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Home Improvement: An Indian Tale

It was an ambitious task for someone who has lived almost exclusively in apartments and government bungalows. About a year ago, I decided to rebuild and modernize my ancestral home in Bangalore without the help of a contractor. I hired the laborers, bought all the parts, rented the necessary accessories, and supervised the renovations. My ...

It was an ambitious task for someone who has lived almost exclusively in apartments and government bungalows. About a year ago, I decided to rebuild and modernize my ancestral home in Bangalore without the help of a contractor. I hired the laborers, bought all the parts, rented the necessary accessories, and supervised the renovations. My inexperience showed: The project ran well behind schedule and over budget. And, of course, now that it is done, I don’t have anyone to blame for the few blemishes I notice in my living room.

But it was ultimately a rewarding undertaking, and not just because it restored a lovely house. I was afforded a glimpse of the changes occurring at the working-class level in India, and they are deeply impressive.

The average worker is now more professional, technologically savvy, and conscious of time frames and schedules than in the past. Machines are fast replacing muscle power. One builder refused to accept my offer of a contract unless I guaranteed electric supply for his drills. Thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone, I was able to contact him and his colleagues at any time. For them, cell phones are too empowering to be switched off.

More impressive than the gadgetry was the diversity. The laborers I employed came from all over the country. They spoke different languages and practiced different religions, but they worked well together. They had a common goal: In rebuilding my house, they were building better lives for themselves. This goal had brought them to Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. Its emergence as an information technology hub has made it a magnet for young professionals from across India, and for workers eager to cater to the city’s newly affluent. Indeed, India’s working class is displaying unprecedented mobility and enjoying its first real taste of prosperity. While polishing the mosaic floor, a worker from Bihar told me he moved to Bangalore because people in his village had talked of the "boom in the south." He found plentiful work and an absence of xenophobia. His family had joined him, and he spoke proudly of his wife’s mastery of the local language, Kannada.

Of course, Bangalore is hardly representative of the rest of India, and it will take many more such miracles to spread the wealth to other parts of the country. Neither is Bangalore’s continued success by any means assured. The city is choking on congestion and could well go the way of chaotic, dysfunctional Bombay. Corruption remains rampant in Indian politics and thwarts economic and social progress. The judicial system is burdened with frivolous lawsuits that hamper development projects.

But Bangalore is a robust and organic phenomenon that draws its strength from enterprises large and small. It is a phenomenon based on knowledge, education, ambition, and a willingness to travel far in pursuit of opportunity — intangible assets, to be sure, but precious and elevating resources that India should be proud to possess.

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