A Bill Gates-like perspective on India

After eight years away, a reporter returns to Delhi to breathe cleaner air and discovers a middle class.

If Disney's Epcot Center ever decided to add India to its World Showcase promenade, Delhi's new "Night Bazaar" would be the perfect model. Cooked up by India's tourism minister, the month-long event aims to enhance the city's nightlife, offering visitors a taste of India - without much curry.

Held on the enclosed grounds of an upscale, government-run hotel, the fair brings together craft vendors, folk entertainers, and street food underneath twinkling strings of lights, while small pipes spray a cool mist into Delhi's dry heat.

As I browsed in the 30-odd shops, I marveled at the restraint of the shopkeepers. A typical stroll through an Indian street market is a socioeconomic confrontation. The come-ons of "Hello, sir!" mingle with the beeping of cars trying to push through the throngs of people and animals. Small children tail you, tugging on your sleeves, signaling that they're hungry. Earlier in the day, one street urchin opened his small palm and - attempting to defy rather steep odds of supply and demand - pitched his product: "matchsticks, sir."

As my friends and I ate on cloth-covered chairs at outdoor tables, around us were expats and foreign tourists. But the majority were families from India's growing middle class.

When I last kicked around India eight years ago, nothing could have been further from this sanitized experience. But on this visit I've discovered that the rhetoric of India as a rising global economy has some basis in reality.

Eight years ago, I came away with Mother Teresa's view of India. This time, I'm seeing it more through the eyes of Bill Gates.

Nothing epitomizes the changes in the air more than the, well, changes in the air. "Get ready for the smell," I thought to myself as I stepped off the plane. I took my first breath of Delhi air and was pleasantly surprised - only the slightest trace of diesel.

Eight years earlier, I hadn't even left the plane before I was overwhelmed with a noxious cocktail smelling of manure, exhaust, and rancid milk. My father once taught an Indian student in New Hampshire who would occasionally visit parking garages because the car exhaust triggered memories of home.

Delhi has dramatically improved air quality in that last three years by forcing public buses and motorized rickshaws to use compressed natural gas. The change is all the more impressive given how many more cars are on the road now. Passenger car sales jumped 17 percent last year, building on several years of impressive growth. Foreign investment has brought new jobs, and banks that once were reluctant to extend credit are now constantly calling the cellphones of Indian professionals to offer loans.

The roads are visibly busier, filled not just with local clunkers but late-model foreign cars as well. Locals speak of commutes getting longer, but Delhi, as everyone here calls the capital, has built a series of new overpasses to help drivers dodge the city's worst intersections.

There are still lines of people lounging on the lawns outside Western and Gulf embassies, waiting for a work visa. But people here also speak of more and more young professionals opting to stay, attracted by job options their parents could never have imagined at their age.

Reflecting the new self-confidence, India has begun marketing itself to tourists in Western magazines like National Geographic Traveler. Under the slogan "Incredible !ndia," one ad features a photo of the ghats, or ancient giant stone steps, that rise out of the Ganges river at Varanasi. The picture focuses on a lone dhobi, or washerwoman. With pitch-perfect irony, the caption reads, "True, washing machines give a great wash. But do they make a great picture?"

India still has the grinding poverty of the day bazaars. But in the night bazaar, the country has another, rather credible, vision for itself.

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