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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 15:29 GMT
Will India make the breakthrough?
Businessman trying out a Porsche
Affluence is more apparent these days
BBC World Service will be dedicating a week of special programmes from 3-11 February looking at how India is changing.

The BBC's George Arney has been reporting on India for many years and, for just as long, the country's promise has been waiting to be fulfilled.

How do you summarise a country which is home to one in six members of the human race, which contains a third of the world's poorest people and yet has an increasingly consumer-oriented middle-class twice the size of the population of Germany?

And which - according to predictions by the CIA and investment bankers Goldman Sachs - could, along with China, come to dominate the global economy in the next few decades?

India has always been hard to get a handle on. In the 28 years that I've been visiting, thinking and writing about this vast and varied subcontinent, I've clung on to an unnerving, and yet somehow also reassuring, truism: for any generalisation that can be made about India, the opposite is equally true.

So is it or is it not true that, 60 years after partition and independence, India is finally about to take its place on the world stage as a major player?

Slumbering elephant

Dusting off my first ever Indian guide book (a 1978 Fodor Guide) - I can see that that the predictions of a resurgent India have been around a long time.

"India has rocketed", the foreword says, "from a backwater colony into the forefront of the world's leading nations."

Bullock and cart
Much of the country's infrastructure is dilapidated

But predictions that the slumbering Indian elephant would wake up never seemed to come true.

As the "tiger" economies of South-east Asia roared away in the 1970s and 1980s, India's biggest achievements remained its ability to feed its own people, and its adherence - against the odds - to democracy.

The question now, as one long-time observer puts it, is whether India will emerge as a major power, or whether it will remain "forever arriving".

Despite endemic problems of poverty and disease, major changes have already occurred.

Unshackled by the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s, India is already poised to overtake Japan as the world's third largest economy.

It is also strutting its stuff on the world stage. Its nuclear status has now been formally acknowledged by the US. And, when the UN is finally reformed, it's likely to land a permanent seat on the Security Council.

India Shining

All this adds up, to use the slick advertising slogan coined a couple of years ago by the then governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a new India: India Shining.

Le Meridien hotel
Five star hotels cannot keep up with overseas demand

But hang on. Wasn't that slogan exposed as an empty boast, when - despite presiding over a period of unprecedented economic growth - the BJP was decisively rejected by India's have-nots at the last general elections?

Amidst all the buzz about the vibrant, new India getting ready for take-off, is the old India still capable of dragging it back, aborting the countdown?

Consider a few statistics: 300 million Indians live on less than US$1 a day, compared to only 85 million in China, which has a bigger population.

Forty-five per cent of Indian children under the age of five are malnourished. Less than a third of India's homes have a toilet. Less than half of its 500,000 villages are connected to the electricity grid.

Globalisation challenge

Despite the explosion of consumerism and capitalism in India's booming cities, more than half of all Indians still live in rural areas.

Farmers are committing suicide because they can't compete in a globalised market. "India doesn't live in its villages," says author and activist Arundhati Roy. "It dies."

Crowded boat
In the rush for riches, can India's social fabric stand the strains?

Having shed its old commitment to state-directed socialism, critics argue that the Indian state is failing to provide the most basic necessities to its poorest citizens: health care, education, drinking water.

As the gap between rich and poor widens, Naxalite militants have spread their doctrine of Maoist revolution, now making their presence felt in more than a quarter of the country.

Maoism, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by India.

And, even though the Maoists are unlikely ever to bring the government to its knees - as they did in neighbouring Nepal - the brutal low-intensity conflict they've spawned is helping to keep India's poorest regions poor - and sharpening the inequity which some see as the biggest danger facing India over the next few decades.

So where is India headed? Some changes are visible to any casual visitor. The rampant consumerism in India's cities was unimaginable when I first visited in 1978.

But how far are India's traditional values breaking down under the onslaught of consumerism and individualism?

Are caste and hierarchy being eroded - and if so, are the downtrodden benefiting?

Is the explosion of television creating a new, more homogenised Indian culture?

Globalisation has brought tremendous changes and, for some, tremendous rewards. But are there more losers than winners, and, if so, what will the consequences be? In the rush for riches, can India's social fabric stand the strains? Or will growing inequities pull it apart at the seams?

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