Melting pot

Special Issue | In New Delhi, Chicken McCurry and on-call operators with names like Josh spur one of the world's fastest-growing economies amid a city of caste systems and poverty

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

NEW DELHI- Strolling down the Rajpath, the broad, ceremonial boulevard in the center of India's capital city of New Delhi, an American might think of his own country's capital. Tall trees and sprawling lawns line a broad avenue flanked by a towering war monument and a dome-topped presidential residence. Groups of visitors snap photographs of the column-lined Parliament House, the seat of government for the largest democracy in the world.

But an American won't forget where he is for long. On the same boulevard, peddlers aggressively sidle up to tourists, hawking postcards, bracelets, and tiny chess sets. A tunic-clad snake charmer thrusts forward a thickly woven basket, peeling back its flat top to reveal its startling contents: a curled-up cobra that slowly unfurls, rearing its flared head.

Handfuls of children with wide smiles swarm around, eager to pose for pictures with Americans. An amused tour guide explains the children have likely traveled from the countryside with family to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali: "You're probably the first Americans they are ever seeing."

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These may be the first Americans the children have seen, but the fingerprints of Americans aren't hard to find in New Delhi and its older, neighboring city of Delhi, which make up a metropolitan region of nearly 14 million people.

Corporations like Microsoft and Google maintain high-profile headquarters in the city. The packed streets sport shopping malls and American restaurants like Pizza Hut and McDonald's, though with decidedly Indian fare. (In a culture where cows are considered sacred, the Chicken McCurry replaces the Big Mac.) Indian television carries a wide selection of American shows like The Office and Friends and offers a litany of American televangelists like Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen.

At the offices at New Delhi outsourcing companies, call-center workers consume American culture, attempting to relate to the U.S. customers who call for help. Accent coaches teach employees to drop regional brogues, and some workers adopt Western names. In some offices, employees watch American sitcoms and brush up on baseball scores displayed prominently on large screens.

The explosive growth of India's technological and outsourcing industries over the last decade has brought more than American culture to New Delhi. The surge has also helped turn the city into a melting pot of cultures from all over India: Citizens from surrounding regions have flocked to New Delhi in large numbers, seeking better jobs and better living conditions.

The steady migration fills the Delhi metropolis with a diverse mixture of food, festivals, and customs. Migrants who move to the area also find a burgeoning economy: The per capita income is around 2.5 times the national average in a country with the second-fastest-growing economy in the world.

But heavy migration has also ushered in substantial problems that accompany swelling populations in developing countries. Residential demands for electricity often outstrip the city's utility supplies, producing blackouts in peak seasons. The city suffers from an acute water shortage, produced in part by an antiquated and inefficient distribution system. Social activists say corrupt city officials also contribute to the problem.

The city has coped with congestion and pollution by building a metro system with three lines that cover about 60 miles. Delhi's entire fleet of more than 3,000 city buses now uses compressed natural gas instead of diesel fuel, responding to a government mandate to reduce pollution and smog.

Delhi struggles as well with problems that aren't new. While a growing middle class emerges with more money to spend on cell phones and entertainment, the city is still gripped by grinding poverty rooted in a centuries-old caste system. Nearly 45 percent of the city's residents are homeless or living in one of many sprawling slums. Officials estimate the city is home to nearly a half million street children. Scores of residents live under flimsy tents made of tarps and sticks, barely scraping together enough food to live.

The city government hasn't produced a compelling plan to shrink the growing gap between the abjectly poor and the increasingly wealthy segments of its population. But nonprofit groups and evangelical organizations hope educating the lowest class of citizens will open doors for social mobility in the years ahead. Several organizations in New Delhi help educate children born into a group labeled Dalits, also cruelly known as "Untouchables."

Others travel to New Delhi from surrounding Indian states for education, including training for Christian ministry. On the outskirts of the city, down a long, dirt road dotted with meandering cows, Abram Prakash (not his real name, as disclosing it would jeopardize his job and perhaps his safety) sits in a rustic, whitewashed building talking about theological education. Prakash helps oversee area operations for Gospel for Asia (GFA), just one of a number of evangelical organizations that train indigenous pastors and plant churches.


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