India - A Country Overview

Information on India: its geography, economy, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in the country…

The Republic of India is situated in southern Asia and borders (to the north) China, Nepal, Bhutan, (to the north-east) Bangladesh and Burma/Myanmar, and (to the north-west) Pakistan. Part of an area of territory disputed with Pakistan also borders Afghanistan. The country is surrounded by the Arabian Sea to the west, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Bay of Bengal to the east. The Himalayan mountain range extends across much of northern India.

India is the seventh largest country in the world, and the second most populated. It is expected to overtake China to become the world’s most populated country within the next 25 years. The estimated population for India in 2012 is 1.21 billion, with 29 percent of the population living in urban areas. It is thought that India has more than 2,000 ethnic groups.

The country is made up of 28 states and seven Union Territories, with New Delhi as the capital.

Many of India’s major cities have undergone name changes since independence in 1947, largely to revert pre-British colonial era titles. Major alterations over the past 20 years include Bombay switching to Mumbai, Madras becoming Chennai, Calcutta changing to Kolkata and Bangalore being renamed as Bengaluru.

Hindi is the official language of India and is spoken throughout the major cities. English is also widely spoken in urban areas. There are 21 other languages that are commonly spoken across the country.

India’s main religions are Hinduism (80.5 percent), Islam (13.4 percent), Christianity (2.3 percent), and Sikhism (1.9 percent). Other religious groups include Buddhists, Jains and Parsis (1.8 percent).

Literacy within the country is 61 percent and average life expectancy is 67.14 years old.

  • More facts about India can be found on the government’s online portal: Click here

Economy

India’s official currency is the Indian Rupee (INR). India is the world’s fourth largest Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), and has the 11th largest GDP (gross domestic product) in the world. The estimated GDP for the 2011 financial year was $1.843 trillion. India is a member of the G20, and is one of the fastest growing economies globally. Its major trade partners are China, the USA, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, Russia and Japan.

India’s natural resources are iron ore, coal, mica, manganese, bauxite, chromite, limestone, barite, thorium, titanium ore, diamonds and crude oil. Recent years have seen significant growth in the country’s information technology and outsourcing industries, which employ significant numbers of Indians, as well as an increasing number of foreigners.

Geographical Features

India’s geography is vast and varied, within a total land area of 3,287,263 sq Km. The four main geographical regions are the mountains in the north, the plains of the Ganga and the Indus, the desert region and the southern peninsula.

The Himalayas in the north of the country is the world’s highest mountain range. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain at 8,586m (28,169 ft), sits on the India–Nepal border.

History

India’s earliest civilization thrived around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley in western India, and was known as the Harappan Civilization. This civilization is thought to have ended by 1500 BC as a result of invasion by the Aryans, as well as natural factors such as earthquakes and floods. This gave way to the Vedic civilization, named after the Vedas, the early Hindu literature written within this period. Buddhism and Jainism also evolved at this time.

In 326 BC Alexander the Great invaded India from Greece, but got no further than the Indus River before returning west.

Chandragupta Maurya came to power in 321 BC and the Mauryan Empire (circa 322–185 BC) saw the establishment of the first great Indian Empire. Within this empire, territories became unified, systems of government were created, commerce increased and the caste system was developed. Ashoka was the third and most famous emperor, and after his death in 232 BC he was succeeded by several weaker leaders who were not able to unite and administer the empire as effectively, and the empire quickly declined.

Under the Kushana Empire in the first century AD, Buddhism spread throughout Asia. The empire continued until the third century AD when the Gupta dynasty began. This period is often known as India’s Golden Age due to great increase in wealth, Hindu culture and political systems. Throughout the reign of Chandragupta I, the third king of this dynasty, the empire expanded extensively by conquering many states. In the early sixth century the invasion of Huns led to the ending of the Gupta dynasty, and in 510 the Hun leader, Toramara, defeated the Gupta army.

In the early seventh century Harshavardhana came to the throne of Thaneshwar and Kannuj and by 612 AD he had united his kingdom in the north of India, which had splintered after the Gupta dynasty.

India then experienced almost three centuries of Indian rulers, including the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Pandyas and the Rashtrakutas, before the rise of Muslim rulers and the Mughal Empire.

Islam filtered throughout India over a period of around 700 years. Turks and Afghans invaded India in the 10th and 11th centuries and five Delhi-based sultanates ruled from Delhi between 1206 and 1526.

The great Mughal Empire, which began in the 16th century, extended across most of India. Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, defeated the armies of the Sultan of Delhi in 1526 and the Mughal Dynasty continued for the next 200 years.

In 1619 the East India Company, a London trading company, established its first trading post at Surat on the north-western coast. The British company established further trading posts and began to exert military power and rule across the country. The East India Company officially continued its rule until 1857 when the British parliament transferred power from the Company to the British monarch. British rule in India focused very much on trade: tea, coffee and cotton became key exports. The railway network was also established under British rule.

Many Indians opposed foreign rule and at the beginning of the 20th century this opposition grew, led by the Indian National Congress. The party met for the first time in 1885 and began to campaign for involvement in Indian government. In the late 1800s Indian councillors were appointed to advise the British government and eventually Indians were permitted to participate in Legislative Councils.

Mohandas K. Gandhi (commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi) emerged as the new leader of the Indian National Congress Political party in 1920 and new momentum was gained in the drive towards independence from British rule. Muslims reacted to this by suggesting the creation of a separate Islamic state. They feared India would be dominated by Hindus once it was no longer under British rule.

India gained independence from Britain on 15 August 1947, remaining part of the Commonwealth. The British portioned India into two separate states, India and Pakistan, with respective Hindu and Muslim majorities in each state.

Independent India has experienced tension with neighbouring countries. In 1962 there was a border war with China, and India was also at war with Pakistan over Kashmir in 1965 and over Bangladesh in 1971. India’s first nuclear test was in 1974 and the country has since conducted several nuclear tests.

In the 1990s the finance minister made economic reforms making India more accessible for foreign investment. The country became prominent in the global software industry as well as becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Politics and Government

Post-British rule India’s constitution was enacted on 26 January 1950. It comprises 28 states and seven Union Territories. India chose to continue its membership of the Commonwealth following the formation of the constitution. The constitution offers citizens of India some basic freedoms.

  • More information on the fundamental rights protected by the constitution can be found on the Indian government online portal: Click here

India operates as a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government. A president is head of the union of states, and a prime minister is head of the government. The prime minister runs office with the support of the cabinet ministry. Each of the 28 states has an elected government with a governor as the head. The seven Union Territories are ruled directly by an administrator appointed by the president.

The main national political parties are the Indian National Congress (INC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

India’s judicial system began under British rule, so much of the theory, process and procedure continues to resemble the British judicial system.

Climate

India’s geographical diversity and immensity creates great variety in weather conditions across the country. The broad climatic zones are:

  • Tropical monsoon in south and west
  • Tropical savannah in central and south
  • Arid in north-west
  • Semi-arid in north-west and south
  • Humid subtropical in north and north-east
  • Montane in far north and far north-east Himalayas

The majority of India has a tropical monsoon climate, and there are four main seasons in the year:

  • Winter (December–early April). Temperatures average around 10–15 degrees Celsius in the north-west and be as high as 20-25 degrees Celsius in the south-east.
  • Summer (April–June). For the south and west of India the hottest month of the year is April. In the north the hottest month is May. Temperatures average around 32–40 degrees Celsius.
  • Monsoon (June–September). The monsoon rain arrives in the south of India in late May or early June and often is a welcome break from the intensity of the summer heat. Monsoon happens in the north of the country about six weeks later. Monsoon rainfall varies from year to year. Some years the rain will be torrential and other years the rain will be much lighter. Average temperatures vary from 27–36 degrees Celsius.
  • Post-monsoon (October–December). The weather is moderate with sunny, cloudless skies. Many tourists visit India at this time of year. Average temperatures are 13–28 degrees Celsius.

The climate of India is affected by a wind system known as Asiatic monsoon. This wind system blows from different directions at different points in the year. The winter, or north-east monsoon, wind blows from land to sea. The summer, or south-west monsoon, wind blows from sea to land. This south-west monsoon brings much of the monsoon rain between June and September.

  • The India Meteorological Department has information about climate as well as local weather reports and links to weather forecasts: Click here

Security

In recent years there has been some terrorist activity in India, and known terrorist groups are still active. It is strongly recommended that travel to Jammu and Kashmir is avoided due to political terrorist threat. National governments around the world indicate other current travel restrictions and recommendations on their websites.

India ranks tenth in the world’s highest reported crime rates. Petty theft is common on public transport. Valuables, including passport and credit or debit cards, should be safeguarded at all times. Violent crime towards foreigners is generally uncommon although there has been a small increase in recent years.

Women should exercise particular caution when travelling alone in India and are advised to respect local dress and customs. Sexual offences towards women have been reported.

  • General advice for women travelling alone is available from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website: Click here

Foreigners can often be the subject of “scams” in India. This can include being taken to the wrong hotel, prolonged taxi rides or unrequested tours. Foreigners should be particularly alert to such scams in areas frequented by tourists, particularly airports, train stations and places of interest.

Foreigners Living in the Country

It is estimated that in 2010 there were 5.4 million foreign-born people living in India, the overwhelming majority of whom are from other south Asian countries. Only around 40,000 westerners live and work in the country. Key cities for expatriates are Bangalore (IT), New Delhi and Mumbai (finance). India offers a relatively low cost of living for most expats.

Although India’s middle class is growing there is still a great divide between rich and poor. About 35 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day. Poverty cannot be avoided in India and can often be overwhelming for those new to the country. Begging is common, particularly in known tourist areas, and foreign visitors should be prepared to be pestered. Beggars can often be very young children or people with severe disabilities, and can be particularly persistent with westerners.

  • Information on immigration in India is available from the Bureau of Immigration website: Click here
  • For support for foreigners from the Ministry of Home Affairs Foreigners Division: Click here
  • The Indian government online portal has a handbook of information for foreigners: Click here

Tourism

India has a booming tourist industry. In 2010, 5.78 million foreign tourists visited the country, an 11.8 percent growth on the previous year.

Tourists are attracted to the wealth of culture, heritage, landscape and spirituality that India offers, from famous buildings like the Taj Mahal in Agra to the beaches in Goa and Kerala. Sacred locations include Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh. For trekking and mountaineering, the Himalayas are ideal terrain.

  • See India’s official tourist website for opportunities for tourists: Click here
  • For further information about tourism destinations in India, see the section on Local Tourism in India