India’s virtual middle class : Thomas L. Friedman

Feb 05 2013, 09:38 IST
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SummaryThanks to technology like mobile phone, a new, aspiring political community has emerged.

prices is jaw-dropping. Gram Power is creating smart microgrids and smart meters to provide reliable, scalable power for Indian rural areas, where 600 million Indians do not have regular (or any) electricity with which to work, read and learn. For 20 cents a day, Gram Power offers villagers a prepaid electricity card that can power all their home appliances. Healthpoint Services is providing safe drinking water for a family of six for 5 cents a day and telemedicine consultations for 20 cents a visit. VisionSpring is now distributing examinations and eyeglasses to India’s poor for $2 to $3 each. The Institute for Reproductive Health is alerting women of their fertile days each month with text messages, indicating when unprotected sex should be avoided to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And Digital Green is providing low-cost communications systems for Indian farmers and women’s groups to show each their best practices through digital films projected on a dirt floor.

These technologies still need scale, but they are on their way. And they are enabling millions more Indians to at least feel as if they are middle class and the political empowerment that goes with that, says Nayan Chanda, who runs the YaleGlobal Online magazine and is co-editor of A World Connected: Globalisation in the 21st Century.

In December, a 23-year-old Indian woman — whose father worked double shifts as an airport baggage handler, making about $200 a month so his daughter could go to school to become a physiotherapist — was gangraped on a bus after she and a male friend had gone to a movie. She later died from injuries sustained in the rape. She was a high-aspiring member of this new virtual Indian middle class, and her brutal rape and subsequent death triggered nationwide protests for better governance. “It is one of those turning points in history when a citizenry, so far pleased with economic gain, wants more than material comfort,” said Chanda. “They want recognition of their rights; they want quality of life and, most importantly, the good governance they have come to expect by watching the world.”

Ditto China. In December, noted Chanda, “when a Chinese censor in Guangzhou committed the unprecedented intrusion by physically entering the premises of Southern Weekend paper and rewriting their New Year editorial — turning a critical one into a panegyric of the Communist Party — Chinese journalists exploded. For the first time in history,

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