While South India is very much part of the Indian nation, subject to Delhi-based decisions, there is a sense that, with its locally focused politics, the south is different – some would say more progressive – with booming IT, tourism, film and automotive industries, and above-average employment, literacy and life expectancy. However, South India also faces major issues. Violence against women frequently hits headlines, alcoholism is an enormous problem, and there is ever-growing concern about climate change, pollution and lack of water resources.
The Balance Tilts Southward
In the decades after Independence in 1947, many South Indians headed north for work. Today, the trend is in the opposite direction. Some argue that better, more stable governance in southern states (despite deep-seated corruption) and a less rigid caste system have contributed to the south's upswing. Nearly all South Indian states now have above-average literacy, employment, life expectancy, income per head and female-to-male population ratio. Kerala has India's highest literacy rate.
Mumbai (Bombay) has long been India's financial, commercial and industrial powerhouse, and its film and fashion capital. Chennai (Madras) makes one-third of India's cars. Goa and Kerala are huge tourism success stories. But the biggest story is the technology boom, sparked by India's 1991 economic liberalisation and globalisation. Bengaluru (Bangalore) is India's 'Silicon Valley', and, with Hyderabad and Pune, forms the 'Deccan Triangle' at the heart of India's thriving IT industry, fuelled by well-educated, English-speaking, young professionals. Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi round off India's IT big six.
Problems intertwined with economic progress include the growth of city slums (60% of Mumbai's population lives in slums) and dreadful traffic and pollution – though new metro systems in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad are slowly modernising transport. Kerala, despite its education and health successes, has high unemployment and, until recently, India's highest alcohol-consumption rates (now claimed by Andhra Pradesh); in 2014 Kerala removed liquor licences from 700 bars, though full prohibition now looks unlikely. Chennai and Bengaluru unfortunately often top 'suicide capital' lists.
The Political Landscape
Regional parties focused on local issues and personalities dominate South Indian politics; national parties have to strike alliances with them to gain their support in Delhi or a foothold in the regions. Maharashtra shows more support for a national party – the Hindu-nationalist-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – than any state further south, but the BJP has long had to ally with Shiv Sena, a reactionary local party that opposes migration into Maharashtra from other states. Tamil Nadu has had a string of ex–film stars as chief ministers, including Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who received a four-year jail sentence for corruption in 2014, only to be acquitted and return to office (immensely popular) until her death in December 2016.
But the south has certainly sat up and taken notice of national politics since 2014, when Narendra Modi, from the western state of Gujarat, led the BJP to a stunning general election victory – the first time since 1984 that one party won an outright parliament majority. It was a humiliation for the Congress Party (the party of independent India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and their descendants) which had then ruled India for 55 of the 67 years since Independence.
Modi's charisma, derived from his economic reputation as former chief minister of Gujarat and his appeal to ‘ordinary’ Indians due to his working-class origins, has much to do with the BJP's triumph, though accusations linger about Modi's role in religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which at least 1000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. He is a masterful politician, making savvy use of digital technology (he currently has 26.3 million Twitter followers). At the time of writing, Modi remains popular, offering vision, hope and inspiration. His aims to resurrect India’s economy but also to address social issues such as sanitation, gender equality, poverty and health are well underway, including the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), which, launched in 2014, has seen politicians, celebrities and the PM himself publicly clearing rubbish.
In 2016 India’s economy overtook China's as the world’s fastest-growing, partly thanks to renewed investment confidence under the business-friendly Modi. In 2015 India broke a Guinness World Record for the most bank accounts opened in one week (18,096,130) in a scheme aimed at offering socioeconomic opportunities to the poor. However, Modi's sudden demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in November 2016 (a crackdown on corruption) received mixed responses.
Violence Against Women
In December 2012, 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh and her male friend boarded a bus home in Delhi, only to find that it was fake. The six men aboard brutally raped Singh and she died 12 days later, becoming known across India as Nirbhaya (‘Fearless One’). The event set off massive protests and soul-searching nationwide.
Within weeks India passed new, but controversial, laws to deter violence against women. Rape now carries a seven-year minimum sentence (20 years for gang rape), or the death penalty if the victim dies; new fast-track courts deal exclusively with rape prosecutions. But violence against women continues to make headlines all too often, while conviction rates remain low (27.1% in 2013). A 22-year-old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai in 2013, as was a 51-year-old Danish woman in Delhi in 2014. Most recently, there has been outrage over the 'mass molestation' of women by mobs of men on New Year's Eve 2016 in Bengaluru (usually considered a safe city).
Since being elected, Modi has been actively trying to change the national psyche regarding gender equality. In 2015 Modi launched the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter) campaign, which works towards gender equality by discouraging female infanticide and encouraging education to change male attitudes from a young age. Many Indians are also now reflecting on other abuses of women (a woman is murdered every hour over dowry demands), widespread police and justice-system mishandling of cases, and larger gender-equality problems.
Sadly, reports of sexual assaults against women and girls, including tourists, are on the increase all over India. The saving grace is that, now in the spotlight, India's gender-based violence is finally being discussed.
Despite Modi's pledges to increase India's use of solar power and end water issues (which includes controversial plans for a countrywide river-linking scheme), climate change is a growing South Indian concern. Devastating heatwaves, cyclones and droughts are wreaking havoc across the region with increasing frequency; Lakshadweep's islands are at risk of rising sea levels. In 2015 a deadly heatwave and South India's heaviest floods in 100-plus years killed, officially, around 3000 people (but probably more). Predictably, there is growing conflict over limited water resources. In 2016 Bengaluru experienced much-publicised drinking-water shortages, Maharashtra received emergency water by train, and long-running disputes between drought-hit Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery River erupted into strikes and violent protests in both states.