Tag Archives: Urbanization

UPWARDLY MOBILE AFRICA: BOOM-TOWN SHANTYTOWN

The ECONOMIST, Dec 22nd 2012.

Original Article: Kibera, Africa’s biggest shanty-town

“Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet! “

MEN in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet.

Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, where factories and offices pay salaries—everyone, that is, except a limp male figure huddled in a corner strafed by the first delicate rays of the sun. He seems to wait for the crowd to pass or at least thin before he dares to swim upstream. His hair is short and shiny as if sanded down rather than cut; his shirt is in pieces. He tells your correspondent that he has just arrived from the countryside. This is not home, he says. He does not sound convinced it ever will be.

His name is Jonah Kasiri and he is 23 years old. He came to Nairobi on an overnight minibus with his worldly possessions—a battered alarm clock and an additional pair of cotton trousers—packed into a canvas bag that smells of ripe fruit. His village in Kenya’s west, as he describes it, sounds like many: a verdant clump of trees and animals where man eats what he can hunt or gather but has little chance of betterment.

For that one has to come to the city. His cousin went to Nairobi two years ago and returned for a visit last week, wearing two mobile phones in a leather pouch on the belt of a brand new pair of pleated trousers. That made an impression on Mr Kasiri. When his cousin offered to help him follow suit, he jumped at the chance.

The crowd eases and we walk into the maze of shacks. Mr Kasiri says he must relieve himself but cannot afford to. In the city nothing is free. We come to a cement floor divided into seven stalls, each with a hole. “Is it clean?” asks the customer in front of us. The proprietor, Teresia Ngusye, seated on a stool, handing out tissue paper, says she cleans every hour, pointing down the alley to similar looking shacks. “See the competition I have.” She charges us ten shillings (12 cents), which she says will go toward building a second set of toilets. Mr Kasiri nods. Everything in the city is an opportunity. He too might one day like to run such an establishment. In parting, the newly minted city boy hears a warning, “Bowel problems are expensive.”

This is Kibera. Often, and probably rightly, described as Africa’s biggest slum, it is home to perhaps a million people. Nobody knows for sure, since Kibera is left to its own devices. Government is absent: it offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines and pumps no water into homes.

To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them

And yet Kibera, wedged in between ornate embassies and a well-tended golf course, is an integral part of Nairobi. Its residents live in a dozen villages on a piece of land half a mile wide and two miles long, draped like a bath mat on a tub across a slope falling into a man-made lake. Once the slope was wooded and each village had only a few houses. In the past 30 years they have fused to become one of the world’s most densely populated places, garnering a measure of first-world notoriety. Kibera features in the film “The Constant Gardener”, based on the eponymous John le Carré novel, as well as in a music video by Sarah McLachlan, a Canadian pop singer, representing the epitome of poverty.

Kibera’s origins are Western. A century ago British colonial rulers gave small plots of land on the edge of Nairobi to Nubian soldiers serving in the King’s African Rifles. They built mud huts below the road leading to the farm of Karen Blixen—made famous in the film “Out of Africa”, based on the Danish writer’s life. The land was later nationalised but the Nubians stayed put and rented parts of it to newcomers. Today most homes are made of ragged tin and reused timber. Walking in the warren of narrow lanes that divide them, some only shoulder-wide and all of them devoid of cars, one is reminded of a medieval European city.

At seven in the morning Cecilia Achieng leads the children in her school in prayer and song. They chirp like birds; not all have had breakfast. When lessons begin at eight, she inspects a well-thumbed ledger that records who has paid school fees. We don’t expel kids who cannot afford class,” she insists. They may be asked to rear chickens in the schoolyard and sell the eggs.

Ms Achieng has frizzy hair that forms a tall bulb and is partly dyed red. She wears large silver earrings with a baby-blue two-piece suit. The 36-year-old has given birth to four children, adopted a further two and also looks after a niece. With no public schools to send them to, she started her own four years ago. Other mothers helped her rent an empty church hall and hire teachers. She was soon inundated with children. Asking parents to pay 7,500 shillings ($87) in annual fees enabled her to move to a bigger hall. Two years later she had saved enough money to erect half a dozen primitive classrooms: cement holds in place sturdy sheets of corrugated iron known as mabati. Yellow paint gives them an uncomplicated cheerfulness.

With her charges settled in, Ms Achieng takes a mid-morning stroll. She navigates lanes that look like dry river beds. When it rains, Kibera floods. Open sewers are covered with planks worn smooth by water and constant trampling. Scavengers rake over debris before it is washed downhill. Residents burn the rest, enveloping homes in acrid smoke. Laundry on washing lines is covered in soot.

“This street was much wider a few years ago,” says Ms Achieng. Vendors line both sides, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, soap, sweets, cigarettes. They have encroached on what once was a thoroughfare, building stalls ever farther into the throng of customers. The economy is booming and incomes are rising in Kibera. “What’s playing?” Ms Achieng asks Tyson Muigai, who rents out a 600W sound system for parties, weddings and wakes, charging 5,000 shillings ($58) a day. “Happy or sad?”

We pass a shack with a sign saying, “Load music on iPods”, and another, “We do not write any local material.”. Ms Achieng explains, “They make [counterfeit] copies of Jay-Z or Beyoncé songs, but not of rappers from Kibera. We protect our own.” Around the corner John Mwangi runs a cinema with 70 plastic seats, which he fills six times a day. Ms Achieng marvels at the orange clock face on his gold watch. “I tell you, people have money,” he says.

Kibera is a thriving economic machine. Local residents provide most of the goods and services. Tailors are hunched over pedal-powered sewing machines. Accountants and lawyers share trestle tables in open-air offices. Carpenters carve frames for double beds along a railway line. Whole skinned cows hang in spotless butcher shops. “Give me 30 bob,” says a customer to a paraffin seller, who has just taken delivery of several jerry cans from a porter with a steel-frame wheelbarrow. All day long, sweaty porters cart supplies along filthy lanes, hissing to shoo people out of the way.

Life in Kibera can be harsh. Disease is rife, food is short for some, and death can come suddenly. Just after eleven o’clock an explosion thunders past the paraffin seller. Lights in the shops along the lane expire instantly, then a mob charges past, accompanied by sharp screams and a sizzling, dancing power cable that has blasted off a faulty transformer overhead. The cable eventually goes limp and the crowd disperses. Minutes later the lights come back.

The transformer, like all power in Kibera, is run by shady types who tap into the city grid. They are less than scrupulous when it comes to safety and they charge heavily. But at least Kibera has power, unlike many other parts of Africa. Soft drinks sold in shops are chilled. Rooftops are awash with TV aerials and mobile phones are as ubiquitous as in the West.

Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet

The key to making it in Kibera is access to capital. A market of one million potential customers crowds in on entrepreneurs, but raising the money to start a business is hard. Most banks won’t lend to them because they have no collateral, perhaps not even a fixed address. Those who manage to borrow face high interest rates. Moses Mwega pays 25% a year and considers himself lucky. Over the years he has built up a cosmetics shop selling creams, wigs and shampoos. The bank recently accepted his stock, a television set and a second-hand sofa, including lace doilies, as collateral. He got 350,000 shillings ($4,000) to expand his business.

But first the 53-year-old had to join a savers club—a cross between a support group and a control organ. Late in the morning Mr Mwega sets off to attend the group’s weekly meeting, wearing black shoes as polished as his bare forehead. His skin is smooth and his hands shiny, proud testament to his choice of products, he says. He joins a dozen men and women in a dank shack to receive instructions on record-keeping. Then they inspect each other’s books—no secrets. Mr Mwega takes in 15,000 to 20,000 shillings a week and pays 7,000 shillings to the bank. He will be done in 15 months. “Then I will get a proper loan,” he says.

After the meeting we have lunch at the Katulani café, a bare room with an anaemic roof that lets in daylight and fresh air. Guests sit on wooden benches and talk over each other. Most are penniless students who call this “the campus”. Boniface Ngewa, the owner, serves chapati bread and sukuma wiki, a leafy vegetable whose name translates as “push the week”, which is how long it is said to last. He goes through 100lb of flour a day, serving 3,000 customers.

In Kibera everyone eats out, Mr Ngewa says. Home-cooking is a luxury. The poor have no capital and cannot buy food in bulk. A single portion of charcoal to cook a meal costs at least 20 shillings (23 cents). Employing cooks, on the other hand, is cheap (300 shillings a day) and café prices are low. Mr Ngewa charges 30 shillings for a meal. An hour later when we leave the café, as if to prove his point, the lane outside resembles a food court: countless stalls have fired up pots and pans; vendors fan grills laden with nyama choma (cooked meat) and throw potatoes into roiling fat.

In the afternoon, school is out and Ms Achieng turns to her second career. She is in the food business too, but as a caterer. She regularly cooks for private functions attended by 500 people, and has served as many as 1,600. “Funerals are a good business,” she says. Couples getting married are too picky. They do not want plastic plates and Ms Achieng cannot yet afford to buy her own ceramic ones. “I have bid for a few weddings but didn’t win the tender.”

Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet. Residents have no choice but to look after themselves. If they want to escape poverty—and have the necessary drive—they will try to strike out on their own. Ms Achieng has a third career as a hairdresser. When she has a free moment she goes from door-to-door and braids, earning 250 shillings ($3) in two hours. Regular clients call on her by mobile phone. At the annual Miss Kibera beauty pageant she is the lead stylist.

Does Mr Kasiri, the new arrival, have what she has? He finally finds his cousin after wandering the dusty lanes for hours. Kibera is bigger and denser than he had imagined. Every speck is in use. Residents have started building second storeys to expand upwards. In the Nubian language, kibera means forest, but there are no trees left.

The country boy stands at an intersection and looks left and right and left again. His cousin has arranged for him to meet a man about a job. But where is he? Mr Kasiri looks tired. His luxuriant hair is covered with flakes of ash from a rubbish fire. At least he no longer waits for crowds to thin; he plunges straight in and gropes his way past wheelbarrow porters, careful to jump out of the way when their sharp-edged carts swivel around. Talking about jobs he would like to do, a note of excitement creeps into his voice. “I could repair stoves. I saw a man do that,” he says. His cousin whistles and shakes his head. “Where will you get tools? Who will pay for them?”

Around six in the evening Kibera fills up to bursting point. The tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands who left in the morning for faraway offices and factories are returning. To save money, prim secretaries and exhausted labourers walk back rather than take a bus. Their wages are meagre and yet in compound several million dollars walk into the slum every night.

Kibera is an African version of a Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for solid human ambition. Like Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for talent from rural areas, attracting the most determined among young farmers. To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them. Two out of three Nairobians live in one, half of them in Kibera. Officials occasionally try to evict squatter-residents but many fight back, with the help of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, their own lobby group. In “Shadow Cities”, a book that describes a tour of slums across the globe, Robert Neuwirth recalls that New York’s Upper East Side was once a shantytown and suggests that all bright shining cities start as mud. Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.

The pace of commerce on Kibera’s streets picks up with the setting sun. Jane Nzembi sells cereals to mothers cooking dinner; she holds cobs of corn with both hands and twists them in opposite directions to strip off the husks. Ruth Chesi refills buckets of charcoal as soon as they are empty. Carolina Awuor’s electric maize mill—rented for 15,000 shillings ($175) a month—runs nonstop to make flour for ugali buns.

When the vendors eventually close down around eight o’clock they deliver their cash receipts to nearby mobile-phone stores. Kenyan phone companies double up as banks; they take deposits and transfer funds. After decades of being excluded from banking, slum-dwellers now move their money fast and often; they no longer keep it under a mattress.

Mr Mwega, the cosmetics man who took out a loan, closes his store at nine, having eaten already at his counter. Through a curtain he slips into his windowless living room at the back of his streetside shack. An electric Christmas tree is perched on a stereo. He removes his polished shoes and rests them on a low table. He is halfway through reading “The Last Don” by Mario Puzo but says he prefers the thrillers of James Pattinson. He keeps a thick dictionary by his side.

The room is immaculate, as are those of many neighbours. Kibera only looks like a slum from the outside. Mr Mwega’s wife fetches water from a privately run street tap, paying a few shillings to fill a 20-litre jerry can, and does the washing up. Mr Mwega says in the wealthy parts of Nairobi the residents get municipal water and pay a tenth of what it costs here. “But still I’m not moving. My friends and my business are here.”

The evening is reserved for leisure, and leisure is good business. Barber chairs are never empty more than a few seconds. Ogola Simenon, whose salon is five feet high and about as wide, calls this the rush hour. Customers keep coming through his diminutive door. “Pray, why not in daytime?” He charges about 40 shillings (46 cents) to snip, shear, crop and clip. Economists define the African middle class as people earning at least $100 a month—that is many of his customers. They have a little money left over after paying for food, rent and school fees.

All manner of paid entertainment is available in Kibera. Some residents drink changaa, a moonshine made in backyard stills. Blindness is one of the lesser side effects. One step up is busaa, a fermented maize drink made on site in bars like Mama Sarah’s. The bar uses half-litre tin cans instead of glasses to serve customers. Many are cost conscious, says a waiter, John Wasilwa. When the price of maize goes up the bar owner cuts a strip of tin from the top of each can. The punters prefer that to higher prices. And it does not seem to slow their consumption. Around ten o’clock several of them have bedded down blearily on the mud floor next to a plastic sheet filled with roasted maize. Others throw empty tin cans at waiters. Mr Wasilwa fires them back.

Better-off residents congregate at beer taverns with cement floors and cushioned seats. The aspirationally named Pentagon features a large poster of Barack Obama, celebrating his Kenyan origins. Talk is of politics and sport. This could be almost anywhere. One group of patrons is drinking draft beer and debating why busaa joints are so rowdy. Often those people have not eaten, says one. “Straight to their head,” crows a carpenter with more than a hint of superiority.

During the day, Kibera is a rough place but a safe one. Guns are rare. No tolls are charged, no protection fees paid. Most of its markets are free of cartels. The slum is so vast and diverse that no ethnic group dominates it. But what is a virtue during the day turns into a danger at night. With nobody ruling the roost, muggers and thieves have a free rein. Some residents have installed metal gates at the entrances to their alleys and lock them at midnight.

Leaving the Pentagon, your correspondent is persuaded by concerned patrons to hire a watchman as an escort. He is summoned by mobile phone and turns up in minutes, dressed in red-and-white beads and a red cloth and carrying a spear and a torch. Most watchmen in Kibera are Masai. They have a reputation for fearlessness and loyalty—for which they are paid 50 shillings (58 cents).

Walking through empty streets we hear music doodling behind thin walls. Life happens indoors now. Most people are too scared to even visit a public toilet at night. Those who need to instead use a plastic bag at home and throw it over a wall. This is known as a “flying toilet”. Anyone out walking late is advised to look up as well as down.

We bump into Edith Nyawate, a vegetable seller escorted by another Masai watchman. She sets off to the wholesale market in the city centre every night around this time to buy produce when it opens and bring it back to Kibera at daybreak. She is tired, she says, but does not want a daytime job in a factory. “Maybe they pay you 50 bob but that’s not enough for school fees.”

Slum business runs around the clock. An electrical workshop is finishing a rush order at three o’clock. A lone baker’s face is illuminated by the earthy glow of his cavernous wood-fired oven. A tithe-hunting preacher, Augustus Omiti, is holding an all-night vigil at a shack church with a sturdy gate. His congregation is locked in until morning, singing and dancing—for their own safety, he cackles. They have nowhere to sit because he has rented out the church’s plastic chairs for 1,000 shillings ($12) to a wedding that is taking place nearby. Nonetheless he has high hopes his flock will donate generously.

The Masai watchman, who alone among residents refuses to divulge his name, takes your correspondent to where many of his nightly journeys end. We knock on the door of the Stage Inn, a spot for revellers to bed down for a few hours—for 300 shillings ($3.50). A dimly lit corridor bordered by sheet-metal walls leads to two dozen rooms with sagging beds, many of them unmade and recently vacated. Who would depart at this hour? The Masai and a hotel porter exchange glances. A young woman in a light dress passes us on the way to the communal washroom.

Worried about getting home at night? Phone a Masai

Emmanuel Mukhoa, the 35-year-old porter, hears a knock on the front door and walks over to a peephole, then opens up and hands a room key tied to a black shingle to a drunk, older businessman with a girl in tow. “I know most of the guests. They come at all times,” he says, and adds wistfully, “wish I was one.”

Mr Mukhoa is a rarity, a salaried worker employed within the slum. He is paid 5,000 shillings ($60) a month. His hours are long but regular, his financial risk minimal, yet he dreams of running a business, like his guests.

The new day in the slum starts by five o’clock. Alarms echo down dark streets, drowning out what little music is left from the night. Ms Achieng rouses herself and then the brood of children that surrounds her on the floor, washes them and erects her frizzy dome of red and black hair. She can afford to feed her children but mornings are always chaotic and some of the older ones miss breakfast.

Heading to school, they join the ranks of workers walking to one of Kibera’s eight exits and on to jobs in Nairobi proper where buildings rise higher than just one or two floors. The shoving and jostling resumes. The lanes are bursting with people by six, all heading in one direction. Among them is Mr Kasiri, the new arrival. He has been promised work on a construction site and is following a foreman through a world that has yet to fully reveal itself to him.

Mr Kasiri is amazed that among the people surrounding him is not one face he recognises, not one man who would lend him a few bob. Yet nor would any of them tell on him if he spent his wage on a bottle of changaa and got drunk tonight after his shift. They do not care. There are just so many of them squeezing through the gate; they crowd in as if celebrating a festival, yet few talk to each other or even look up. They are not unhappy, at least most of them are not. They have jobs to do and things to buy. Last night he talked to a man who sells stoves and learned that broken ones are cheap and easy to repair. Soon he will try his hand. He finds the idea of going back to the village hard to imagine.

 

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AN INDIAN NIGHTMARE. IS NEW DEHLI READY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

This is an interesting article on India.  However, there are  implications for Sub-Saharan Africa as well respect to growth, urbanization, demographic change, lack of manufacturing, education, jobs etc.

Original Article: Foreign Affairs  [USA], 1 March 2018 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2018-03-01/indian-nightmare?cid=int-fls&pgtype=hpg

REVIEW ESSAY:  IS NEW DEHLI READY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

By Milan Vaishnav

If the end of the twentieth century heralded the dramatic rise of China, many believe that it is India’s turn to claim the spotlight at the dawn of the twenty-first. In January, the World Bank loudly proclaimed that India was set to be the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2018, overtaking its slowing Chinese rival for the top spot. The global consulting giant McKinsey has called the emerging Indian middle class a “bird of gold,” harking back to an ancient aphorism about the country’s dynamic marketplace. IBM simply refers to the coming age as the “Indian Century.”

Despite these glowing projections, India’s future is by no means assured. With the right mix of economic reforms, administrative savvy, and political leadership (not to mention sheer luck), there is no doubt that India could enjoy widespread prosperity in the coming century. Yet absent such conditions—by no means a given—it faces an unnerving dystopia: one in which the aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indians are foiled rather than fulfilled, with potentially explosive implications for the country’s social fabric. This grim scenario is the subject of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, a harrowing new book by the Indian journalist Snigdha Poonam.

THE INDIAN DREAM

Predictions of a coming Indian golden age are typically based on two trends. The first is urbanization. Between 2010 and 2050, India’s urban population will grow by as much as 500 million—the largest projected urban population growth in world history. Historically, urbanization has been linked with rising literacy, the establishment of a middle class, economic dynamism, and increasing cosmopolitanism.

The second trend is what economists refer to as the “demographic dividend,” or the economic benefits that accrue to an economy when a massive influx of young people enter the labor force, triggering increases in both economic productivity and the savings rate. At a time when other major economies are graying, nearly one million Indians will join the work force every month until 2030. According to United Nations estimates, over the next few decades India is expected to account for as much as one-quarter of the projected global population growth among those between the ages of 15 and 64.

Yet in stark contrast to the boosterism surrounding a rising India, the outlines of a much darker alternative narrative are beginning to appear—one where the combined forces of urbanization and demography lead not to a rich dividend but to a social disaster. This is a future in which India’s urbanization, while creating pockets of wealth creation and prosperity, excludes many more thanks to decrepit infrastructure, poor services, and inadequate opportunity. According to this perspective, India will fall drastically short of creating enough jobs to keep up with its burgeoning labor force, spurring India’s youth to cling more, not less, fervently to identity as a means of finding their way. This resort to identity markers risks sharpening ethnic divisions and fueling the growth of sectarianism.

This is the world that Poonam explores in Dreamers. In it, Poonam—a national reporter for the Hindustan Times—sets out to understand the aspirations and anxieties of young residents of the vast north Indian Hindi heartland. Like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Poonam’s book turns its attention to the underbelly of Indian democracy. But this is a work less concerned with India’s megapolises than the second- and third-tier urban towns that constitute India’s flyover country, where the potential downsides of haphazard urbanization and anemic job creation are most evident. In Dreamers, readers become richly acquainted with the teeming, pockmarked lanes of Allahabad, Meerut, Patna, and Ranchi.

Poonam calls her young and restless subjects the “Dreamers” and claims that they are the “most desperate generation of Indians since Independence.” Whereas the children who came of age after India’s independence in 1947 were content with the freedom they wrested from the British Raj, the Dreamers expect their government to actually deliver on the freedoms enshrined in the constitution, such as eliminating status hierarchies in society, minimizing the unequal concentration of wealth, providing gainful employment, and guaranteeing social protection. Empowerment must come between elections, not simply during them.

Unfortunately, Poonam argues, Indian democracy shows few signs of attaining such lofty ideals. Today, the bulk of India’s youth bulge falls into at least one of three categories she calls the three “Es”: uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable. The problem with India’s education system is not schooling but learning. At the primary level, India is approaching universal enrollment. Yet over half of all students enrolled in the sixth grade cannot read a story suitable for second graders. One-tenth cannot even recognize the numbers one through nine.

These failures exist at every rung of the ladder. A recent assessment of Indians between the ages of 14 and 18 conducted by the nongovernmental organization Pratham produced a slew of depressing statistics: 40 percent cannot tell the time looking at an analog clock, 36 percent do not know the capital of India, and 62 percent cannot compute a ten percent discount on a given price. Higher education has become a lucrative business in India, leading to a surge in university enrollments. Between 2000 and 2015, according to the political scientist Devesh Kapur, India established almost six new colleges every single day. Barring a few isolated examples, however, these institutes are a classic case of quantity over quality.

The second crisis relates to the lack of jobs. The Indian economy needs to create roughly one million jobs each month just to keep up with the natural growth in the labor force. The government’s own estimates suggest that India is creating between 350,000 and 400,000 a month. Those who are not lucky enough to find employment in the formal sector join the growing hordes trying to make ends meet in the informal sector. A big part of the problem is that unlike its East Asian neighbors, India adopted a “precocious” economic model that leapfrogged manufacturing altogether and went straight into services.

The trouble with this model is that not every Indian can become a software engineer; establishing a robust manufacturing base is the only tried-and-true strategy for mass employment generation. Unfortunately for India, it is not only failing to industrialize, it is prematurely deindustrializing. Frustrated job seekers have increasingly turned to the public sector. Unfortunately for them, the number of government posts has been consistently shrinking for the last two decades. This explains the absurd sight of more than 2.3 million Indians rushing to apply for 350 government positions to serve as lowly office helpers, as happened in 2015. The most perverse twist is that despite India’s abundance of labor, industry struggles mightily to recruit qualified workers. A 2016 report studied 150,000 engineering students across the country, only to find that 80 percent of them are unemployable according to industry standards.

Not every Indian can become a software engineer.

BLEAK HOUSE

India’s labor market pains are matched by equally grave woes when it comes to urban infrastructure, which are not only inhibiting urban growth but also deforming it. In an evocative chapter on the north Indian city of Allahabad, Poonam has this to say about her arrival in the city: “Nowhere else in India I’ve been has the conflict between the past and present of a place resulted in a more disastrous outcome. The broken jampacked roads, the half-finished buildings, the open drains and the thick haze of dust that greet you outside the station are the result of the same things that make the whole of second-tier India one giant pothole: crazy construction, overcrowding, civic collapse.”

India’s inability to generate adequate jobs and its struggle to ensure its cities are livable are, of course, symptoms of a larger issue: the spectacular failure of the state to perform its sovereign functions. As the government has proven incapable of providing basic services to its citizens, those with means have simply exited, resorting instead to private doctors, teachers, and security guards. The belief that the state is able and willing to deliver basic amenities to its people has evaporated.

The result is not simply a substitution of private provisioning for public goods but also an attitudinal shift that pushes Indians to find work-arounds that often involve illegality and cutting corners. Many Dreamers, Poonam argues, have become cheaters. The most disturbing example she marshals is the cottage industry of call center fraudsters she manages to penetrate in New Delhi. Poonam uncovers entire neighborhoods specializing in scamming young Indians by asking them for up-front payments in order to land a good-paying job that will never materialize. “In Delhi, you can’t become an important man without pulling some kind of fraud,” one wayward call center recruiter explains to Poonam with a smile.

In Poonam’s telling, even those who start on the straight and narrow succumb to the temptation of exploiting others since they have been so thoroughly exploited themselves. Take the case of aspiring actor Mohammed Azhar, who gets repeatedly ripped off by casting directors as he struggles to piece together a career. In the book, we watch the innocent, defeated Azhar slowly transform into the type of  unscrupulous scamster that preyed on a younger version of himself. “I couldn’t blame him for thinking that cheating is essential to success,” Poonam writes. “He didn’t know a single person who became rich without cheating his way up.”

However disturbing Poonam’s revelations are, her stories of despair do not completely displace stories of hope. The most gripping of these is the tale of Richa Singh, a young woman who has the audacity to stand as a candidate for student union president at Allahabad University. Singh is running in order to correct a routine but illustrative practice of gender discrimination: she and her friends simply want to hang out at the teashop outside the student union, where women are forbidden. Facing both the threat and the actual use of violence by angry young men for the crime of defying social customs, Singh improbably wins the election.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters Children celebrate the festival of Diwali in Mumbai, October 2017.

THE INDIAN CENTURY?

These heartwarming victories, however, cannot obscure the fact that something has gone seriously amiss in the Indian growth story. The failure of the state to exploit the advantages of urbanization and India’s demographic shifts, if not remedied quickly, will lead to two adverse outcomes. The first is a deepening of already worrying levels of inequality. A recent paper by the economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty found that the proportion of national income accruing to the top one percent of India’s income earners is now at its highest level since the creation of the Indian income tax in 1922.

The second outcome is the cancerous growth of sectarian rage. Poonam takes readers on a chilling tour of frustrated young men who have become foot soldiers in the service of a virulent strain of Hindu nationalism. As the author puts it, “They have enrolled themselves in the battle to protect Hindu identity, but what they are really fighting for is their shot at any identity at all.” Far from decreasing the salience of sectarian attachments, India’s demographic shifts might be increasing them. In state after state, young Indians have begun agitating for ethnic quotas that would guarantee their communities a slice of lucrative public sector jobs. The youth who have flocked to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction hail from social groups not on the bottom rungs of the ladder, but near the top. Angry about affirmative action given to traditionally disadvantaged communities, they are now demanding protections for themselves.

How the Indian state manages the dual pressures posed by urbanization and demographic change will define the nature of Indian democracy itself. Will its citizens prioritize economic growth or social justice? Will they continue a proud tradition of liberal democracy or succumb to the temptations of majoritarian democracy? It is hard to come away with a feeling of optimism after reading Poonam’s incisive account. Many of the disenchanted Dreamers, she writes, are aggrieved about the same thing: “that they have no future in this country, and it has no future in the world.”

Dreamers smashes the slick hype that has been constructed around India’s aspiring middle classes, calling our attention to the corruption, frustration, and dashed hopes bubbling beneath the surface. It may be convenient for India’s elites to whitewash these inconvenient truths. But, as Poonam shows, it would also be suicidal.

 

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