Shailesh Andrade / Reuters Workers level a salt pan in Mumbai, November 2017.

An Indian Nightmare

Is New Delhi Ready for the Twenty-First Century?

In This Review

Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World
By Snigdha Poonam
Viking, 2018
225 pp.
Purchase

If the end of the twentieth century heralded the dramatic rise of China, many believe that it is India’s turn to claim the spotlight at the dawn of the twenty-first. In January, the World Bank loudly proclaimed that India was set to be the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2018, overtaking its slowing Chinese rival for the top spot. The global consulting giant McKinsey has called the emerging Indian middle class a “bird of gold,” harking back to an ancient aphorism about the country’s dynamic marketplace. IBM simply refers to the coming age as the “Indian Century.”  

Despite these glowing projections, India’s future is by no means assured. With the right mix of economic reforms, administrative savvy, and political leadership (not to mention sheer luck), there is no doubt that India could enjoy widespread prosperity in the coming century. Yet absent such conditions—by no means a given—it faces an unnerving dystopia: one in which the aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indians are foiled rather than fulfilled, with potentially explosive implications for the country’s social fabric. This grim scenario is the subject of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, a harrowing new book by the Indian journalist Snigdha Poonam.

THE INDIAN DREAM

Predictions of a coming Indian golden age are typically based on two trends. The first is urbanization. Between 2010 and 2050, India’s urban population will grow by as much as 500 million—the largest projected urban population growth in world history. Historically, urbanization has been linked with rising literacy, the establishment of a middle class, economic dynamism, and increasing cosmopolitanism.

The second trend is what economists refer to as the “demographic dividend,” or the economic benefits that accrue to an economy when a massive influx of young people enter the labor force, triggering increases in both economic productivity and the savings rate. At a time when other major economies are graying, nearly one million Indians will join the work force every month

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