Posted by: Vikram | January 5, 2010

The three layers of emerging India

A ‘layer’ here should be interpreted roughly as people who are aware of each other and behave as ‘equals’ with roughly the same political, economic and cultural clout. The basic premise is this, India today consists of three layers. The globalized and completely industrialized ‘metro India’, consisting of the big cities Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Kolkata1 and to a great extent Pune and the major cities of Gujarat. The second layer is the ‘televisionized’ and almost industrialized ‘India-Bharat’ cities and towns, consisting of most state capitals and million plus cities. Finally, we have ‘Bharat’, the predominantly agricultural bulk of the country.

Understanding these layers, their linkages and disconnects, their politics and economics is perhaps the key to understanding and influencing the Republic’s future. We start with the metro India. This is the India that the vast majority of Indians who use the internet inhabit, they work in or aspire to work in pan-national firms, study abroad and in general, interact quite heavily with the globalized world. The Anglo-phone west, with whom they share a language and a diasporic population, is a huge influence. The West it may be argued, is the primary inspiration for their own future and their vision of India’s future. This is the India that the English media caters to. For the most part, this is the India that the English media talks about, debates and worries about. The deep contradictions of the so-called ‘Indian national media’ can be understood easily2 if one sees the economic, intellectual and material cleavage between metro India and the other Indias. Metro India has simply been socialized to think that India is the big cities and everything in between is Indian territory, good for settings of the occasional Bollywood movie or heart-rendering news story, but not part of ones consciousness and the future.

‘India Bharat’ covers a much broader physical space than metro India. It encompasses places as diverse (not just in culture) as Kochi to Guwahati to Srinagar to Jaipur to Vishakapatnam to Nashik. Much of India Bharat, especially in the south and the west is booming. It is benefiting from a surge in urbanization, an improvement in the infrastructure (albeit starting from a low base) and an explosion in media, mainly television and to a lesser extent in print. The media (and hence the collective imagination) is more regional than ‘national’3. Political involvement is heavier and deeper than metro India, but inspiration for the future (both at individual and collective levels) is derived from metro India. Understandably, India Bharat is emerging as somewhat of a transition level between metro India and Bharat. There is a tremendous material cleavage with Bharat, but the intellectual one is not as great. Conversely, there is an intellectual cleavage with metro India (in terms of social relations) but the material one is not as great. If one wants to gain real insight into the politics and media of India, it is India Bharat and its media that need to be studied4.

Bharat is the vast majority of the nation, both in terms of size and population. Its material and social condition varies greatly, somewhat correlated with nearby India Bharat centres5. For eg. social relations are very different in semi-feudal UP and progressive Kerala. For a large part, the economy is in doldrums, dependant on a profession that simply does not pay enough for people’s aspirations or is unsuitable for pursuit due to natural factors, small land holdings or government policies/neglect. In democratic India, this is the most important part during election time, it throws people in and out of power. Linkages to the metros and India-Bharat are mostly personal, based on migrant labourers. Daily life is too hard to imagine the future. Bharat simply does not seem to have anything to offer metro India and India-Bharat, apart from food, migrant labourers and the occasional news.

Regardless of the morality of these divisions and linkages, and how we got here, they are there and if we are to succeed as a nation, they have to be dealt with. This does not mean they have to be destroyed, but they have to be made more rational and humane. This is not an easy challenge, for the vast majority cannot even articulate a vision for the future in a language the elites can understand. We face a connumdrum, for Bharat to be any kind of meaningful player (beyond sheer numbers and the occasional charismatic leader), a tremendous improvement needs to be brought in its material conditions. It is much more important to let UP become Uttaranchal, and for Rajasthan move up to the level of Gujarat than it is to turn Delhis and Chennais into Beijings and Miamis. Before anything, I feel it is this change in the metro middle classes imagination of ‘India’s’ future that needs to be brought about. Then we have to face the challenge of what the masses really feel and how metro India and Bharat can meaningfully communicate.

1: The fact that all IPL teams (except 1) are in these cities should give you an idea of what I mean when I say that they are completely integrated with each other and global capital and ideas.

2: For example, the mass mobilization over atrocities on urban women, hour long programs and shows dedicated to the stock market and cricket, vs very limited and spotty coverage for what happens in non-metro India, unless its shocking or entertaining.

3: This is not meant in a chauvinistic sense, the ‘national’ media is just the metro media, the regional media is much more focused on local politics and issues.

4: See,

5: Think of villages near Ghaziabad or Kanpur in UP versus rural Tamil Nadu or Gujarat near cities like Vellore or Surat.

For a somewhat similar piece on China, see


  1. Very interesting post.

    The media has become fairly sophisticated. Like any shrewd political party, they too play to a very specific constituency.

    The role of the media, irrespective of language, was to be one of the many facilitators of democracy. That was at least how it all started in India.

    The media now has shifted to a more capitalistic approach. They charge for disseminating information to a specific market. It’s not just about advertising – it’s about shaping opinion through content, editorials and “sponsorship”.

    As you indicate in your post, one of the large population groups that are being brushed under a carpet of apartment buildings is labour that is migrating to urban pockets in search of 1 square meal a day. They are no different to the 500 million other Indians who live in rural India on less than 1 dollar a day.

    The urban middle class gaze has developed a convenient blind spot for this constituency. This vision needs urgent correction.

  2. Vikram, very absorbing essay that articulates what India really needs to do. “It is much more important to let UP become Uttaranchal, and for Rajasthan move up to the level of Gujarat than it is to turn Delhis and Chennais into Beijings and Miamis.” This brilliantly sums it up. Yes the so-called national media is no more than a West-looking metro media. It needs to get out of its bubble and shift focus to Bharat because unless that develops, India’s progress will remain hollow.


    A mere concidence…

    • What is the name for the layers

  4. Aptly put. Bharat-India is rightly the layer that we should focus on more if we really want India to move forward and let go of the shackles of illiteracy, social malaise and economic backwardness.

    Kolkota -> Kolkata

  5. Thank you for a very thought-provoking article. I found it through a link on my friend Mario D’Penha’s facebook page.

    I am an engineer-MBA, born and brought up in Bandra (West), Bombay, and working in the globalized corporate sector. I recently had the privilege to be accepted for a 2-year fellowship at Teach For India. I have been teaching for the last 6 months in a municipal school in Bandra west. Apart from being the class teacher, a lot of my work involves community visits and building relationship with my students’ families. Your analysis of the three Indias is excellent, and makes sense to me.

    I have seen parents make supreme sacrifices and undergo lots of hardships to give their children lives that the globalised and heavily industrialised world offers. They themselves may have spent the majority of their lives in the agricultural bulk of the country. My children are a beautiful amalgamation of values from all three of the domains that you have described.

    An entertaining and insight-provoking read.

    • Welcome Sachin. Thanks for your comments, it always helps to learn from someone who is actually working on the grass roots. Yes, parents make great sacrifices to make sure their kids do better than them. But if parents are making great sacrifices to even ensure a decent education for their kids, something is not right in our system, which you probably understand well.

  6. Great article — very insightful. I think the layers are well-identified culturally and that’s very useful — geographically there is of course more nuance. For instance, the metros rather than conform entirely to the culture you describe as metro are themselves a micrcocosm containing all of the layers — for example in the case of Delhi think West Delhi = Bharat-metro, South Delhi = metro, and there are swaths of Bharat all through, and especially in North/Northeast. But geography aside, this is an excellent way of thinking through the cultural situation — note how easy it is for me to make use of the categories you propose. And having these distinctions helps to think about what next per your statement about lifting Rajasthan to Gujarat than Delhi to Beijing.

    • Welcome Jason. You are absolutely spot on. Metro India’s physical space consists of all three India’s as your rightly point out. It is hardly surprising then that in the process of turning Delhi into Beijing, it is the Bharat part of India that is often violently displaced. Safeguards for the residents of Bharat are very limited and abuse is frequent. We need to rethink the way we think about urban land rights in metro India, right now the Bharat part of the metros are mostly at the mercy of the governments, not very different how peasants were (are) at the mercy of zamindars for centuries.

      This article brings out the divisions between various parts of Delhi,

  7. @AB and Sharmaji, the media is not only unrepresentative it is fully behind the turn Delhi into Beijing kind of project. Thus it is many ways anti-poor not just antipathetic to the poor.

    @yayaver, thats funny. I think Sharmaji is approaching the issue more from a policy framework angle, this article was written more from the socio-cultural perspective.

    @Sameer, welcome. Sorry about the delay in posting your comment. Are you refering to Bharat India as a point of reference for Bharat, or saying that we must invest more in Bharat India ?

    • “Thus it is many ways anti-poor not just antipathetic to the poor.”
      — Well Said.

  8. \\ Think of villages near Ghaziabad or Kanpur in UP versus rural Tamil Nadu or Gujarat near cities like Vellore or Surat\\

    Villages near Kanpur are poor accepted, but villages near Ghaziabad??
    FYI this region of proposed Harit Pradesh has been historically benefited by Green Revolution just like Haryana and Punjab resulting in 90% irrigated fields and prosperity in villages.
    Plz check your facts.
    Moreover proximity to delhi has resulted in rapid industrialization of this region , ever wondered why Meerut is among the highest tax paying cities of india, and emerging hubs like Noida Gr Noida G’bad etc

    • Vivek, I am talking not just about material but social conditions as well. For eg, sex ratio in the West UP/Haryana region is about 860 whereas in Kerala it is 1058. Also, caste is much less of a social and political factor in western UP vs Kerala.

      • vikram, you are right, but dont u think sex ratio is skewed in favour of females in Kerala 🙂
        And do know the social development indicators of Himachal Pradesh?which may well give Kerala a run for it’s money.

  9. Vikram

    Nice distinctions drawn. I was thinking about the trajectory of development that India and other developing countries need to chart out for themselves. The reality is that every person in the developing world cannot aspire to get the First World lifestyle. That is environmentally unsustainable by the planet. We have to ask whether GDP and per capita income goals are indeed our goals or should we be thinking of other goals. Can we rely on economic forces alone to overcome social inequalities or are there other ways ? Should India’s development goals now think about distributive justice and creating an economically and socially egalitarian society? How can that be done without falling for the trap of communist thinking? How do we want India to be defined by?
    There is plenty that can be done if the energies of metro India are focussed towards Bharat. I believe that process is somewhat on its way. I reckon parents of metroIndia now need to encourage their children to not just be lawyers and engineers but sociologists and activists. The humanities need a revitalizing injection to give it its significance.

    It is interesting to note that Bolivia’s urban middle class, in contrast to India’s, plays a very active role in its elections and determines the fate of the rulers. It is they who have ensured that the country does not sell itself off to the American corporations. Will India’s metro class rise up to that standard or will it be seduced by the West’s glamour ? One wonders

    • Well said Vinod. I would say that the general, mass desire in India is for an improvement in material conditions, both in terms of personal and public welfare.

      You have asked the million dollar question. Can freeing up markets reduce inequality, the truth is it can do both. Although corporates and the middle class often try and stop the state from taking redistributive steps, it is often because they feel the state is corrupt rather than any national value system, unlike the US, where socialism is usually a dirty word. I think there is genuine reason to expect that Indians in general are not opposed to redistribution and socialism.

      The problem is that the left in India is in a real mess, mostly of its own making. Its democratic form is losing popular support and instead what seems to be gaining ground is a reactionary, violent movement. The overriding emphasis on technical education is part of the problem. Most of the middle class consists of engineers, doctors and business people who are much more likely to support the right. Typically, it is the people with a background in humanities that tend to support the left. Of course, I am generalizing but from my experience this seems true.

      Almost all my friends (most of whom are engineers) are either apathetic to politics or tend to support rightist economic policies, but virtually none support the Left in its current incarnation. If India is to become a better society, all three strands of Indian politics, the BJP (right), Congress (centre) and the CPI (left) will have to find ways to include leaders from the middle class. They will also need to come up with new political ideas and jettison old ones, BJP (violent right wing nationalism and needless anti minority sentiments), Congress (corruption and lack of inner party democracy) and Left (stop being 2 faced, reactionary and thinking of themselves as dissidents).

  10. very good informations !
    I like India.
    Thank you


    Thanks Danny.

    • its very nice article .

  11. Vikram

    One sees a difference between metro India and rural India even in the lyrics of the romantic movie songs. Metro-romantic songs celebrate the feeling of actual physical contact between lovers of each body part by comparing it to seasons and other objects of nature. This is understandable given the absence of controlling mores on metro romance, relatively speaking. In contrast, rural-romantic songs are all about the pining to be physically close or rest one’s head on the shoulders of the other (because of the no-look no-touch policy of rural romance) and the songs exemplify the joyous feelings of looking from a distance at the smile , eyes and hair or the brush of her dress against his body, the restlessness of the mind etc.

    Is it just me reading too much into the songs or do you notice that too?

    • Vinod, from what I know, most metro type songs are shot abroad and the idea is to exploit the relatively liberal environment outside India to show stuff that Indians want to see but are too prudish to admit.

  12. All i have to say is, the Indian politics need people like you!

    P.S. the dissection of layers has been done beautifully!

  13. […] usual rhetoric of expanding horizons does not work. Our attention span is after all limited, and metro India spends most of it on western culture and the rest on a highly westernized Bollywood. The […]

  14. i have often wondered why the fancy new buildings are made with indentured labour who are purposely brought in from other language areas so that they are totally at the mercy of the contractors. even in iran the building labour has head protection and gloves, is dressed adequately and seemed more skilled than ours.

    • Welcome Shama. Yes, the labour rights situation in India is abysmal. Although, it is fundamentally the nature of the society that I would hold responsible, the attitude of India’s governments is shocking.

      For e.g. during the CWG construction, the rights and protection of labour seemed to be the last thing on the Delhi governments mind. No proactive steps to protect them and feeble enforcement of existing laws.

  15. “It is much more important to let UP become Uttaranchal, and for Rajasthan move up to the level of Gujarat than it is to turn Delhis and Chennais into Beijings and Miamis.”

    Indians just don’t have the intellectual chops and discipline to turn Delhi/Chennai into Beijing/Miami. It’s good that you have injected some realism into this debate. India = a disintegrating, overpopulated shit-hole with ethnic strife, rampant corruption, and a dysfunctional democracy. Also the biggest lemon that’s being sold to the world. Happy New Year 🙂

  16. […] The three layers of emerging India January 201023 comments 3 […]

  17. […] handled by the Constitution makers. But land is the pivotal axis of contact and conflict between metro India and Bharat today. And as we shall see, land was important (for vastly different reasons) even during the […]

  18. true… not sure who said this, but it still rings true: The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

  19. […] and social chasm between India and Bharat. I have talked about this chasm in a qualitative sense before. The objective of this post is to provide a more quantitative discussion regarding the rural-urban […]

  20. […] ? One might find an answer in the culture of metro India which is increasingly disconnected from the India-Bharat of smaller towns and cities, and the Bharat of villages. The Ranbir Kapoors, Abhishek Bachchans and Virat Kohlis of the world have grown up in a metro […]

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