One evening, a couple of summers ago, The Times of India organized a free classical music concert at an amphitheater cut into a hill along Bombay’s coast. It was a stunning locale, with the sea in the distance and twinkling stars overhead. All around the stage, giant canvasses depicted idyllic scenes of a futuristic Bombay—a city whose contemporary counterpart is an urban nightmare so disturbing, it is the object of intense study by planners and social scientists from around the world. More than 55 percent of the city’s 13 million residents live in slums, while poorly built drainage systems leave even newly constructed office districts flooded after heavy rains. But in The Times of India’s utopian vision, Bombay was bathed in the colors of sunset, as birds swooped amid glass-and-steel buildings. To the immediate right of the musicians, for instance, was an enormous image of the completed Bandra Worli Sea Link, a bridge that is being built across an inlet of the Arabian Sea. When it is ready—though no one is sure when exactly that will be—city administrators hope the Sea Link will speed the crawl from the suburbs to the southern office districts. Rush-hour traffic in Bombay now moves at less than twelve kilometers an hour.
Before the musicians could really get going, the marketing manager of The Times—which claims to be the best-selling, English-language broadsheet in the world—came out to rally the audience. “Do you believe we have the potential to become a world-class city?” she shouted. The crowd of middle-class Bombay residents bellowed its assent, unmindful of the fact that when the Bandra Worli Sea Link is complete, it will conduct thousands of honking, roaring cars and trucks within 150 meters of the venue in which they were sitting, making music performances (and even lingering conversations) impossible. More alarming, environmentalists believe that the Sea Link was directly responsible for many of the 452 deaths that resulted from a freak cloudburst in 2005: the construction of the bridge narrowed the mouth of a vital drainage channel that flows into the bay, making it incapable of handling the heavy rain and causing a flood upstream that inundated several neighborhoods along the banks of the channel.
The audience’s enthusiastic approval of the dubious suggestion that Bombay (which I prefer to the official, Mumbai) stands on the brink of greatness was just another indication of the cocoon of willful ignorance in which India’s middle and upper classes have chosen to seclude themselves when it comes to their country’s economic situation. This sliver of India’s population—estimated at 200 million people—has disproportionately enjoyed the benefits of the country’s 9 percent surge of economic growth in recent years, and is now among the most courted groups of consumers on the planet. It has grabbed the attention of producers of so-called FMCGs—or “fast-moving consumer goods”—from around the world. Even luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton have set up shop in India, encouraged by the fact that the country is home to the world’s fourth-largest number of billionaires. All the cheerleading about India’s future, though, ignores the reality that a full 77 percent of the country’s population of just over 1.1 billion is struggling on less than fifty cents a day. While a tiny percentage of the population, mainly in the cities, enjoys a level of affluence unimaginable a generation ago, rural India—home to more than 70 percent of the country’s population—is wracked by a man-made agricultural crisis that has driven nearly 150,000 farmers to commit suicide between 1997 and 2005, the latest year for which figures are available. But such stories find relatively little space in most of India’s English-language newspapers and on television news shows, which are the primary sources of news and information for the country’s urban elite. (Hindi is the national language, but most businessmen, senior bureaucrats, the higher courts, and the best universities use English. While Hindi- and regional-language newspapers often cover stories about the countryside more intensely, their increasingly local focus, facilitated by new technology that allows narrowly zoned editions, means that these issues are rarely seen from a national perspective.)