NEW DELHI -- Flush with disposable rupees and emboldened by political influence, members of India's rising urban middle class are stepping out of their drawing rooms to raise a revolutionary demand -- cow-free streets.
Yatinder Kumar Nagar says he has heard just about enough cow-bashing from the capital's bourgeoisie. Nagar is a municipal cow catcher, a crew chief in Western jogging shoes who cruises New Delhi's smoky, congested streets in a cattle truck, responding to complaints about wayward animals.
It is true, Nagar concedes, that wandering cows -- not to mention donkeys, pigs, camels and elephants -- pose a serious traffic hazard here and elsewhere in India. The cows, evidently well aware of their status as holy creatures in the Hindu pantheon, are especially prone to strolling onto major thoroughfares and plopping down in the right-hand turn lane for an afternoon nap. No Hindu will wake the beast, and any non-believer who harms a cow risks being beaten by an angry mob.
Sleeping cows are a particularly lethal hazard for the urban middle class, whose car of choice is the Indian-made Maruti, a zippy beer can of a vehicle that tends to crumple and collapse on the slightist impact.
Cow-catching represents just one front in a broader war being waged by India's urban middle class to improve the quality of life in the country's densely populated cities and towns. For the first time in India's history, the middle class is large and idle enough to turn its attention from bread-and-butter issues like jobs to consumer concerns, such as pollution, truth in advertising and bovine safety hazards.
Estimated at between 80 million and 150 million people, the Indian middle class is large in terms of absolute numbers but small as a percentage of the country's population of about 820 million. Still, because of its wealth and dynamism, the middle class wields clout disproportionate to its size. Consumer activist groups are springing up in all of India's major cities, pressing business and government for new laws, better product inspections, higher quality in manufactured goods, lower prices and cleaner air and streets.
"Consumers all over the country have been waking up," said H. D. Shourie, director of Common Cause, a consumer lobbying group unrelated to the identically named one in the United States. "There are a very large number of people who are dissatisfied, particularly with the government's functioning."
The activists face an uphill struggle. Domestically made consumer goods such as televisions, cosmetics and stereos poured into urban stores during the last decade, but because Indian manufacturers are protected from international competition by the world's stiffest tariffs, the products are of generally low quality -- and sometimes dangerous to boot.
Pollution is abysmal. New Delhi is said by environmental specialists to be second to Mexico City in the contest for the world's worst air quality. Newspapers carry regular reports about pesticides and toxins that have been discovered in packaged foods.
A particularly disturbing sub-genre of this reporting is the occasional account of mass food poisoning at rural wedding parties, where sacks of pesticide are apparently confused with flour and used to bake wheat cakes, sometimes killing dozens of guests.
Between these problems and the perennial crises of religious and caste violence around India, consumer activists sometimes have difficulty making their voices heard. A report on Indian consumerism prepared by New Delhi's Indian Public Affairs Network noted that when Indians discover such things as cockroaches in their bottled soft drinks, they have trouble finding anyone who will pay attention to their complaints.
Consumer groups are trying to overcome this problem by mobilizing large numbers of urbanites to confront manufacturers and government regulators. Businesses are particularly vulnerable to middle-class pressure since the urban market for consumer goods is growing fast. Fed up with the quality of Indian products, buyers who can afford it scour the black market for smuggled Western goods, which sell at an enormous premium.
"We are sending a message to Indian industry that if you make a product of quality, we are here," said Gyan Pandit, chairman of the Consumer's Forum. "But whether industry is hearing this message is another matter."
Pandit and other consumer activists compare the nascent Indian middle class to the one that gained confidence in the United States 40 years ago. Indeed, Indian advertisers imitate campaigns mounted by General Electric and Westinghouse in the United States during the 1950s: They sell washing machines as space-age products that will revolutionize a housewife's daily life. On city billboards here and in Bombay, Calcutta and other cities, hair dryers and refrigerators burst above the streets like colorful exploding stars accompanied by breathless ad copy referring to "modern conveniences."
The experience of Nagar the cow catcher, however, suggests that India's forward march toward middle-class mass culture may have trouble negotiating the wide chasm between India's classes.
"It's only the rich who complain" about wayward cows, and their beefs are usually that "the cows go and dirty their places and camp in front of their bungalows, ruining their lawns and shrubs," Nagar said while standing in mud and dung outside the city cow pound.
On the other hand, New Delhi's urban peasantry, numbering in the millions, deeply resents his attempts to clean up the capital's streets and the stiff fines that must be paid to retrieve delinquent cattle from the cow pound.
"The people scold us for taking their cows and their milk, and nobody ever comes to our side," Nagar said. "All we can do is threaten them with police action. Still, there are fights all the time -- violent fights."