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10 mars 2014 1 10 /03 /mars /2014 12:18

Ashok, a Delhi-based taxi driver, would be classified as middle class by the statisticians at the Asian Development Bank. But middle class in India means something different from in the West.

 


Ashok, a Delhi-based taxi driver, would be classified as middle class by the statisticians at the Asian Development Bank. But middle class in India means something different from in the West.

Ashok comes from a small village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, some 700 km north of the nation's capital. He is thus like two-thirds of Indians who come from the countryside, rather than the city. His parents and brothers are rice farmers. 

One advantage of farm life is that the physical activity is good for the health. Both his father and mother are still in good health at the ages of 65 and 57 respectively. Although India is still a poor country (its GDP per capita is just 3% of the US), its life expectancy is 65 years, not that far behind the 79 years of the super-rich US.

Ashok is married with two young daughters aged 5 and 2 years old. Like most people from rural India, Ashok had an arranged marriage. His parents met with and selected Sawrna to marry Ashok. Although he never met his bride-to-be before their marriage, he did see her from a distance.

Ashok is a Muslim like 176 million other Indians, making them the second biggest religious group in this country of 1.2 billion people. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia.

Some 13 years ago, Ashok moved down to New Delhi to work as a taxi driver. He obtained his taxi-driver's license, thanks to driving lessons from his uncle who also lives in Delhi. He is now one of a group of taxi drivers who work on the margins of a major Delhi hotel.

Ashok has no family in New Delhi, other than his uncle. He returns home every 2-3 months to see his wife and family. But thanks to today's much cheaper telephone charges, he is able to call his wife and children every day, because he misses them dearly. While he would love to bring them to Delhi, he could never afford to do so. And his wife would find life in the capital without her family much too difficult.

Ashok does not of course own his taxi. He rents it for 600 rupees a day (about $10), and must also pay for gas, maintenance and other costs.

Like lots of poor people, Ashok's daily income is highly variable. Some days, he might earn a just few hundred rupees. Other days, he can earn a few thousand. It all depends on the number of clients -- there are always much less in the hot and humid summer months of May/June. It also depends on their generosity -- some give tips, others don't.

Ashok might average around 1200 rupees a day after expenses, about $20. This would put him squarely in India's emerging middle class, according to statisticians at the Asian Development Bank.

But Ashok must send as much money as he can back home to support his wife, daughters and family. He is sending his elder daughter to a private school (his younger daughter will start next year), because government-run schools are so bad in India. His dream is for his daughters to get a better education than he did.

In a country where half the population is functionally illiterate, Ashok is clearly in the top half, having completed 10th grade (16 years old) at a state school. This is clearly motivating his aspirations for his daughters. This has also driven his decision to not have any more children -- if he had more children, he could not offer his children the same education and opportunity in life.

Ashok's life might seem tough. He works out of a taxi car park, as one of 30 taxis registered with the hotel. When a taxi-driver is available for work, he writes his number on a board, and stands in a queue, waiting for the hotel to call that a customer requires a taxi. The wait can be minutes or hours depending on the time of day, the season or just plain chance.

But the taxi car park is a real community. Taxi drivers sleep in the car park on open beds. They each pay the police 2000 rupees a month, to avoid being arrested. When it rains, they hang a tarpaulin over their bed, hooked to the hotel wall. They do their washing in the street, and also hang it to the hotel wall. 

But above all, the taxi drivers hang out together. They eat together, and drink tea or sometimes beer, even though Ashok is a Muslim. They watch cricket together on a television. In the carpark, they have small hindu and sikh shrines, necessary spiritual supports for the dangerous profession of taxi driving. They even have a post box in the car park! 

In short, Ashok's life has many pleasures -- especially since most customers are nice, and appreciate his work. But sometimes the hotel guards get impatient and tough with taxi drivers like Ashok, especially when VIPs are passing through.

All things considered, the greatest pleasure for Ashok is saving money, and sending it to his family. However, despite the money that Ashok can make driving a taxi in Delhi, his dream is to return home to his family and village. He would like to save up enough money to buy a business or farm.

Ashok's life is emblematic of the slow and steady progress that India is making. He has escaped the life of rural poverty that has been the lot of his family for millennia. Even today, some two-thirds India's population live on less than $2 a day. Hopefully, Ashok's daughters will enjoy a better life than he does.

When speaking with Ashok about life in India, one of the striking things is the country's democracy. No-one is frightened of expressing their opinion -- and everyone seems to have opinions. Indeed, even poor Indians seem proud of their democracy, especially compared with the situation in China. Those who compare India's economic performance with China might make a more relevant comparison with the military regime of Pakistan, which is way behind India on every score.

Ashok's opinions on politics are clear: "India is much too corrupt, sir. If you are a rich man, you do whatever you want. All the political parties are very rich. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is less corrupt than the Indian National Congress".

Most political observers would agree with Ashok. The upcoming national elections will likely bring a welcome change of government from the present Congress administration. And a star from India's highly decentralized political system, Gujarat's Narendra Damodardas Modi, will likely be the next Prime Minister.

Dynastic politics in the form of Congress's Rahul Gandhi will not win -- in sharp contrast to the dynastic democracies of Japan and Korea, and the dynastic dictatorship of China. India may be a chaotic democracy, but it is a real democracy!

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