Bollywood Novacaine and the Dull Pain of Poverty

November 4, 2011 5:50 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

And so the issue of poverty has reared its inconvenient head once again. The Planning Commission has put the poverty line at 32 rupees a day. Ludicrously low. But playing fast and loose with India’s poverty line has almost become a trendy pastime.

The truth is that poverty is an embarrassment. It is an embarrassment to many of India’s rich and to a good number of politicians who like to portray the country as an emerging superpower, with its space programme, sophisticated weaponry, sports towns, growth figures, Formula 1 race track and gleaming malls. India also houses the second largest number of affluent people, with three million households having over USD one lakh of investible funds. While this represents just 1.25 per cent of households, it is again the kind of phenomenon that some love to promote as part the myth of India sitting at the top table of nations.

Reality check. One in four people in India is hungry and every second child is underweight and stunted. India is 67th out of 88 countries listed in last year’s global hunger index. The 2010 Multidimensional Poverty Index indicated 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.

Instead of concentrating on GDP growth figures, how about we focus on the annual poverty alleviation figure? The former fluctuates between eight and nine per cent, while the latter is 0.8 per cent, virtually the same as it was 20 years ago. The sacred scripture of free market \’trickle-down\’ dogma has not delivered.

But, hold on a minute. The eight or nine per cent GDP economic growth figures tell us that India is thriving. Right? Wrong. The rich in India are thriving, but the poor, and these days given the inflationary pressures, the middle classes too, are struggling to get by. If the growth figures tell us anything, it is that they – the poor and large sections of the middle class – are paying for the lifestyles of India’s rich.

Step inside the gated communities or a plush 27-storey one billion dollar plus Mumbai house and arrive in a Forbes nightmare world of privilege and wealth. Step inside the brand spanking new shopping malls, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in London or New York, with the plastic food joints, bland international chains and an air-conditioned Macburger world of cola dens and coffee bars. These swish temples of modernity are a statement of perhaps where India wanted to be, of where part of India thinks it now is.

India is capitalism’s success story, or so the media tell us. But the logic of capitalism is to drive down costs and increase profits. Politicians in the West are trying to change perceptions of India among their own populations. They are attempting to eradicate the notion of it being a land of call centres and BPOs that takes jobs from the West and replace it with the idea that trade between India and the West is a two-way relationship that is creating jobs, growth and higher living standards for all concerned.

The reality is somewhat different. For example, the recent deal struck between India and the US for Harley-Davidsons will not benefit plants in the US because a new assembly unit in India is to be built. Setting up shop in India not only leads to the use of cheap labour, who were no doubt booted off their land at some stage, but also puts downward pressure on existing labour costs in the West. It\’s a win-win situation for CEOs and shareholders alike.

I suppose that servicing the well-to-do by providing them with Harleys, overpriced coffee and i-phones is what ‘development’ is all about, for some. However, the urban-centric, urban-chic ‘new’ India of retail centres, luxury motorcycles and consumerism is largely built on the 80 per cent that exist on less than two dollars a day.

On his recent visit to India last year, it was noticeable that Obama and his entourage had little to say about these people. Not much was said about India\’s warped development that creates rich-list billionaires while maintaining many urban and agricultural workers in dire poverty. There seems to be no invite, no reservation at the top table, no impending arrival at destination corporate-driven-nirvana for those people and others like them.

In the West, workers\’ jobs and wages are heading one way – downwards. In large parts of India, with increasing food costs, things are just as tough. Listening to political leaders you\’d be hard pressed to notice though. They and the media are adept in twisting the truth and passing off such things to their respective populations as necessary blips in the journey towards to some cheap con-trick notion of the promised-land.

There is a shift in power occurring across the world – from the poor and less well off to the rich. And India is not escaping this phenomenon. When politicians speak of ‘inclusive growth’, it is nice talk. But that’s all it is. How could it be anything else with the government continuing to sell India to Western financial and corporate interests under that benign term ‘structural adjustment’?

But poverty can always be brushed aside, can’t it? There’s always Bollywood novacaine or the latest rich list to distract or dull the pain. Better still – the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen in drawing a new poverty line will do just fine.

This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald on 13/10/2011


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This post was written by Colin Todhunter

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