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New prosperity feeds consumerism in India
( 2003-09-25 15:38) (Agencies)

Outside, in the chaos of the Indian street, bicycle rickshaws battle honking cars for road space, pedestrians dash for safety and the occasional cow settles down for a nap in the road.

Inside, in the glass-walled fortress of India's new prosperity, it's a whole different kind of chaos.  

Indian customers stroll in one of the malls in Gurgaon, near south of New Delhi, India, Sept. 23, 2003. Here, in the malls of this once-quiet town south of New Delhi, is where India's exploding consumerism meets its growing prosperity _ and where just about every Indian stereotype is crushed beneath an endless variety of stuff.  [AP]
Past the entryway of The Metropolitan mall, a young woman in a tight skirt hawks perfume from a stage: "The new fragrance by Jennifer is fresh and sexy and clean," she purrs to a Saturday night audience. Around her, lights flash, music blares and parents chase galloping children. "What are you waiting for?" she asks.

These days, Indian buyers aren't waiting for much.

Here, in the malls of this once-quiet town south of New Delhi, is where India's exploding consumerism meets its growing prosperity ! and where just about every Indian stereotype is crushed beneath an endless variety of stuff.

There are no robed holy men in the malls of Gurgaon, and no beggars. There are no women selling spices from open baskets. Traditional Indian food is overshadowed by Pizza Hut, Subway and Ya! China, where, a neon sign promises, "yummy Chinese food awaits you."

Instead, you can get anything from a $35 Toastissimo toaster to a bright red $47 Marks & Spencer bra.

All this in a country where the average Indian earns well under $2 a day.

"Things are changing in India," said Rohit Kumar, waiting for a movie to start at The Metropolitan's cinemas on a recent evening. "Things are changing all the time, and people are enjoying it."

Kumar is one of a new breed of Indian ! single, well-paid and well-versed in the brand-name nomenclature of 21st century consumerism. He earns more than $6,500 a year, far above the $1,800 needed to be considered middle-class here.

"People used to dream of this," he said, gesturing around the four-story mall. "Now they can have it."

India has been transformed since opening itself to international trade in 1991. The economy has grown at an average of 6 percent a year, giving this nation one of the world's largest economies.

Certainly, it still has desperate problems. Nearly one-third of India is illiterate, and almost a quarter live in poverty. For millions of Indians, proper toilets and regular electricity remain just dreamed-of luxuries.

But a middle class has also blossomed on the back of the economic boom, growing by some 10 to 12 percent per year, according to the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Estimates of its size reach to 300 million people.

Gurgaon is perhaps the most dramatic reflection of that growth ! and its malls the most dramatic reflection of the raging consumerism that has accompanied it.

About 20 miles south of New Delhi, the town has been developed into a sprawling, modern middle-class escape from the crowding, poverty and chaos of the Indian capital. Over the past decade, 10-story office buildings have erupted, shadowed by towering Mediterranean-style apartment complexes. Late into the night, the sparks of welders' torches shower down from construction sites as what remains of farm fields are rapidly consumed by the building boom.

Since January, three malls have opened here ! two just across the street from one another.

A decade ago, India didn't have a single mall. A year ago, there were less than a half-dozen. But within two years, more than 250 are expected to be operational, according to Prodipto Roy, associate director at the consulting firm KSA Technopak, which has studied Indian consumer behavior.

"There has been a transformation in society," Roy said. It's been fed, in part, by the explosion of new jobs for young people, primarily in the software world and as operators in Indian "call centers" that handle toll-free calls for American and European corporations.

It's an enormous shift in a nation that for decades proclaimed itself a socialist state. After independence in 1947, India celebrated "swadeshi," or locally produced goods, and Mohandas Gandhi dreamed of a nation of small villages earning their living through cotton spinning and farming.

So not everyone is happy about the new consumerism.

Rights activists worry that the poor are being abandoned and nationalists wonder if India's native industries are being swallowed by global behemoths.

Even the consumers see the dilemmas.

Praveen Kumar, a friend of Rohit's and a co-worker at Honda's Indian scooter division, said he worries about consumerism's affects ! even if he's spending his Saturday night at the mall.

"Frankly speaking, this is not our culture," he said, gesturing at the stores around him. "Our culture is sitting at home with our family, being cared for by our mother or our sisters."

His friend laughs. He says times have changed ! at least for some of India.

"Go just a kilometer from here," where cows graze in fields of scrub brush and houses are still without indoor plumbing, said Rohit Kumar, "and you'll find the real India."

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