I had a milestone birthday 25 years ago when a bankrupt India launched the first round of economic liberalization reforms on 24 July, 1991. The effects of that liberalisation have since seeped into every sphere of life, changing forever our ideas of work, recreation, family, sex and sports. Those born after 1985 cannot know the deprivations, the global isolation, the limited horizons and the stranglehold of the State on our lives. As we mark a quarter century of liberalization next month, we have reason to cheer despite the raucous dissent and dismay surrounding us.
I remember an India where the only cars on our roads were antiquated Ambassadors or Premier Padminis...
I remember an India where the only cars on our roads were antiquated Ambassadors or Premier Padminis -- those driving a Honda or Mercedes paid up to 300% duty to import them. We waited years for a telephone connection, booked trunk calls through surly operators and dreaded opening a telegram. It was a time when no one could start a business without greasing palms for endless permits and licenses. When the tailor stitched our clothes and underwear. When you couldn't withdraw more than $500 to travel abroad. When there was only Doordarshan on a black and white TV. When wearing jeans and perfume was a sign of "foreign returned".
Fast forward to 2010 when the most searched "how to" on Google in India was "how to get pregnant" followed by "how to kiss". Getting from pre-modern to globalized in one generation is a subject not just for the history books but for all who want to understand this dramatic change which has left parts of India in different time warps. What's Changed: 25 Years of Liberalized India , published by Random House India and edited by brand guru Kartikeya Kompella, is a compilation of thought-provoking essays by some of the men and women who rode the wave of liberalization that changed our lives.
How Cricket Got Its Mojo
In Harsha Bhogle's fascinating rags-to-riches account of Indian cricket, TV plays a starring role as financier and propagator of our national obsession. Bhogle recalls when BCCI was so broke in 1983 it asked Lata Mangeshkar to help raise money to award ₹1 lakh to each player after India won the World Cup. They were paid ₹80 lakh each by the time of the 2007 World Cup victory as revenues from broadcasters and advertisers filled BCCI's coffers and later, IPL was born.
In 1991 there were 140 IPO offerings says Kompella, but just five years after liberalization, in 1996, the number rose to 1402.
Liberalization brought in big international brands like Coke and Pepsi who batted hard for market shares. It also gave birth to home-grown MNCs like Sahara, but that's another story. In 1991 there were 140 IPO offerings says Kompella, but just five years after liberalization, in 1996, the number rose to 1402.
Indian Women And Sex
But nowhere perhaps was liberalization more disruptive than in empowering Indian women. Education levels for women doubled and a slew of policies helped increase their representation in panchayats and inheritance rights. We were the first generation of working women but we still did all the housework and were not head of households unless divorced -- a rare social disgrace in those days. India still has the lowest participation of women in the workforce for a country at its level of development but it also has a law mandating women's presence on company boards -- a first for a developing country.
In a telling chapter on India's sexual revolution, Ira Trivedi, author of the internationally acclaimed book India in Love, tracks the growth in pre-marital sex -- 75% of those between 18-24 years of age are not virgins -- and alternative sexualities post-liberalization. "Economic change invited, and then encouraged, the twin forces of urbanization and globalization, and overnight, sepia-toned villages turned into glassy fluorescent cities, and women shed their salwar-kameez for skinny jeans," she says. "Brazilian waxes, condoms from China, dildos from Denmark, porn from Paris and sex toys from Sweden all made their way into the Indian imagination, and into their bedrooms."
India's demographic dividend -- 600 million people under 25 years -- is not just good for business, but will continue to drive the sexual revolution...
India's demographic dividend -- 600 million people under 25 years -- is not just good for business as Modi keeps reminding us, but will continue to drive the sexual revolution in the future. Modernization of laws on rape, divorce, marital violence and alternative sexualities will surely follow.
A Star Is Born
The empowerment story of India's backward classes is well-documented elsewhere but a fascinating essay by the founder of Star TV, Dr. Subhash Chandra, highlights the early role TV played in changing aspirations and creating legitimate demands for better services, jobs and a "lifestyle" among both rural and urban Indians. From the single channel monopoly of Doordarshan in 1990 to a hundred channels by 1995 and 1000 channels today, the explosive growth in the information and entertainment industry by satellite TV was later compounded by mobile phones and internet. Today, India has a billion mobile phones and if Mukesh Ambani's Jio realizes its ambitions, all of India will have web access on their phones with 4G technology in the near future. The scale of the network has not been attempted anywhere -- neither has India's Aadhaar or Unique Identity project.
If there is a glaring omission in the book it is the silence on India's IT industry, a poster child for free market enterprise post liberalization that has created millions of well paying jobs, provided a platform for a plethora of e-commerce businesses and raised the country's international profile as a software leader. While there are several essays on the growth of brands in India and their morphing into socially conscious entities -- there is a chapter on philanthropy by Rohini Nilekani -- there is nothing on India's impressive journey into space, the political impact of liberalization and the growth of regionalism, and a very weak offering on India's greatest soft power enterprise, Bollywood.
[T]he drivers of most of the changes we are witnessing today have their origins in liberalization 25 years ago.
Older readers will find lots of nuggets and perspectives on the dizzying modernization/globalization journey they have hurtled through in the last quarter century -- this writer never imagined she would be a blogger one day in a virtual paper called the Huffington Post. Younger readers who have the patience to dive into the book -- I know millennials don't buy books -- will understand contemporary India a lot better. For as Kompella says, the drivers of most of the changes we are witnessing today have their origins in liberalization 25 years ago.
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