Inspired, no doubt, by reading Thomas Friedman’s columns based on his new globalisation book Flat World (best demolished by Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias), I’ve become interested in the breathless tones with which the Western media has been reporting the emergence of India’s high-tech economy.
What’s missing in all the outsourcing-fuelled reporting is some context about how the investment flowing into Bangalore is spreading into the rest of India. Short version: it isn’t, much.
Ethan Zuckerman noted this recently, cutely appropriating and redefining a statistical term to make this point:
Travelling from Bangalore to Bombay, Rajastan and New Delhi earlier this year, I described India to friends as having the highest standard deviation of anywhere I’d ever been. That is to say, I’ve been to places much poorer than villages I saw in India, but I’ve never seen poverty in such proximity to widespread wealth.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that Western journalists are learning about India from a very narrow part of the Indian media: the Indian English-language press.
Siddhartha Deb described the problem in the Columbia Journalism Review:
… the most crucial argument taking place in India these days: whether the economic transformation so visible in metropolitan areas like Delhi will ever extend its reach to the rest of India. It is a deeply polarizing debate, pitting cities against villages, rich against poor, Hindus against Muslims, those who believe the country is prospering from the gleaming call centers against those who feel that the unemployed need something other than jobs answering consumer-service questions for impatient Americans. There are few aspects of Indian life that do not have some connection to this nationwide debate, and I wanted to know from Anand how it was playing out in the nation’s urban-based English-language press.
The number of English-speakers in India is probably no more than 4 percent or 5 percent of the billion-plus population, but they are at the top of the heap, an affluent enclave of largely upper-caste Hindus. English comes second only to Hindi in the number of Indian publications; according to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, Delhi alone churns out more than 800 English-language publications.
But the interests of this elite seem narrower than ever, even if one ignores the pin-up supplements and looks at the main sections of the paper. The daily diet consists of business, cricket, celebrities, and politicians — more or less in that order of importance — and it comes at the expense of other issues that a democratic India should be debating.