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The more things change...

Indians have embraced changes but they still lament the loss of values. Bruce Stokes writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2012 23:06 IST

India is a society in the grip of rapid economic and social transformation. Urbanisation, unprecedented economic growth and a widening Indian presence on the world stage are profoundly reshaping Indian life. Indians embrace modernisation, but they also worry about its impact on their traditional way of life.

This apparent contradiction is not unique to India. In the face of rapid modernisation, people in many societies hold what seem to be mutually incompatible emotions at the same time. But this incongruity can feed social tensions, raising questions about how Indian society can best accommodate the demands of 21st century life while preserving the traditional mores and customs that give many people their cultural grounding.

Roughly, 49% of Indians like the pace of modern life, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. Only about a third (37%) objects to it. As might be expected, it is the young, people who live in cities, the better educated and the wealthier, who are particularly accepting of the 24/7 tempo of today's modern existence.

At the same time, more than half (52%) of Indians surveyed say that their traditional way of life is getting lost, while about a third (34%) believe it remains strong. Those most concerned about the erosion of long-established Indian values are also some of the same people who say they are comfortable with many of the trappings of modern life: Indians living in cities and the better educated.

For a plurality (43%) of Indians (again, more often the college-educated, higher-income and city-dwelling Indians) it is the consumerism and commercialism of the modern economy that are undermining time-honoured Indian culture. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) want to shield their traditional culture from globalisation. And half of those surveyed completely agree with such an effort. The greatest support for such cultural protectionism comes from the college educated (59%completely agree) and those living in cities (57%completely agree), the very people whose lives are quintessentially modern.

Sceptical about the State after decades of socialism, Indians are now solidly committed to capitalism. About three-in-five (61%) think most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some are rich and some are poor. Those with a college degree and high-income individuals are most likely to hold such views.

Nevertheless, Indians do not think that the consequences of the current economic order are good for the country. About eight-in-ten (81%), including 57% who agree completely, believe that it is really true today that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer. Such sentiments are held by men and women, across all income, age and educational groups. And those who share these concerns overwhelmingly believe that such inequality is a big problem for the country.

The rapid changes India has endured over the last few decades have been welcomed by most people. But it is an enthusiasm tinged with unease. Indians know they have gained a lot. But they also lament the loss of traditional values and would like to somehow recapture them.

Bruce Stokes is director (Global Economic Attitudes), Pew Research Center, Washington

The views expressed by the author are personal