A shining India can't mask its poverty worse than Africa's

Last Updated 15 July 2010, 16:21 IST

A strong theme that emerged to help explain the BJP-led government’s subsequent election defeat was the failure to acknowledge that most of India was certainly not shining and that there were in fact two Indias — a smaller Coffee MacDay, Barristo swilling stratum and a larger threadbare India struggling to get by.

In the West, politicians and economists at the World Bank were quick to jump on the ‘India shining’ bandwagon, heralding India as some kind of economic miracle. There was a great deal of talk about India’s huge middle class and falling poverty, and much of the media in the West zoomed in on the glitz of Bollywood, India’s IT parks and the rising conspicuous consumption of the Indian middle classes.

From a land of elephants, poverty and beggars, a shiny new image of India emerged in the West. Farmers drinking pesticide, 800 million or so on less than two dollars a day, increasing food prices and state-corporate grabs for land and minerals — that was all conveniently brushed aside. It didn’t fit the agenda of India as the new chic.

A similar process was also occurring in the UK. The spit and polish was applied in an attempt to gloss over those parts that were not shining. It started a little earlier there — in 1997 to be precise, when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power.

Tony was hip, Tony was cool. He was tuned in and turned on to the meaningless ‘cool Britannia’ soundbite manufactured by the media at that time. Brits were told that it was cool to be British and to bask in their achievements in music, industry and youthful endeavour.

Suddenly, from a country still reeling from the destruction of manufacturing industry, coupled with rising crime and community erosion, the UK was transformed overnight to a ‘can-do’ place of individual endeavour. Whatever happened to the permanent class of wageless labour and the legacy of 11 years of Thatcherite rule?
Children growing up in the UK were on the road to suffering greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and exposure to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world. That too was neatly brushed aside by the spin doctors and a compliant mainstream media.

In both the UK and India, it was the creamy layer that was shining. Millionaires and billionaires were on the increase. Even over the last year, in a period of crisis and recession, the richest portion of UK society increased its wealth by around $120 billion — that’s almost half the public debt that ordinary working people are having to pay for via public sector cutbacks.

So when prime minister Cameron and the rich bankers and financiers who hold the key positions in his government tell us in the UK that we are all in it (the hardships) together, some of us are a heck of a lot more ‘in it’ than others.

A new index for poverty now indicates that eight Indian states account for more poor people than in the 26 poorest African countries combined. According to this measure, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have 421 million poor people. This is more than the 410 million poor in the poorest African countries.

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) measures a range of deprivations at household levels. Developed by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) with UN support, it assesses various factors aside from income, such as education, health, assets and access to services.

The government and statisticians from the World Bank have consistently told us that poverty has fallen quite dramatically in India. It suits the ‘trickle down’ ideology of neo-liberalism. The late economist J K Galbraith was no advocate of ‘trickle down’ — he merely envisaged a ‘trickle out’ effect.

He warned India not to dive headfirst into global capitalism because of the foolishness of feeding a horse strawberries and expecting the masses to feed off what comes out the other end.

Cool Britannia? Forget it. You can forget India shining too, at least as far as the bulk of the population is concerned. Because, in India, as in the UK, some are much more ‘in it’ than others. If we use the Galbraith analogy — in it up to their necks!

(Published 15 July 2010, 16:21 IST)

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