India: Arrested development

15th Oct, 2014

India in 2014 is filled with sparkling modern malls dominated by American food chains, alongside dusty street stalls and foggy rickshaws taking you to work.

The traditions, cultures and lore are not always complementary, but have normally found a way to co-exist, as a strange blend of the new and the old, as if that’s the way it’s always been. I have often thought that if a different nationality were subject to the kind of space constraints seen in say, Mumbai, there would a civil war. But in India, one billion plus just collectively shrug and get on with it, bringing the traditions of their forefathers and aunties together with very modern day attitudes and customs.

Amidst these extraordinary scenes there is a modern Indian emerging. A study undertaken for MTV showed, for example, that 42 per cent of 13-25 year olds in India claim that their parents are their role models. It seems as though parents have morphed from a gatekeeper role, to friends, to a position of ally.  Previous generations probably had a parent-child relationship that was rigid in its hierarchy, now there are glimmers of dialogue between both parent and child’s value sets.

This study also found that while previous generations have rejected their parents and grandparents “old-school” values, these millennials have stated that the values of hard work, honesty and respect are something which they voluntarily want to adopt from their forefathers.

But what about when this concoction of the old and new is not so merry?

Perhaps no greater example is the Indian wedding. Infamous the world over for its length, merriment and excess of guests, this is one area where the old and new have not been joined together in harmony.

Dowries are unfortunately still common practice, and figures show that a staggeringly incomprehensible one woman an hour dies from a “dowry related death”. Although these horrifying statistics might be biased towards the lower-income groups, dowry issues are found in every social group in India.

Estimates suggest that up to 80% of bank loans taken out in India today are done so for dowry or wedding purposes. This does not speak of a modern nation, as instead of investing money in farming equipment, a car or education, the money is still seen to be put to better use as a dowry.

Indians may be taking to Internet freedoms and communication at a rapid speed, yet a leading online dating website said that 99% of users still mention caste as an important factor in a partner.

These traditional practices carry on long after the wedding too. Even the fanciest private hospital in Delhi has large, scary posters reminding all those attending the shiny IVF and gynecology clinic that “pre birth knowledge of the child’s sex is illegal and punishable”. So, the old follows the new around, a reminder that although parts of this great and large land are awash with wealth and modern trimmings, their cultural past is still alive and kicking, explicitly in the widespread female infanticide taking place in India every day (about 930 girls are born for every 1000 boys nationally).

Old-wives tales also hold significant weight, primarily in reference to the female body. It is still normal practice for women to be kept away from the kitchen, temple and other sacred spots when menstruating. It was only this year that Whisper produced an advertising campaign shedding some light and humour on the ancient belief that touching a jar of pickles when on your period is dooming the pickles to be spoilt.

Even more shocking is the sale of skin whitening cream in India, a market valued at $432 million in 2010 and growing at a rate of 18 per cent a year. To put this into perspective, more is spent on skin bleaching products than is spent on Coca-Cola in the country.

Modernisation and liberalisation take time. Plus, it is no simpler matter for an (Western) outsider to say what values are modern and ‘good’ and which are outdated and thus ‘bad’. However, segregation of menstruating women, abortion dictated by gender, caste ordaining who you can marry and risk of possible death if your dowry is not up to scratch are not characteristics of a free, fair and modern society.

Mr Modi’s rather pragmatic Independence Day speech focusing on toilets in August shows that he recognizes modernization in some ways means dragging parts of India into the 21st century to catch up with others, starting with the lowly toilet.


Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.