Friday, September 28, 2007

India 'Shining' - my bloomin' arse

Warning: Highly cynical post ahead.

The other day, a friend of mine called me over to this pub where a few new Indian students were meeting up. One of the people at this little gathering was this girl who was, I was informed, a political science graduate from rather a respected university. Though I am no more than a dilettante in affairs political as a Computer Scientist, we got into a discussion.

'India is shining, you know... it's the Indian century and all that. We have reason to be optimistic.', said she, almost shamelessly plagiarising from the Goldman Sachs report.

I decided to ask her why she felt that way. She went on, 'Oh, you know, there are so many malls. Now, even Marks and Spencers has come to India. Brand India has gone global. Tata is one of the world's biggest steelmakers, and an Indian like Mittal is so obscenely rich. I mean, who would have thought we could get a McDonalds burger or chicken wings from KFC in 1991! There's this new breed of Indians; hungry, brash and spending. You should see all the cars in ' .

As she waxed eloquent - perched inside her ivory tower - oblivious and blind to the poverty of the vast majority of our countrymen, I was reminded of another conversation I had with another girl of my acquaintaince a few months earlier, where she spoke with astonishing naivety on how India was almost a developed country because of IT, 'outsourcing', luxury condos, McDonalds, Walmart and malls. Oh, and I almost forgot about how she believed sweatshop owners in Tirupur who cynically exploit their workers in blatant contravention of labour laws and the Geneva convention (let's not talk of their tax evasion) are actually helping the poor.

No, my post is not about the almost criminal ignorance of the middle-class Indian in her glasshouse, but about how anybody can possibly think India is 'shining'.

Just to start with, let's take a look at everything the media (particularly the trashy tabloids) seem to be going on and on about:

1. The economic powerhouse that is India:

Yeah for IT - now us Indians can buy so many different kinds of cars! Oh yes, let's not concern ourselves too much with the fact that inequality levels are 14 percent worse today than they were in 1991.

The fourth and fifth richest men in the world are Indian (Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Nivas Mittal). Who cares then that 77% of our population - that's almost 800 million people - leave on less than Rs. 20 a day?

Why do we, as the educated middle class, continue to ignore the poverty that stares us in our face. I wrote a few months ago about a dispossessed vegetable seller called Pandian. Why do we ignore the Pandians of this country?

Before anybody starts talking of the trickle-down effect (the aforementioned girl at the pub did), could somebody please tell me why there's a rise in inequality?! Why is that, sixty years on, 77% of us do not have the means to live a decent life free of want?

2. 'The political climate is changing. Gandhigiri and the Right to Information (RTI) act are revolutionising the way the country is run!'

How desperate (or stupid) must one be to clutch to a straw as weak as Gandhigiri, an inane concept introduced in a Bollywood potboiler starring a man convicted to six years in prison. As for RTI, why hasn't RTI found Rajan's body yet? Why was Rajan killed in the first place?

And Rajan is not alone. Everyday, millions of us face abuse and pain at the hands of our protectors, the police force. For some of us, especially the more economically disadvantaged, it's worse.

3. 'Feel Good'

People who use the phrase 'feel good' should watch this video to see what 'feel good' is all about - a cynical spin put on events!

If things were so good for everybody, where have the Maoists found the groundswell of support for their movement; so much so that Maoists control 28% of India's districts.

Why is it that there are insurgencies in Kashmir and the North-east of the country? A foreign power cannot sustain an insurrection for very long without support from the local populace (as the collapse of the Khalistan movement illustrates).

4. Reservation and all that kind of thing:

Starting with Devraj Urs and the cynically evil Mrs. G (version 1), caste has risen to take its place as the new class, with VP Singh making it all the worse, and Arjun Singh adding the final touches. So much so that as a forward caste Hindu, a person like me is among the most underprivileged in society.

(Of course, if one looks back far enough, one can see where our brown Sahibs have perfected the technique from - Lord Curzon and the division of Bengal, anyone?)

If this wasn't enough division, and the Hindus and Muslims didn't hate each other enough already, the honourable Mr. Sachchar is working towards reservation for Muslims as well. This is such a cynical gambit I'm surprised Muslim leaders don't see through it themselves.

Indian Muslims are poor and under-educated, and they're discriminated against (watch the Channel 4 documentary on India where a security guard in Mumbai proudly proclaims that Muslims are 'not allowed' in a housing development if you want to see what I mean). The solution would be to deal with the roots of the prejudice, and to try heal the scars of an unnecessary partition of the country.

Instead, what Sachchar does is to highlight their grievances, tell them they're ill-treated in this country, and make them feel worse than they already do (with some justification). And then, hand them reservation; so that the Hindus perceive the Muslims as different, even more than they did before. The upshot: an 'us-and-them' mentality, ripe for exploitation in the name of vote-bank politics.

So, is this the kind of society I would like my child to grow up in? Where he is told of his religion and caste every single step of the way? Where he finds, like I did when I was 17, that some doors are closed for Hindus who were unfortunate enough to be born into a forward caste? I would hope not...

To leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, do read Rajeev Srinivasan's excellent piece!

Does India still shine, or have you managed to get your rose-tinted glasses off?