Family

Mrs. Devgan says that while the benefits of a boom economy are still filtering down to ordinary families, there has been a massive - and in Indian terms, quite sudden - cultural shift that she finds frustrating.

"When we were in school, we used to so easily follow what the teacher told us," she says. "Now the children question the teacher. They really don't listen. They are so exposed to the media."

It's a phenomenon that troubles Gopal and Pranamita Sarma as well, one that they experience often among their neighbors in the lavish apartment complex, Ambience Island.

"Values have changed, both for better and for worse," says Gopal. "A lot of people think there is an easy way through life. Children have learned from their fathers how to bribe. But it's also true that a lot of people are willing to work harder than their parents did, and I think that's good."

His faith in India, ultimately, has to do with size and momentum.

"Between India and China, we generate more than 10 percent of the global economy," says Gopal, who has master's degree in economics. "We don't need the United States; it's the US that needs us."

"We're adding $40 billion a year in value to the Indian economy, and in 20 years you'll be seeing the GDP (gross domestic product) adding $100 billion a year," he adds. "Which global corporation can ignore this market?"