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Middle India gets a makeover

Small town India is coming under a new, sweeping attack from the big city - an onslaught many welcome and many fear, reports Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2007 09:53 IST

Some grandfathers in Nagpur have extra work on their hands these days, especially on the weekends. Cosmetics shop owner Jamil Ahmed, 52, sits outside the city’s newest and biggest mall with his visiting cousins. Tired after two hours of shopping, they wait patiently for the children and grandchildren to finish theirs.

"Earlier, we middle class people used to do only window shopping. Now there is real shopping to do," Ahmed says, looking at the mall — a signpost that globalisation had stomped into the overwhelmingly middle class city of 2 million people.

But many believe tomorrow has already arrived. Small town India is coming under a new, sweeping attack from the big city — an onslaught many welcome and many fear. “There are far more people joining the middle class now — it was not so earlier,” says NCAER’s Rajesh Kumar Shukla. Growth in the middle class, says Shukla, was estimated at 13 per cent annually — compared to the annual population growth of 1.8 per cent — as at least 7.5 million people formerly called ‘poor’ glided into the middle class in 2006.

At the same time, adds Shukla, the gap is increasing between the middle class and the poor whose lives are not being touched by India’s economic changes.

"The middle class is the enemy of India. It is a smokescreen to hide the real, ugly face of this country. All it wants to do is to emulate the rich. It is used by every government to maintain status quo,” says leading filmmaker and activist Mahesh Bhatt.

Still, aspirations are soaring.

Nagpur, a city described by British rulers as the geographical centre of India, is a small town now gearing for an upcoming Special Economic Zone and India’s international air cargo hub.

New shopping malls and multi-storey apartment blocks are coming up, and thousands of cars whiz on the streets where scooters choked the traffic until a few years ago.

Some among its 30 per cent slum residents are also poised to ride this boom.

"By and large, India is becoming very aspirational — an India that was earlier left out," believes collector Sanjay Mukherjee, the Nagpur administrator. “The country is dreaming big. This city is dreaming big."

Mukherjee knows. He grew up in a middle class family in Nagpur, where his father bought a Fiat car after putting together Rs. 40,000. That was the time when Indian bank managers sometimes had to be bribed to give loans.

But easy bank loans have transformed the scene.

"My youngest customer would be, say, 28 years old. Fifteen years ago, I could not have imagined such a scenario,” says R.K. Anand, director of the real estate company Supertech Constructions. When Supertech recently put up apartments for sale in Rudrapur, a small town in Uttaranchal state, 500 units costing Rs. 18 lakh and more were sold out in a week.

A 15-year NCAER study of 4.5 lakh middle class people — those earning between Rs. 2 lakh and Rs. 10 lakh a year — found that 70 per cent households owned a two-wheeler, two-thirds owned a colour TV, 65 per cent had a refrigerator, 35 per cent owned a car and 15 per cent owned an air-conditioner.

Those who do not, are reaching out.

In Nagpur, 15 mesmerised children from a school for the sightless walk into a new shopping arcade, soak in the sounds and smells, touch neatly packed ‘buy one-get one-free’ products, and are told how payments are made at supermarket counters.

"I got into a lift for the first time. It felt as if I was flying,” says seven-year-old Salita Nathulal Damle, sightless since birth.        

Email Neelesh Misra: neelesh.misra@hindustantimes.com