India Glitters but Is It All Gold There?
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA


India had always been there, doing what it had to do. Only the West, especially the USA, discovered it after the tragedy of 9/11. Before September 11, Washington did not see much positive happening in India (India’s alignment with Russia and its non-aligned posture), now it does not see anything retrogressive there, not even its 650-700million poor. The West has a habit of making such discoveries.
Once they saw Iran as the embodiment of progress, and projected it as the policeman of Asia; today it stands labeled as the axis of evil! The Economist, March 3 and June 9), the Newsweek, (March 6), the Foreign Policy( May-June), and the Time ( June 26) not once, but repeatedly have rung the bells of India’s unprecedented economic progress, telling the world, that India after China is the face of progress and “all that glitters in India is gold”.
On the contrary, the Economist of July 8 opens its 10-page indictment on Pakistan with the following sentence, “Think about Pakistan, and you might get terrified. Few countries have so much potential to cause trouble, regionally and worldwide…One-third of its 165m people live in poverty, and only half of them are literate…” Is it India’s luck or its economic policies that have changed the world perception in its favor so dramatically? In the words of Harvard professor Richard B. Freeman, determining which economies have best prospects for success, “luck seems as key as economic policies”.
If the data supplied by the economists is more than mere anecdotes, then Pakistan with all its sins also deserves a positive mention. At the time of Independence, no other country started from a mere scratch, not even any country in Africa, than did Pakistan. As of today, it is still ahead of India in its GDP per head by $119 (India at $728 and Pakistan at $847); India’s GDP growth at 7.7% is just 1% ahead of Pakistan’s 6.6% (and Pakistan is just behind China, India and Brazil); India’s foreign reserves at $153.6bn are a little ahead of Pakistan’s $13bn when viewed in relation to the population ratio between the two countries (Pakistan comes close to having $88bn with India’s population figure of 1.2 b); India’s official poverty % is at about 19%, while unofficially it ranges between 38%-58% while Pakistan’s official poverty rate is 23.5%, unofficially it is between 40%-60%). Such comparisons are meaningless because they cannot blindfold any honest observer of both the societies to the naked ground realities that in the pie of economic progress taking place on both sides, the poor simply have no share. They are just an abandoned specie.
There is no denying the fact that today India has the largest movie and TV watching audience in the world. India today can afford spending some 14 billion on luxury items. 80 million Indians carry cellular phones and some 2-5 million are lined up to have one. Nokia’s $39,000 worth Vertu Signature, studded with white platinum, is specially aimed at Indians. India is no more the “Bunia corner-shop” country. If in the year 2001 it had only 3 shopping malls, in 2005 it had 100, and by the end of year 2007 it will have more than 345.
In the words of Farid Zakaria, India “is a wonder to behold”. It has tactfully defused its differences with China. There was a time when China looked at India with apathy and suspicion, and India at China with distrust. Now both view each other as partners. According to Mr. Wen, India is willing to end its opposition to Chinese control over Tibet, and China is willing to tacitly recognize India’s claim to the Himalayan state of Sikkim. Both have become flexible in their attitudes. China is willing to remain neutral on the Kashmir issue, and is supportive of India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The real motivator behind all this love-lost is trade and commerce. The results are obvious. The Mandarins and the Brahmans, otherwise hard to budge an inch, are now somersaulting. Why Kashmir and not commerce are still a bone of contention between India and Pakistan?
The genii that has rubbed the Aladdin’s lamp in favor of India’s image, is not exclusively Manmohan Singh (he undoubtedly is an economic wizard, impeccable and matchless); it is India’s well-organized propaganda, its timely change in foreign policy after 9/11; its liberal economic policies and above all, its Bollywood songs, its gift of Pashmina shawls, and its bevy of mini-skirted beauties who dumped saris in the Indian ocean, and are now dancing to the pulsating Hindi tunes at places like Davos. A merry, raucous, boisterous, and democratic India is dreaming of becoming a partner with the world’s richest democracy, namely America. If the trend stays, as it seems it will, India may soon earn the same measure of confidence in the inner circles of America as Israel and Britain have. Besides, India has better chances of success because it is not a Muslim state.
Mian Nawaz Sharif, (not even 2% of what Manmohan Singh is), was the first, even before Mexico’s Salina, and India’s present PM, to introduce the concept of opening up the country’s economy, leading to free market and to the privatization of major industries. Where Salina and Nawaz Sharif failed, due to bad governance, inaptness, and personal corruption, Manmohan Singh succeeded. His character and honesty defeated all the charms of power. The question is, “Has Manmohan Singh succeeded even partially to wage and win the battle against poverty?” On the assumption of the office of PM, he had vowed, “We need reforms but with a human face”. Has the lot of those 650-700 million Indians living off the land in utter poverty improved by any measure?
In Andra Pradesh, according to Mr. C. S. Reddy, a welfare worker, “Marriages are breaking down, many farmers are turning to begging, and some are selling their children as domestic servants”. According to BBC of June 25, “More than 700 million live below poverty line, though the number of millionaires has arisen from 70,000 in 2005 to 83,000”. In the ranking of 155 countries, India still is at number 116, two places below the war-torn Iraq, and 56 below Pakistan. Its most populated state of Utter Pradesh (UP), with its 170m plus people would make it number six in the world if it were a separate country, includes 8% of the world’s poor; India’s 61% official literacy rate includes many who are barely able to write their names, and functionally are illiterate; Andra Pradesh which boasts of its 100% literacy, in fact includes in this figure those 45%, between the age of 14-45, who are illiterate by any definition. (By the way, this is true of Pakistan as well).
India is big and thirsty; so is Pakistan. In both countries, places of worship outnumber schools, colleges and hospitals. In India only 52% live in pakka houses and 39% live in one-room houses; in its total 249m houses, only 35% have a cemented floor; free supply of water means no water at all and some 60% families just don’t get water at home; and 32m households don’t have a source of water near their homes.
The Western magazines cited above say that while China would be rich and old; India would be rich and young. The statement is half true. India’s 402m are in the working age group, but are poor. So logically, India’s some would be awesomely rich; but its most would remain trapped in poverty. 65% Indians still do not have a bank account and its 44% don’t have electricity, reported India Today in 2003.
Shankar Aiyar in the June 9, 2003 edition of India Today reports: “Water is the biggest crisis facing India in terms of spread and severity… 100m people in 35 big cities face a 30% cut in water supply… water now precedes Roti, Kapra and Makaan… in cities which are the hub of progress, namely Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi, water is being rationed…the lives and livelihood of millions is at risk, and the nightmare has only just begun”. The Khapres leave their homes at dawn and spend most of the day looking for water… tubewell depths have plunged tenfold to 1,000ft to 1,200ft, and people borrow money on 36% -120% interest rate in water-thirsty states and finally are constrained to commit suicide, says Adavayya, a farmer in the village of Boppapura in Andhra Pradesh. Money lenders are minting money as banks are too busy dealing with Mittels, Ambanis and Amitabhs. India like Pakistan is basically rural, and no place better exposes the true face of India than Bihar (Southern Punjab, interior Sindh and Baluchistan in Pakistan are the litmus tests on our side). Just a visit to any rural dispensary and primary school will illustrate the emptiness of the economic boom taking place in both the countries.
According to Foreign Policy’s editor-in-chief, Mr. Moises Naim “economic disparities have not changed. Our tolerance for them has…the world has always suffered from economic inequality. But, despite all the conspicuous consumption, global inequality has not changed much”. If nine people out of ten make 100 rupees per day, and one makes one million, the average income of these ten people comes up to 10,090 rupees per day. This figure is deceptive because the ground reality is that nine out of these ten still make 100 rupees. The increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires does not mean reduction in the number of poor people.
The fact of the matter, as reported by the BBC on June 25, is that people of the lower caste have in desperation begun renting their wives, like you rent a car or an apartment, to the rich Patels at a rate of 8,000 rupees per month. Being poor in India and Pakistan means never having enough to eat; it means utter hunger; it also means hearing your children cry themselves to sleep because there is no roti or rice to give them; poverty also means being shelterless, living in the slums under constant fear of eviction from developers’ mafia; poverty also means not being able to afford a visit to the doctor. In short poverty means watching your child or wife die a senseless, but needless death from malnutrition or diarrhea brought on by unsafe drinking water. Poverty is not just lack of freedom or representation… poverty means living in the darkening shadows created by the full moonshine of this economic boom. The irony of the matter is that in this glitter and shine of economic prosperity “the wealthy seem to be leaving the impoverished further and further behind”. In Islam, the Qur’an labels such rich as, “The Rejecters of Faith”, and I am sure in Hinduism, there would certainly be words or phrases as strong as these for such callous rich.
What one US Supreme Court judge once said cryptically about obesity is equally true about poverty. “When I see it I know it”. When an adivasi starves to death in Bolangir or Kalahandi, when the widow of C. Pradesh, a weaver is driven to suicide; when Amrutbhai Sarasiya after having immersed himself in excrement to unclog a sewer in Ahmadabad in Gujrat gets rebuffed at all water wells to get some water to clean himself, and when Mr. Sukhadeo Thorat, a faculty member of Jawarlal Nehru University, an untouchable with a Ph.D. is constrained to insist, “You can try to disguise it, but there are so many ways to slip up, the scarlet tattoo of low-caste printed on their foreheads”; and when Manmohan Singh feels compelled to warn the CEOs of big companies to either change their practice of hiring only the privileged ones or the government would be constrained to step in, he definitely appears sounding a warning to the new and old rich, “What more sins you need to commit in the name of caste, merit and class?” he definitely is talking about the poor.
The fight against poverty is not always a war against inequality. Countries that do not arrange the fair distribution of their wealth, and either through corruption or inaptness, fail to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, or who never feel any moral compunction to invest heavily in the socio-eco-pol. sector have never succeeded in the last 25 years in ending or even reducing inequality and poverty. Moises Naim, points out SEVEN widely accepted tools to narrow inequality and reduction in poverty. They are: access to better education and health-care; availability of clean water; justice; stability in jobs; provision of reasonable housing; and finally, and most importantly, easily available credit facility for the poor. In the absence of these seven basic tools which mostly become a good fodder for a rousing election speech, no tax and labor reforms; no amount of protection of property rights and subsidies as allurements, and no foolproof price controls etc can be effective.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the world’s best economist confidently says, “We can banish extreme poverty in our generation - yet 8 million people die each year because they are too poor to survive. The tragedy is that with a little help, they could even thrive”. He classifies poverty as a disease, an epidemic, and therefore demands a clinical and not a theoretical approach. Anirudh Krishna, in his article, “Why preventing poverty beats curing it? categorically underpins the cause, “I found that health and healthcare expenses are the leading cause for people’s reversal of fortune…millions of people are living one illness away from financial disaster, and the world’s aid efforts are ill-suited to the challenge. A hundred years ago rich nations were nine times more affluent than poor countries, now they are 100 times. It is no consolation to say that poor had always been with us. The time has come to find answers of why many are so poor and a few so rich. The pro-reform Guru, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, is right on target when he says that no investment can deliver any meaningful changes in the society if it by passes health, education and malnutrition.
If a lorry truck takes eight days, including 32 hours waiting at checkpoints from Kalkota to Mumbai, Indians can still survive and smile; what it cannot and should not put up with is its 40% of the world’s poor living in it, and it earning the title of the world’s second largest HIV infected population. India has a democracy; a wonderful constitution and a comparatively honest judiciary. Above all, it has a leader like Manmohan Singh, and a whole Western world ready to act as cheerleader while it plays. If India succeeds in reducing poverty, Pakistan will follow suit. Only both need to learn to TRUST each other.

 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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