India: the Empire strikes back

India: the Empire strikes back
Daily Telegraph

From Raj to riches: as India celebrates 60 years of independence, acclaimed historian William Dalrymple salutes a country returning to its pre-colonial wealth

When I moved back to India with my family four years ago, I took a lease on a farmhouse five kilometres from the boom town of Gurgaon on the south-western edge of Delhi. From my road I could see in the distance the rings of new housing estates, full of call centres, software companies and fancy apartment blocks, all rapidly rising on land that only two years earlier was billowing winter wheat.

The first time I lived in Delhi, in the late 1980s, Gurgaon was a semi-rural Haryana market town, with a single large Maruti car plant to one side; it was home to no more than 100,000 people.

Now it had become a city of several million; some said three million, some said more - the speed of growth was so enormous that it was difficult to obtain accurate figures. Either way, Gurgaon was now home to a population almost equal to that of my native Scotland.

Here an increasingly wealthy middle class had suddenly taken root in an aspirational bubble of fast-rising shopping malls, espresso bars, restaurants and multiplexes. These new neighbourhoods, most of them still half-built and ringed with scaffolding, were invariably given such unrealistically enticing names as Beverly Hills, Windsor Court, West End Heights - an indication, perhaps, of where their owners would prefer to be and where, in time, they might eventually migrate.

Four years later, Gurgaon has galloped towards us at such a speed that it now abuts the edge of our farm and the proudly-touted "largest mall in Asia" is arising a quarter of a mile from my house.

What was farmland and a pool for water buffaloes when I moved in is now a mass of cranes, flanked by billboards advertising the latest laptops and iPods. There are still no accurate figures but the population has probably topped five million.

The speed of the development of Gurgaon is breathtaking to anyone used to the plodding growth rates of western Europe: the sort of construction that would take 25 years in Britain comes up here in five months, even if, at the end of it, the "luxury" flats will probably only have electricity for a couple of hours a day and the water supply will be intermittent at best.

The speed of change in Gurgaon reflects that of the growth of the Indian economy in general: economic futurologists all agree that China and India will at some stage in the 21st century come to dominate the global economy.

The various intelligence agencies estimate that China will overtake America between 2030 and 2040, while India will overtake the US by roughly 2050, as measured in dollar terms. Measured by purchasing-power parity, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third largest economy in the world.

Incredibly, India now trains a million engineering graduates a year (against 100,000 each in America and Europe) and stands third in technical and scientific capacity - behind the US and Japan, but well ahead of China.

Today India's IT sector alone annually earns the vast sum of almost $25 billion, mostly in export earnings. With an average growth rate over the last decade of 6 per cent and current growth of 9 per cent, it is little wonder that average incomes are doubling every 15 years: the number of mobile-phone users has jumped from 3 million in 2000 to 100 million in 2005; the number of television channels from one in 1991 to more than 150 last year.

It is a similar picture on India's roads: in the early 1990s, as India was starting to relax import and investment restrictions on foreign manufacturers, there were only six or seven makes of car.

More than 90 per cent of them were Hindustan Ambassadors, the Indian- made version of the 1950s Morris Oxford - effectively clumpy vintage cars. Now the new six-lane highways are full of sleek and speedy Fiats, Fords, Mercedes-Benz and even the odd Porsche and Bentley.
Emperor Khurram (Shah Jahan, 1592-1666)

So extraordinary is all this to us today, particularly to those who knew the sluggish India of 20 years ago, that it is easy to forget how little of it would have surprised our ancestors who sailed there with the East India Company. The idea of India as a poor country is relatively recent: historically, South Asia was always famous as the richest region of the globe, whose fertile soils gave two harvests a year, and whose mines groaned with minerals.

Ever since Alexander the Great first penetrated the Hindu Kush, Europeans fantasised about the wealth of these lands, where the Greek geographers said that gold was dug up by gigantic ants and guarded by griffins, and where precious jewels lay scattered on the ground like dust.

In Roman times, there was a dramatic drain of Western gold to India. This is something the Greek historian Strabo comments on with great anxiety in his writings - an image graphically confirmed by the recent finds of huge Roman coin hoards around Madurai in Tamil Nadu and a large Roman coastal trading post near Pondicherry.

At the peak of the trade, during the reign of Nero, the south Indian Pandyan Kings even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the latter's balance of payments problems. Even today, the English "pepper" and "ginger" are loan words from Tamil - respectively, pippali and singabera, testaments to the spice trade that was once a staple of this lucrative Indian export traffic.

It was similar legends of India's extraordinary wealth that drew the merchant adventurers of the Company eastwards. They came not as part of some Tudor aid project, or on behalf of a charitable Elizabethan NGO, but as part of a desperate effort to cash in on the vast riches of the fabled Mughal Empire, then one of the two wealthiest polities in the world.
China and Indian flourish because they have dumped the false religon of socialism.
We're still stuck with it.
gennithmedic said:
China and Indian flourish because they have dumped the false religon of socialism.
We're still stuck with it.
Kerala and Manipur have (for India) high average standards of living and Communists as partners in the State government. Socialist parties and coalitions rule a large number of the States, particularly the larger ones. They've also been the staunchest opponents of the BJP.

China's only flourishing if you ignore the massive number of ways in which it isn't. In many cases it's the difference between having an equal share of very little or no share of a lot.

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