How liberalisation transformed our society

(I wrote this as part of an internal essay-writing competition, where my entry was judged to be the best. We were asked to expand on the statement: India’s economy and society fundamentally changed after the liberalisation during the 1990s.)

Before the liberalisation of the 1990s, India’s economy almost resembled those of the communist countries — most industries were owned by the government, jobs and opportunities were scarce, and growth rate was low. However, as the government lifted regulations and took a more welcoming approach toward private and foreign companies, India began to move towards a more western, capitalist system — both in terms of economy and society.

As more businesses began to spring up, unhindered by the numerous permissions and regulations that used to exist earlier, it became far easier to find jobs. This ease of earning obviously meant that people in general were financially better off and led more comfortable lives — but it also caused various changes in culture.

One such change was that the almost deferential respect shown to elders of the family or community diminished significantly. Previously, it used to be the older people who had accumulated the most wealth and experience, and so they were typically held in high regard by the rest of society. Nowadays, however, age does not necessarily mean success, since the availability of opportunity has made it easier for even younger people to quickly move up in life.

Another change brought about by the increase in the number of jobs is fewer instances of petty crime. The sort of small change that is usually acquired through crimes such as pickpocketing can now be easily earnt by honest, legal means — so the cost of such crime is no longer worth the reward. More employment has also meant that youths typically don’t while away their time in vandalism or heckling — previously commonplace even in cities. However, the greater number of businesses has created more avenues for crime of bigger scale, such as extortion or bribery, so the change has not been entirely positive.

More economic mobility has also meant that people no longer see the rich as an unattainable section of society; earlier, the only way to become wealthy was through connections, so it was nearly impossible even for talented people to earn great amounts of money if they weren’t already born with it. Many of the experiences that the rich could afford — such as five-star hotels or airplane rides — were unimaginable to most others; now, however, the wealthy are no longer that separate from the rest of society, and what once seemed like an almost aristocratic existence is far more accessible to even the middle-class.

Not only is it easier to move between different economic classes, but it is also more commonplace to see people moving out from their birthplace to other cities in search of opportunity. In the past, people’s lives were much more unchanging — they hardly saw reason to leave their hometowns, often pursuing the same career lines as their families — in contrast to today’s more dynamic atmosphere.

As cities became increasingly crowded and fast-paced, they started showing more of the attributes of western places. For instance, the consumerist culture is very prevalent in metro-cities, with advertisements and shopping malls everywhere. This is in stark contrast to the frugal lifestyle that used to prevail in the past, when people would often repair old possessions instead of simply buying new ones, or hand down used belongings to younger members of the family.

People in cities also lead more individualistic lives: like the in the western countries, they place independence above community and harmony. One effect of this is that relationships have become far more unstable — there are many more divorces as a result of the hierarchy within families disappearing. Relationships have also been affected by the fast-paced nature of post-liberalisation modern life: in the old days, it would often take months for two people to get to know each other and become closer, because they could only communicate through letters and meet one another infrequently. Now, however, technology and the impatience fostered by the general hurried atmosphere causes relationships to progress far more quickly, which often results in them falling apart sooner.

This fast-paced culture has seeped into life everywhere, making the idyllic, peaceful days of the previous generation all but disappear. Sights that used to be common, such as kids playing in the local field, can now perhaps only be seen in villages. The towns have become more like the cities, with busy streets and shops; the city life has become even more bustling and hectic, people constantly shuttling about in frantic work.

The upside of our consumerist culture is that now people have a lot more variety of products to choose from. Earlier, almost everyone would wear the same brand of watches and use the same telecommunications company — while the wealthy, who could afford cars, would all drive Ambassadors. Nowadays, there are a multitude of brands to buy from, and the products are typically of higher quality while at the same time more accessible to everyone.

Pre-liberalisation India: the age of the Ambassador

One such area where there has been a great increase in variety is movies. Pre-liberalisation, the only way to get funding for making a movie was by having connections — often to the mafia. Since raising money for even a single movie was so difficult, filmmakers tended to avoid risks and stuck to the same old themes of romance or simple fights between good and evil — because all the stakes hinged on the success of that one film. Now, it’s far easier for a company to get funding — financial instruments such as stock markets or bank loans have made it possible for anybody set up new ventures. So, once a film company raises enough money, they are free to experiment, since they could always try again even if one movie failed.

Earlier, because of the lack of this variety, people often had very similar experiences: for example, everybody would take the same buses or trains when they needed to travel to a particular location. On certain days of the week when a popular channel would be playing on television, almost everyone stayed home to watch, leaving the streets completely deserted. This created a lot of common ground between people — making it easier for them to empathize with one another and giving them readily available topics of conversation. However, this may not have been a particularly positive facet of life if these common experiences were unpleasant (for instance, many of those bus or train journeys were surely much more uncomfortable compared to what we are used to now).

Overall, the liberalisation created economic prosperity and living standards in general rose. It also brought in a lot of western aspects of culture such as capitalism, consumerism and individualism, not of all which may have improved our society. The rapid growth that the reforms brought about had repercussions far beyond the economy — changing every little facet of life to the extent that we are often disbelieving of the stories from the past generation, which almost seemed to have been part of a different world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store