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Tyranny of aspirations: Better off, yet frustrated

Most members of the new middle class believe their lives have improved over past decade; but they want more and are intolerant towards corruption, misgovernance. Varghese K George, Charu Sudan Kasturi and Vikas Pathak write.

delhi Updated: Apr 23, 2013 09:42 IST

A decade back, when Gigi Saji left her hometown in Wayanad, Kerala, for Bengaluru, she had little more than a dream. She wanted a career as a beautician, and after trying in Dubai, had decided to pin her hopes on Bengaluru, India’s IT capital.

Today, Saji’s salon is popular, and youthful Bollywood numbers greet customers into air-conditioned rooms. Her customers, mostly high end professionals, swear by her. But the ceaseless inflation that has marked the Indian economy for several months has hurt her. Her sons’ school fees have increased, costs of living have soared, and she has had to hike the salaries of her employees. “I’m only just about managing,” Saji said.

It’s an almost schizophrenic dichotomy that is afflicting the new middle class. Leaping out of poverty to start a new life flush with dreams and aspirations, they appear to generally feel that their lives are better today than they were a decade back, dozens of interviews by HT suggest. But those aspirations are double-edged - quickly fuelling frustration when a political and economic system that made them dream isn’t fulfilling its promises.

“They’ve seen a massive change in one generation. That makes them aspire all the time for more, push ahead, and they’re the worst affected by poor governance and corruption,” said economist Surjit Bhalla, who has studied the Indian middle class for a decade. Unlike their parents, they know things can change, and get impatient when they are not. “What they want is a level playing field.” They generally support economic reforms.

Rising prices have cut into the discretionary spending they can afford on branded garments, electronic gadgets, movies and on eating out. Delhi-based gymnasium instructor Sanjay Meena, 30, has been planning to buy an iPhone 4, but his meagre savings mean he’ll have to wait another four months. “With the rising costs of living, I just don’t have an option,” he said. Pratibha Kamble, 26-year-old Mumbai college lecturer, too has the same concern — savings have stopped as priced rose. For Sharique Raza, a 21-year-old Mumbai-based undergraduate science student who also works part-time at a call centre for Rs 21,000 a month, steadily rising petrol prices and auto-rickshaw fares have made travelling a daily accounting exercise. Free laptops for undergrad students in DU

Though they’re usually willing to bribe if necessary, corruption hits them hard. Rajesh Kumar moved from Gorakhpur to Delhi in 2003, to work as a cab driver. A decade later, Kumar is trying to start his own little cab agency, with five rented cars. But corruption is standing in his way.

Gigi Saji sits in her bustling salon in Bengaluru, but feels the pinch of a slowing economy. Virendra Singh Gosain/HT photo

Kumar needs multiple permits -- from the city transport department, from tax authorities, and from the local police – to get started.

“I need to pay a bribe at every stage,” Kumar said. “When you’re starting out, with small margins, such corruption is really upsetting. It’s always small guys like us who suffer.” Some, like Raza, are convinced that rising prices are linked to corruption. “Corruption is the main problem that has hampered our economy,” Raza said. “Only a strict law can deter politicians from getting involved in corruption and will leave something for the common man.”

Ashish Kumar, 30, runs a stationary shop near NIFT Bangalore. He moved from Begusarai, Bihar to Bangalore 8 years back in search of a better life. Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo
Aspirations are global and events 8000 miles away, like the Boston marathon bombings, can affect them. For over two years, Ramesh Thakur, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and son of a brick kiln worker near Ranchi, has dreamt of a US project with the multinational consultancy he works for in the national capital. Each time, visa constraints hold up his assignment. Last month, his company assured him he would be a prime candidate for an upcoming project near Chicago. But on Monday, after the bombings at the Boston marathon allegedly carried out by immigrants, he had a sleepless night. "I’m afraid they’re going to clamp down on H1B visas again after this terrorist attack, and I won’t be able to go," Thakur said. "My dream is jinxed."

Living in Patna, engineer Sohail Ahmed Khan,40, and NGO worker Shilpi, 24, are both beneficiaries of the development Bihar has seen under its chief minister Nitish Kumar. But both still hold an American dream. Khan wants his children to study there, while Shilpi herself wants to study in the US.

The new middle class expects governments to ensure that law and order is maintained, so that they don’t lose out on the economic opportunities that have helped them leap out of poverty. Last August, Saji’s carefully realized dream of running a successful beauty salon was suddenly under threat. As reports and rumours of attacks in Bengaluru on northeast Indian citizens gathered steam, following ethnic clashes in Assam, most of her employees who belong to that region, left the city to go back home fearing attacks. Her business came to a standstill. Karnataka: BJP promises free laptops, rice at Re 1

“My business suffered so much, and there was nothing I could do,” Saji said, sitting in her salon that is now back and running, with her employees returning after the threat of violence subsided. “I felt helpless. And things like that make people like us upset with politicians.”

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First Published: Apr 22, 2013 22:59 IST