India and Colonialism

India is considered the world’s largest democracy. As the historical geography and the development patterns of India are examined, the complexities of this Hindu state surface. European colonizers of South Asia included the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and, finally, the British. In search of raw materials, cheap labor, and expanding markets, Europeans used their advancements in technology to take over and dominate the regional industrial base. The East India Company was a base of British operations in South Asia and evolved to become the administrative government of the region by 1857. The British government created an administrative structure to govern South Asia. Their centralized government in India employed many Sikhs in positions of the administration to help rule over the mostly Muslim and Hindu population. The English language was introduced as a lingua franca for the colonies.

In truth, colonialism did more than establish the current boundaries of South Asia. Be-sides bringing the region under one central government and providing a lingua franca, India’s colonizers developed the main port cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras (now called Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, respectively. The names of the port cities have been reverted to their original Hindi forms). The port cities were access points for connecting goods with markets between India and Europe. Mumbai became the largest city and the economic center of India. In 1912, to exploit the interior of India, the British moved their colonial capital from Kolkata, which was the port for the densely populated Ganges River basin, to New Delhi. Chennai was a port access to southern India and the core of the Dravidian ethnic south.

Britain exploited India by extending railroad lines from the three main port cities into the hinterlands, to transport materials from the interior back to the port for export. The Indian Railroad is one of the largest rail networks on Earth. The problem with colonial railroads was that they did not necessarily connect cities with other cities. The British colonizers connected rail lines between the hinterland and the ports for resource exploitation and export of commercial goods. Today, the same port cities act as focal points for the import/export activity of globalization and remain core industrial centers for South Asia. They are now well connected with the other cities of India.

Goa is the smallest state of modern-day India. In the sixteenth century, it was first encountered by Portuguese traders, who annexed it shortly after that to become a colony of Portugal, which it was for the next 450 years. Goa was one of the longest-held colonial possessions in the world, and was not annexed by India until 1961. By the mid-1800s, most of the population of this tiny area had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Although many Hindu traditions survived the colonial period, and Hindu holidays are celebrated here, Goa is known for its Christian holiday celebrations, especially Christmas and Easter. The cathedral and secular architecture in many of the historic buildings of Goa are European in style, reflecting its Portuguese origins.

The People of India

Contrasts in India are explicitly evident in the regional differences of its human geography. The north-south contrasts are apparent through the lingua franca and ethnic divisions. The main lingua franca in the north is Hindi. In the Dravidian-dominated south, the main lingua franca is English. The densely populated core region along the Ganges River, anchored on each end by Delhi/New Delhi and Kolkata, has traditionally been called the heartland of India. The south is anchored by the port city of Chennai and the large city of Bangalore. Chennai has been a traditional industrial center. The industrial infrastructure has shifted to more modern facilities in other cities, giving over to a “rustbelt” syndrome for portions of the Chennai region. India is a dynamic country, with shifts and changes continually occurring. Any attempt to stereotype India into cultural regions would be problematic.

In 2010, India had more than 1.18 billion people, which is about one-sixth of the human population of the earth. An 80 percent majority follow Hindu beliefs. About 13 percent of the population is Muslim. Thirteen may not seem like a high percentage, but in this case, it equates to about 140 million people. This is equivalent to all the Muslims who reside in the countries of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt combined. India is sometimes called the third-largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan, because of its significant Muslim minority. India essentially has two lingua fracas: English and Hindi, of which Hindi is the official language of the Indian government. India has twenty-eight states, and four-teen recognized significant languages. Many different languages are spoken in rural areas. The languages of northern India are mainly based on the Indo-European language family. Languages used in the south are mainly from the Dravidian language family. A few regions that border Tibet in the north use languages from the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Urban versus Rural

Rural and urban life within the Indian Subcontinent varies according to wealth and opportunity. While concentrated in specific areas across the landscape, in general, the population in rural areas is discontinuous and spread thinly. In urban areas, the populations are very concentrated, with many times the population density found in rural areas. India has six world-class cities: Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. There are many other large cities in India; in 2010, India had forty-three cities with more than a million people each.

India’s interior is mainly composed of villages. In rural villages, much of the economy is based on subsistence strategies, primarily agriculture and small cottage industries. The lifestyle is focused on the agricultural cycles of soil preparation, sowing, and harvesting as well as tending animals, particularly water buffalo, cattle, goats, and sheep. About 65 percent of the population lives in rural areas and makes a living in agriculture. About 35 percent of the population—which is equal to the entire US population, is urbanized. India is rapidly progressing toward urbanization and industrialization. Changes in technology, however, tend to be slow in dispersing to the rural villages. More than half the villages in India do not have road access for motor vehicles. For residents of those villages, walking, animal carts, and trains are the main methods of transportation. Agricultural technology is primitive. The diffusion of new ideas, products, or methods can be slow. Modern communication technology is, how-ever, helping connect these remote regions.

India’s cities are dynamic places, with millions of people, cars, buses, and trucks all found in the streets. In many areas of urban centers, traffic may be stopped to await the movement of a sacred cow or a donkey or bullock cart loaded with merchandise. Indian cities are growing at an unsustainable rate. Overcrowded and congested, the main cities are modernizing and trying to keep up with global trends. Traditionally, family size was large, resulting in a swell of young people migrating to urban areas to seek greater opportunities and advantages. In modern times, family size has been reduced to about three children, an accomplishment that did not come easily because of the religious beliefs of most of India’s people. If current trends continue, India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world in about fifty years.

The level of official governmental control is usually different in an urban setting from what it is in the rural areas. There may be more police or military personnel in areas of heavy traffic or in urban areas that need extra control. A central feature of many Indian cities is an older central city that represents the protected part of the city. In Delhi, for example, New Delhi represents the new construction of government buildings that were begun during the British occupation of the region as part of the British Empire. Old Delhi represents the old markets, government buildings, palaces, fortresses, and mosques that were built during the Mogul Empire, between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s. These older parts of the cities, particularly the markets, are bustling with activities, merchants, shoppers, cab drivers, and pedal and motor rickshaws. Rickshaws are either bicycle-driven cabs or cabs based on enclosed motor scooters.

In urban areas, there is a socioeconomic hierarchy of a small group of people who are wealthy and can afford all the amenities we associate with modern life—electricity, clean water, television, computers, and the like. One of the things that characterize modern Indian cities is an expanding middle class. Many young people see the kinds of material goods that are available in the West and are creating job markets and opportunities to allow them to reach or maintain this type of lifestyle. One of the major markets to support this burgeoning middle class is the information technology field, as well as outsourcing in many of the cities of peninsular India.

India is a country with considerable contrast between the wealthy urban elites and the poor rural villagers, many of whom move to the cities and live in slums and work for little pay. Low labor costs have enabled Indian cities to industrialize in many ways similar to Western cities, complete with computers, Internet services, and other modern communications services. India’s growing middle class is a product of educational opportunities and technological advancements. This available skilled labor base has allowed India’s industrial and information sectors to take advantage of economic opportunities in the global market-place to grow and expand their activities. Development within India is augmented by out-sourcing activities by American and European corporations to India. Service center jobs created by business process outsourcing (BPO) are in high demand by skilled Indian workers.

India’s Economic Situation

In the past decade, India has possessed the second-fastest growing economy in the world; China is first. India’s economy continues to rapidly expand and have a tremendous impact on the world economy. Despite the size of the economy, India’s population has a low average per capita income. Approximately one-fourth of the people living in India live in poverty; the World Bank classifies India as a low-income economy. India has followed a central economic model for most of its development since it declared independence. The central government has exerted strict control over private-sector economic development, foreign trade, and foreign investment. Through various economic reforms since the 1990s, India is beginning to open up these markets by reducing government control on foreign investment and trade. Many publicly owned businesses are being privatized. Globalization efforts have been vigorous in India. There has been substantial growth in information services, health care, and the industrial sector.

The economy is extremely diverse and has focused on agriculture, handicrafts, textiles, manufacturing, some industry, and a vast number of services. A 60 percent majority of the population earns its income directly from agriculture and agriculture-related services. Landholdings by individual farmers are small, often less than five acres. When combined with the inadequate use of modern farming technologies, small landholdings become inadequately productive and impractical. Monsoons are critical for the success of India’s crops during any given season. Because the rainfall of many agricultural areas is tied to the monsoon rains of only a few months, a weak or delayed rainfall can have disastrous effects on the agricultural economy. Agricultural products include commercial crops such as coffee and spices (cardamom, pepper, chili peppers, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon). An essential product for perfume and incense is sandalwood, harvested primarily in the dense forests of the state of Karnataka, in southwestern India. Bamboo is an integral part of the agricultural harvest, as well. Of course, rice and lentils provide an essential basis for the local economy.

Over the last two decades, information technology and related services are transforming India’s economy and society. In turn, India is transforming the world’s information technologies in terms of production and service as well as the export of skilled workers in financial, computer hardware, software engineering, and software services. Manufacturing and industry are becoming a more important part of India’s economy as it begins to expand. Manufacturing and industry account for almost one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) and contribute jobs to almost one-fifth of the total workforce. Major economic sectors such as manufacturing, industry, biotechnology, telecommunications, aviation, shipbuilding, and retail are exhibiting strong growth rates.

A large number of educated young people who are fluent in English are changing India into a “back office” target for global outsourcing for customer services. These customer services focus on computer-related products but also include service-related industries and online sales companies. The level of outsourcing of information activity to India has been substantial. Any work that can be conducted over the Internet or telephone can be outsourced to anywhere in the world that has high-speed communication links. Countries that are attractive to BPO are countries where the English language is prominent, where employment costs are low, and where there is an adequate labor base of skilled or educated workers that can be trained in the services required. India has been the leading destination for BPO activity from the United States. Firms with service work or computer programming are drawn to India because English is a lingua franca, and India has an adequate skilled labor base to draw from.

Tourism has always been an essential part of India’s economy and has been focused on the unique natural environments as well as historical cities, monuments, and temples found throughout the country. Of particular importance are the Mogul-period tombs, palaces, and mosques in Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, India’s “Golden Triangle” of tourism. India is a country of contrasts. Scenic beauty abounds from the Eastern and Western Ghats to the high mountains of the Himalayas. The monsoon rains provide abundant crops for densely populated regions such as the Ganges River basin.

On the other hand, places such as the Thar Desert are sparsely inhabited. There is a wide gap between the wealthy elite and the massive numbers of people who live in poverty. Mumbai has some of the largest slums in Asia, yet it is the financial capital of India, teeming with economic activity.

As incomes rise for the middle class in India, the price of automobiles becomes more accessible. On the downside, an escalation in the number of motor vehicles in use tends to lead to an escalation in the levels of air pollution and traffic congestion. Similarly, an expansion of transportation systems increases the use of fossil fuels. India is a significant competitor for fossil fuels exported from the Persian Gulf and other Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sources. The continued industrialization and urbanization in India foretells an increase in demand for energy. Rising energy costs and demand, combined with economic growth, have caused a severe problem for India. Many areas will be without power as they are shut off the power grid for hours or days, a process known as load-shedding. This allows industry and manufacturing to use energy resources during peak times. In general, India is poor in natural gas and oil resources and is heavily dependent on coal and foreign oil imports. India is rich in alternative energy resources, such as solar, wind, and biofuels; however, alternative energy resources have not been sufficiently developed.

Vehicle Manufacturing

Two examples of India’s growing economic milieu are motor vehicle manufacturing and the movie industry. India’s vehicle manufacturing base is expanding rapidly. Vehicle manufacturing companies from North America, Europe, and East Asia are all active in India, and India also has its share of vehicle manufacturing companies. For example, Mumbai-based Tata Motors Ltd. is the country’s foremost vehicle production corporation, and it claims to be the second-largest commercial vehicle manufacturer in the world. Tata Motors is India’s largest designer and manufacturer of commercial buses and trucks, and it also produces the most inexpensive car in the world, the Tata Nano. Tata Motors manufactures midsized and larger automobiles, too. The company has expanded operations to Spain, Thailand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. The company is an example of an Indian-based international corporation that is a force in the global marketplace. In 2010, India was recognized as a significant competitor with Thailand, South Korea, and Japan as the fourth leading exporter of autos in Asia.

The Indian Cinema

Cinema makes up a large portion of the entertainment sector in India. India’s cinema industry is often referred to as “Bollywood,” a combination of Bombay and Hollywood. Technically, Bollywood is only the segment of the Indian cinema that is based out of Bombay (Mumbai), but the title is sometimes misleadingly used to refer to the entire movie industry in India. Bollywood is the leading movie maker in India and has a world-class film production center. In the past few years, India has been producing as many as one thousand films annually. The highest annual output for the US film industry is only about two-thirds that of India. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, India’s city of Hyderabad has the most extensive film production center in the world. The Telugu film industry operates the studio in Hyderabad.

Indian films are produced in more than a dozen languages and appeal to a broad domestic and international audience. Indian movies range from long epic productions with stories within stories to dramas, musicals, and theatrical presentations. Their popularity extends be-yond South Asia. Indian movies with modest dress, lack of explicit sexual scenes, and a focus on drama are popular in places such as Egypt, the Middle East, and other African countries. Movie stars are energetically promoted and enjoy celebrity in India, as is the case with the entertainment industry in the United States and Europe. The cinema is part of the cultural experience in Indian society. Urban life in India reserves a substantial presence for the entertainment industry, particularly the Indian film industry. One of the prime artistic endeavors in urban India is movie posters depicting all the glory of the latest Bollywood movie. Most of these colorful posters are painted by hand, and they tend to be large; some are several stories high.

India: East and West

India makes up the largest physical area of the South Asia realm. Another way of looking at the physical and human landscapes of India is to study spatial characteristics. Additionally, the economic side of the equation can be illustrated by di-viding India between east and west according to economic development patterns. To do this, on a map of India, draw an imaginary line from the border with Nepal in the north, near Kanpur, to the Polk Strait border with Sri Lanka in the south. This division of India illustrates two sides of India’s economic pattern: an economically progressive West India and an economically stagnant East India.

The progressive western side of India is anchored by Mumbai and its surrounding industrial community. Mumbai is the economic giant of India with the country’s leading financial markets, and has been a magnet for high-tech firms and manufacturing. Mumbai’s port pro-vides access to global markets and is solidly connected to international trade networks. Auto manufacturing, the film industry, and computer firms all have important centers in the large urban metropolitan areas of the west. Large industrial cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad have established themselves as high-tech production centers, attracting international business in the computer industry and the information sector. Chemical processing has been on-going in Bhopal, which is noted for an environmental disaster, a gas leak in 1984 that result-ed in the deaths of as many as ten thousand people. The nation’s capital is located in New Delhi, which borders the massive city of (Old) Delhi. The western half of India has been progressing along with a pattern with a positive economic outlook that views the global community outside of India as a partner in its success.

The eastern half of India has not been as prosperous as the west in its economic growth. The renowned city of Kolkata has traditionally anchored the eastern sector, but its factories have deteriorated into rustbelt status with aging and outdated heavy industries. The high-intensity labor activities of textile and domestic goods manufacturing are not as economically viable as they were in the past. The stagnant economic scene in the east is signified by the low average income levels of many of the states in the eastern region. Neighboring Bangladesh offers little in support of economic growth, and Myanmar, another neighbor to the east, has its own set of problems and lacks support for East India. The eastern half of India does not have strong partnerships with the global economy found in the west and thus relies more on internal resources for survival.

India: North and South

There are differences in the geographic patterns between the northern and southern halves of India as well as between the eastern and western halves—depending on the criteria used to compare them. Climate patterns, for example, are more diverse in the north, with a wide range of temperatures throughout the seasons. Winter temperatures in the mountainous north are cold, and summer temperatures in the Thar Desert can be extremely high. Southern India has a more moderate range of temperatures throughout the year. The far north has high mountains. The south has only the low-lying Eastern and Western Ghats. The north has the extensive Ganges River basin. The south has different drainage networks based on the plateaus of the region.

Besides physical aspects, there are cultural differences between the north and south, as well. India is a complex societal mix of many ethnic groups, languages, and traditions. Spatially separating the country into vernacular regions is not conducive to agreeable results. Still, there are some recognizable trends that have been stereotyped or commonly stated be-tween the northern and southern parts of India. The north is portrayed as a faster-paced society, with more edge and competitiveness. The south has been portrayed as more relaxed and less insistent.

As the section on languages illustrated, Indo-European languages are mainly spoken in the north, and Dravidian languages are predominantly spoken in the south. Hindi is more commonly the lingua franca of the north, while English is more frequently the lingua franca of the south. People in the north are of Indo-Aryan descent, while the people in the south have a Dravidian heritage. Hinduism dominates all of India, but the north has a broader diversity of religions, such as Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam, practiced by a large number of people. The south has a substantial Christian population along its west coast.

Food is an essential aspect of the culture of societies, and there are clear distinctions between the cuisine of the north and the south in India. Indian cooking is primarily vegetarian, emphasizing aspects of Hinduism. However, many dishes, particularly in North India, contain goat, chicken, lamb, fish, and other meats. Beef is not eaten by Hindus, while pork and some species of fish are not traditionally eaten by Muslims. North India has more wheat-based products and less rice. Their dishes are prepared with spices and herbs, including black and chili peppers. Northern Indian food is characterized by its use of dairy products (yogurt; milk; paneer, or homemade cheeses; and ghee, or clarified butter). Onions, ghee, and spices are the common base for different types of salads or curries (gravies). Griddles are used for preparing different types of flat bread, such as chapattis, naan, and kulcha. Rice, lentils, and chickpeas are a staple part of the diet in North India.

Food in the southern parts of India includes more rice as a staple, and seafood (fish and prawns) is frequent along the coastal areas. Coconut oil is used as a basis for cooking. Sam-bar, a stew made of peas and vegetables, is an essential staple of the region as are rice and idlis, which are a type of cake or bread made from steaming fermented black lentils. Chili peppers are also common in South Indian cooking.

Biodiversity and the Environment

Earlier sections have introduced the issues of population growth and resource depletion in South Asia. India has its share of the same environmental problems. Water pollution along the Ganges is severe and affects the largest concentration of people in India. India is the second-largest consumer of coal in the world, coal that is mainly burned to produce electricity. Burning coal adds significantly to air pollution. A rise in the number of vehicles in use, combined with few emission controls, also adds to the air pollution in urban areas. Deforestation continues in many rural areas, as was noted in earlier sections about Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India has several rare animal species that need habitat if they are going to survive. A few of the larger animals include the Indian Rhinoceros, Clouded Leopard, Indian Leopard, Snow Leopard, Asiatic Lion, Bengal Tiger, Asian Water Buffalo, Asian Elephant, Striped Hyena, and the Red Panda. Many species are endangered or threatened along with many other lesser-known organisms. The high human population growth throughout South Asia places a strain on the natural habitat of wild animals. Habitat loss caused by human development makes holding on to the vast array of biodiversity difficult.

India has instituted measures designed to preserve its biodiversity. The Indian government has created sanctuaries for threatened or endangered species. National parks were established before India declared independence and were substantially expanded in recent decades. In 1972, The Wildlife Protection Act was instituted to create critical habitat for tigers and other rare species. There are hundreds of protected wildlife areas and fifteen bio-sphere reserves in India. Four of the biospheres were created in conjunction with the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

The Indian government has established protected areas throughout the country, many of which are in the highland regions and the northern mountains. For example, the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, including an area preserved for Asian Lions, is located on the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Mumbai, which juts out into the Arabian Sea. India is the only place left with Asian Lions in the wild. Tigers, elephants, rhinos, and leopards can be found in the sanctuaries. The country has about ninety-two national parks, which are also home to rare wildlife species, and more than three hundred fifty wildlife sanctuaries of all sizes. There are about twenty-eight tiger reserves in India. The country also has many marine reserves and protected areas along its coastlines.

The efforts of the Indian government to protect the country’s biodiversity constitute an admirable environmental undertaking. The government has stepped up law enforcement efforts to combat poaching, which is a significant cause of the decrease in numbers of rare species. Poachers kill animals such as tigers, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for their hides, horns, or body parts, which are sold on the black market in Asia for large sums of money. Many of the rare, threatened, or endangered species of India would not have a chance of survival without the government efforts to protect and provide for them. Balancing finding resources for rap-id human population growth with wildlife management will continue to be a challenge in the years ahead for India and all countries of the planet.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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