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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 July 2006, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
India struggles to catch China
BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Delhi and Beijing

The rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies have transformed the two countries in recent years. But this prosperity has also brought other problems.

Beijing skyline
Heavy investment has turned Beijing into a modern city
I think it was in 2003, that the world suddenly woke up to China.

I am not sure what caused it to happen, what particular event or news story. I just remembered the phone in the BBC's Beijing Bureau started ringing and it has not stopped since.

Well now it is happening again and this time it is not China, it is India.

Every time you turn on the television or pick up a magazine, it is no longer the rise of China, it is now the rise of China and India.

The desire to make comparisons is understandable. Both have more than a billion people. Both are growing at 10% a year.

Delhi is an overwhelming experience. It is as if all of humanity has been squeezed into one city
There are, I suspect, many who are hoping that India, with its freedom and democracy, will win this new race to become the next economic super power. I am not so sure.

I have spent the last eight years living in Beijing, and only four days in Delhi, so comparisons are difficult.

But the few days I recently spent in India made me look at China in a new light.

'Shocking experience'

Crowds of people and traffic in New Delhi
Over 15 million people live in Delhi
Delhi is an overwhelming experience. It is as if all of humanity has been squeezed into one city.

The streets groan under the weight of people. The air is filled with deafening noise and sumptuous smells.

Switch on the television and it is the same.

Between channels blasting out voluptuous Bollywood love stories and pop videos, an endless stream of news channels dissect the latest political scandals, and debauched lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Coming from China it is an almost shocking experience.

But after the initial delight at being in an open society, I started to notice other things.

Foreign tourists stared in bewilderment; locals with the resigned look of those used to waiting
The hotel was expensive and bad. In my room I searched for a high speed internet connection, a standard feature in any hotel in China. There was not one.

Then with the night-time temperature still well above 30C (86F) the power went out.

I lay for hours soaked in sweat trying, and failing, to get back to sleep and wishing I was back in Beijing where the lights never go out.

But getting back would not be easy.

Passenger queues

I looked at my plane ticket. Departure time 0315. Surely that could not be right.

I called the front desk. "That's correct sir," he said, "the airport is too small so many flights from Delhi leave in the middle of the night."

He was not joking.

My taxi struggled along the Jaipur road towards the airport.

The two-lane road was clogged by an endless convoy of lorries. Finally I arrived at Indira Gandhi International airport. Despite the hour it was teeming with people.

The queues snaked around the airport and back to where they had started.

Foreign tourists stared in bewilderment. Locals with the resigned look of those used to waiting.

I could not help feeling a sense of relief at being back in a country where things work
"Is it always like this?" I asked a man in the queue ahead of me.

"Pretty much," he sighed.

I was finally shepherded aboard the flight to Shanghai.

Next to me sat a friendly looking Indian man in shorts and running shoes.

"Is this your first trip to China?" he asked me.

"No," I replied, "I live there."

"Really," he said, his interest piqued, "what should I expect?"

"I think," I said, "you should expect to be surprised."

Jaw dropping

Six hours later, our plane taxied to a halt in front of the soaring glass and steel of Shanghai's Pudong International Airport.

A poor child sits on the street in New Delhi (Photo: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images)
In Delhi I had been shocked to see thousands of people sleeping rough on the streets every night, nothing but the few rags they slept in to call their own
As we emerged into the cool silence of the ultra-modern terminal, my new companion's jaw slid towards his belly button.

"I was not expecting this," he said, his eyes wide in wonder. "Oh no, I definitely was not expecting this".

I also found myself looking at China afresh.

Later that day as I drove home from Beijing airport along the smooth six-lane highway I could not help feeling a sense of relief at being back in a country where things work.

And it was not just the airports and roads.

Driving through a village on the edge of Beijing I was struck by how well everyone was dressed.

In Delhi, I had been shocked to see thousands of people sleeping rough on the streets every night, nothing but the few rags they slept in to call their own. Even deep in China's countryside that is not something you will see.

In Delhi I had been told of the wonders of India's new economy, of the tens of thousands of bright young graduates churning out the world's latest computer software.

I thought of China's new economy, of the tens of millions of rural migrants who slave away in factories, making everything from plimsolls to plasma televisions.

And of the same rural migrants, heading home to their villages at Chinese New Year festival loaded down with gifts, their pockets stuffed full of cash.

China is not a free society, and it has immense problems. But its successes should not be underestimated.

They are ones that India, even with its open and democratic society, is still far from matching.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 July, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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