India’s inequality and destructive development

Indian inequality

By Graham Peebles

The “new” India is racing towards the altar of materialism and market fundamentalism, abandoning its hallmark of spirituality, its philosophical treasures and any notion of unity, justice and service.

Under the careful guidance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund the Indian government has for the last 20 years or so – during which time inequality has doubled – embraced market liberalization and the global market, garlanded corporations with all manner of subsidies and damned the poor to greater poverty, destitution, suffering and suicide.

In a country of 1.2 billion people and counting, all the numbers are mega. Seen through corporate-tinted spectacles, India is a marketplace unlike any other and, provided business doors stay open 24/7, the international community – meaning the USA and its bedmates – will allow India to occupy Kashmir, murder, rape and displace the needy, and further marginalize the already marginalized.

Have-nots and billionaires

There are, according to Arundhati Roy, around 450 million Indians living in dire poverty, the equivalent of the combined poor of all the countries of Africa. Dire poverty means surviving on just 12 rupees (30 US cents) a day or less and does not allow for anything other than bare survival.

Is it possible to be healthy on such a sum – to eat nutritiously or to eat at all, to drink clean water, sleep in clean clothes on a clean bed, brush your teeth with toothpaste, wear shoes while working or retain ones dignity? All “normal”, recognizable requirements of living are regarded as luxuries, the divine seen as a fresh loaf of bread, and men, women and children shrouded in anxiety and despair, condemned to a life of drudgery and exploitation.

But among the ugliness and agony of such widespread poverty there is “good” news – billions of it: the fabulous Forbes list of money-men places India fourth in the world league table of the largest number of billionaires – 61 at the last count with a combined wealth of 250 billion US dollars. These are, incidentally, “rich billionaires”, unlike the German or Japanese ones, who are “poor” by comparison. In addition to these billionaires, there are around 200,000 dollar-millionaires, and between them they run the massive Indian corporations that in turn run India.

Middlemen and women

While half a billion men, women and children crawl through life on their 30 cents a day, a river of rupees flows ceaselessly into the judiciary, the body politic and the corporate lakes. As Arandhati Roy says, wealth is concentrated “onto the tip of a shinning pin on which our billionaires pirouette”. Indeed, in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to a quarter of the GDP.

Power and rupees move unceasingly into the pockets of the wealthy and mega rich, who are boosted by an “economic system that ensures the flow of wealth goes upwards via what academic David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”. This flow feeds a new middle class, estimated to be between 30 and 50 million people – professionals and semi-professionals who have adapted to hallowed capitalist values.

To the delight of Western corporations, there is “a huge market being created for the white goods and automobile makers, [and] huge demand for the products”, Rajesh Shukla of the Centre for Macro Consumer Research excitedly proclaims. Mention of such “demand” sends tremors of excitement and anticipation through businesses small and large, while the people of Orissa and Kashmir, Jharkhand and West Bengal starve and are displaced, raped and persecuted.

In an economic world that sees everything through the simplistic prism of markets and profits, nation states are recognized as vast department stores, markets to be exploited until exhausted and returns maximized, the natural environment stripped of all that is of value. As for the ordinary people – the rural poor who make up 70 per cent of the population and those who crowd into the glowing, overcrowded filthy cities – it’s survival for the fittest

Growing inequality, deepening poverty

Hailed as an economic miracle, India is ranked by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 129th out of 146 countries on the Human Development Index. The number of poor people in the country has barely fallen over a 30-year period. According to India Today, the poor in rural India were better fed 30 years ago. By the government’s own figures, 50 per cent of the rural population (836 million people) live in poverty, surviving somehow on less than 50 US cents a day – that is, 20 cents more than those in “dire poverty” but still not what one would call comfortable. Furthermore, according to Indian government figures, child malnutrition stands at 46 per cent – the highest in the world. In fact, India comes 73rd out of 88 countries in the annual Global Hunger Index – six places lower than the previous year. The 2010 Multidimensional Poverty Index showed that Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have 421 million poor people.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, India has the “the highest number of poor in the world”, with the top 10 per cent earning 12 times that of the bottom 10 per cent compared to six times 20 years ago, i.e. inequality under the economic miracle is growing apace. There are sub-divisions within the divisions as inequality stalks the land – for example, with the urban wealthy spending 221 per cent more than their rural rich cousins, a chasm between the city comfortable and the rural desperate that is approaching cosmic proportions.

Such are the contradictions – and we have barely scratched the surface – in a country where a mere 1-3 per cent, according to Palagummi Sainath, have enjoyed “unprecedented success due to economic reforms”. The big growth story, he maintains, is inequality, which has “grown faster than any time in the last 50 years”, promising to cause the eath of democracy.

Still it’s not all bad news: the richest billionaires in the world are Indian and the world’s most expensive “house” – Antilla, a 27-story residential abomination, is in Mumbai. It is built for India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, whose personal wealth is said to be 20 billion dollars. He holds a controlling share in Reliance Industries Ltd, which has interests in businesses ranging from oil to stem cell storage, supermarkets to schools and, of course, the media.

Everything, everyone, everywhere

Throughout India there is systematic movement towards the commercialization of the countryside, the raping of the land for its bounty and the commoditization of each and every part of human existence. All of this is impelled by the government, which is happy to channel corporate propaganda and instil it in every mind and in every village in India.

The inevitable and unfortunate consequence is the death and destitution of obstacles to market fundamentalism – mainly the Adivasi and Dalit people who are demonized as Maoist terrorists by a government waging war not on terror but on its own marginalized and disadvantaged citizens. In this situation, to talk of human rights, social justice or environmental concerns is to talk humbug in the face of a capitalist crusade that has might on its side.

To its advocates, this is a model that is unchallengeable and beyond alternatives ideas of sharing and justice. It is a model that is bathed in a misty glow of polished yet polluted uniformity, one where the individual is absorbed into the consumer collective and told where to shop, what to buy, how to love and in which colour, what to think and when to think it and, if in doubt, tune into your local multinational media outlet for an update on corporate global acceptability.

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