The virtual middle class: Multitudes of the newly empowered are shaking up societies

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NEW DELHI

I encountered something on this trip to India that I had never met before: a whole new political community -- India's "virtual middle class." Its emergence explains a lot about the rise of social protests here and in places like China and Egypt. It is one of the most exciting things happening on the planet.

Historically, we have associated democratic revolutions with rising middle classes achieving certain levels of per capita annual income -- say, $10,000 -- so people can worry less about basic food and housing and more about being treated as citizens with rights and with a voice in their own futures.

But the massive diffusion of powerful, cheap computing power via cellphones and tablets over the last decade has dramatically lowered the costs of connectivity and education. As a result, many more people in India, China and Egypt, even though they're still just earning a few dollars a day, now have access to the kind of technologies and learning previously associated solely with the middle class.

That's why India today has a 300-million-person middle class and another 300-million-person virtual middle class, who, though still poor, are increasingly demanding the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes. This is putting more pressure than ever on India's elected politicians to get their act together.

"Thanks to technology and the spread of education, more and more people are being empowered at lower and lower levels of income than ever before, so they think and act as if they were in the middle class, demanding human security and dignity and citizens' rights," explained Khalid Malik, director of the U.N. Human Development Report and author of the book "Why Has China Grown So Fast for So Long?" "This is a tectonic shift. The Industrial Revolution was a 10-million-person story. This is a couple-of-billion-person story."

And it's not just driven by the 900 million cellphones in use in India today or the 400 million bloggers in China. The U.S. Agency for International Development office here in New Delhi connected me some Indian social entrepreneurs it is supporting, and the power of the tools they are putting in the hands of India's virtual middle class at low prices is jaw-dropping.

Gram Power is creating smart microgrids and meters to provide reliable power for Indian rural areas, where 600 million Indians do not have regular (or any) electricity with which to work, read and learn. For 20 cents a day, Gram Power offers villagers a prepaid electricity card that can power all their home appliances.

Healthpoint Services is providing safe drinking water for a family of six for 5 cents a day and telemedicine consultations for 20 cents a visit. VisionSpring is distributing examinations and eyeglasses to India's poor for $2 to $3 each. The Institute for Reproductive Health is alerting women of their fertile days each month with text messages, indicating when unprotected sex should be avoided to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Digital Green is providing low-cost communications systems for Indian farmers and women's groups to show each their best practices through digital films projected on a dirt floor.

These technologies still need scale, but they are on their way. And they are enabling millions more Indians to feel as if they are middle class and similarly empowered, says Nayan Chanda, who runs the YaleGlobal Online Magazine and is co-editor of "A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century."

In December, a 23-year-old Indian woman -- whose father worked double shifts as an airport baggage handler making about $200 a month so his daughter could go to school to become a physiotherapist -- was gang-raped on a bus after she and a male friend had gone to movie. She died from injuries sustained in the rape.

This woman was a high-aspiring member of this new virtual Indian middle class, and her brutal rape and subsequent death triggered nationwide protests for better governance.

"It is one of those turning points in history when a citizenry, so far pleased with economic gain, wants more than material comfort," said Mr. Chanda. "They want recognition of their rights; they want quality of life and, most importantly, the good governance they have come to expect by watching the world."

Ditto China. In December, noted Mr. Chanda, "when a Chinese censor in Guangzhou committed the unprecedented intrusion of physically entering the premises of Southern Weekend paper and rewriting its New Year editorial -- turning a critical one into a panegyric of the Communist Party -- Chinese journalists exploded. For the first time in history, they publicly demanded the resignation of the censor and China's Twitter, Weibo, lit up with anger."

Then there was the Arab Awakening, triggered not by middle-class college students but by an aspiring-to-be-in-the-middle-class Tunisian vegetable seller who was abused by corrupt police.

Leaders beware: Your people don't need to be in the middle class anymore, in economic terms, to have the education, tools and mindset of the middle class -- to feel entitled to a two-way conversation and to be treated like citizens with real rights and decent governance.

opinion_commentary

Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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