Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

The reforms through everyman’s eyes

'Mint' explores the experience of Indian liberalization through the voices of individuals from diverse backgrounds

The year 1991 didn’t start out as one of India’s most promising. Political instability was rife and public anger was mounting over the Mandal Commission’s report on reservations. Before the general election could take place, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on 21 May. By the time Manmohan Singh, the then minister of finance, rose in the lower House of Parliament to present his budget on 24 July, the country was staring at a foreign exchange reserve crisis—reserves were so low that they wouldn’t have lasted the end of the next fortnight. But, over the course of his two-hour-long speech, Singh changed the nation’s economic narrative and direction.

“There is no time to lose," Singh urged, before going on to announce “essential reforms in economic policy…" Licensing, the bane of businesses, was tamed by the abolition of permits for all but a handful of industries; import-export policy radically altered; and direct foreign investment was freed up.

Liberalization had officially arrived in India.

This year marks the silver jubilee of that speech. Following it, the rate of growth of the Indian economy rose dramatically as the world feted the “Indian miracle" before falling slightly. It still remains one of the world’s largest economies, and is now its fastest growing. Many things are unrecognizable: In 1991, a telephone landline connection meant having to fill up a form and then waiting for a few years for the engineer to arrive. With the mobile phone revolution, scarcely anybody bothers about landlines any longer and, today, India has emerged as the third largest smartphone market in the world.

The number of cars sold rose from 32,000 cars a year in the 1970s to 2.5 million in 2014.

India is changing radically—and visibly—all around us. Not just cars and mobile phones, liberalization’s tangible effects can also be measured through parameters such as the mushrooming shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings, as well as growing disposable incomes. But it is also to be found in India’s attitudes, aspirations and ambitions, all of which have changed drastically. And, then, there is the nasty side—growing inequality, the worsening condition of the farmer and the rural poor, the continuing struggle for bare essentials such as clean drinking water. Between 1999-2000 and 2011-2012, spending and consumption by the poorest 5% in the rural areas saw an increase of 30% in contrast to an increase of 60% by the richest 5%. Urban India followed a similar pattern.

Today, India has foreign exchange reserves of around $350 billion as its economy grows at an enviable 7%. From the shoe shine boy to chief executive officer,, everyone’s life has been impacted in one way or the other—socially, politically and economically—by the process of liberalization unleashed 25 years ago. Old orders have broken down and new worlds are being created, though not all of it accessible to all.

In a series, ‘Mint’ explores the experience of Indian liberalization through the voices of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Ajay, who uses only one name, is a 28-year-old cobbler—often a profession practised by the low castes—and has visited a shopping mall only a couple of times with his family. The man from Delhi prefers to scope them out a day before so that he can tell the family how to enter these glamorous malls and where to go. His son, says a determined Ajay, will not follow in his footsteps. “My father was a cobbler, as was his father before him. But not my son."

Harsha Tapke, a fisherwoman from Mumbai, echoes Ajay’s determination. “There is nothing here for my children to pursue…I keep telling my son ‘apna kuch brand banao’ (create a brand of your own)," For people like them, the time to ring in the new is now.

There are several common strains across narratives, vertical mobility and education being the most pervasive. Like the thousands of other middle-class Indian children, Santosh R. Shetty, co-founder of software start-up Neev Technologies, says he had just four options growing up in Mumbai in the pre-liberalization 1980s: “to be either an engineer, a doctor, a chartered accountant or a loser."

For Vijay Majhi, a plumber’s son in Delhi, education was the only route to find financial stability for his family. Not everyone is as lucky as Shahzad Ali Khan, a young boy from Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. He had to give up studying after finishing school in order to help out with the family’s earnings but landed on his feet with a job at retail firm Marks and Spencer. The boy, who has lived his entire life in India’s capital city, saw his first movie in a theatre—a year-and-a-half ago.

‘Mint’ brings you these stories and many more from across the country, through different demographics and age groups, with its series: Days of our Lives. Through this we seek to capture a slice of India’s modern history—in the voices of those who have lived through it, who tell us how it has changed them. Most people interviewed for this series are not aware of the terms liberalization or economic reforms. They see and absorb the changes but put it down to natural progress.

We open our series with Jeevan Singh, a salesman at Snowhite, one of Delhi’s oldest dry cleaners and apparel chains. He attributes change to “private jobs". He will take you through a journey of the city’s changing physical and mental landscape, observing, for instance, how the profile of shoppers in New Delhi’s downtown Connaught Place has changed—as has people’s attitude to money.

But for every story that makes you smile, there will be one that is a reminder of how things haven’t changed for those who need it the most. In India, 180,657 households are still engaged in manual scavenging, a caste-based practice going back centuries. Rekha’s (she uses only one name) household in Radhna Inayatpur village of Uttar Pradesh, is one of them. Her parents did the same demeaning work, as did her in-laws and, since 2015, so does her 13-year-old daughter. “I look at how people’s lives have changed…we are where we were."

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