Not far from my home, across forests of acacia and groves of cashew, lies a canyon that cuts through the south Indian countryside. I used to play there when I was a boy. I remember a pristine canyon, deep and wrinkled and colored red from the iron oxide in the soil.
I recently went back to the canyon. It was not a pretty sight. A sprawling garbage dump had risen at its edge plastic bags, rubber tires, beer cans and mineral-water bottles were strewn across the red soil. Clouds of smoke hovered over it all; the air was filled with a chemical stench.
What I found is common today in India. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 40% of Indian municipal waste remains uncollected; the figure is considerably higher in rural areas. Sometimes it feels like the whole country has been reduced to a giant dumping yard. Increasingly, I have come to see this garbage crisis as a symbol of the nation's troubled engagement with modern capitalism reflecting a new prosperity and consumer boom, yet a reminder too of the terrible price often exacted by that boom.
For over two decades, since the economic liberalization of the early 1990s, India has indulged in the gratifications and titillations of a market economy. The results have in many respects been deeply encouraging. But all along, there have been troubling signs of the damage being wrought by what Mahatma Gandhi once called "the monster-god of materialism." Capitalism has created new industries and world-class businesses and lifted millions from poverty. But it has also led to unprecedented levels of corruption and environmental degradation, and created new forms of deprivation and dispossession among those left behind by the economic reforms. If there is one thing India's experience has to teach, it is that development is a Janus-faced phenomenon at once innovative and destructive, exhilarating and depressing.
India has largely turned its eyes from the seamier side of development. The nation has spent the past couple of decades in a state of willful blindness celebrating its gains, reveling in its new prestige on the world stage. This is perhaps understandable: India was down for so long, and it would be churlish to deny it a moment of triumphalism. But now India feels like it is at an inflection point increasingly disenchanted with its current trajectory, aware of the limitations in its current model of development, yet still grasping for a new model.
A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed a striking decline in optimism among Indians just 38% were satisfied with the country's direction compared with 51% a year earlier. Activists are up in arms over corruption, and citizens often block industrial and infrastructure projects in their backyards, rejecting what they perceive as the poisoned chalice of "development." The disquietude is telling an indication that India is shedding the complacency and self-certainty of recent years, that the nation is finally asking questions of itself.
What kind of country does India want to be? Does India want to continue down the path of rapid growth without regard for the social, cultural and environmental consequences? Or can India combine growth with justice?
At stake is the very idea of India that distinguished (if somewhat nebulous) concept often cited by scholars and politicians as the glue that holds this fractious nation together. The past 20 years have pretty much shattered the postindependence concept of a nonaligned, socialist republic, bequeathed to India by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In many ways, the recent tumult can be seen as an attempt to forge a new idea of India a cohesive set of values, a narrative to define the nation: India 3.0.
It isn't at all clear, at this moment of transition, that India will succeed in articulating this idea. The disparate and often inchoate movements of dissatisfaction lack a united vision, and could fizzle out. Yet the nation's search for a new identity matters deeply not only to India but also to emerging economies around the world, many of which are similarly casting about for an alternative model of development. Even in the West, with capitalism in crisis and a sense of old certainties crumbling, India's search has a new salience.
For years, politicians have told Indians the nation is on the verge of ascending to its rightful place as a world leader. The instrument of ascension was to be economic dominance. India would, in effect, beat the West at its own game. Now the shortcomings of that game have become all too apparent. It turns out that India's claim to global leadership may ultimately rest on a very different achievement on reinventing the game, with a sustainable, more equitable model of growth that can serve as an example for troubled economies around the world.
Kapur is the author of the book India Becoming