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Short Fiction: Two Views of a Street

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I.

The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.

Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.

It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.

At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.

Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!

As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”

Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”

Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.

“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”

“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”

“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.

Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”

Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.

Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.

Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”

Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”

“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.

“No, not really…”

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be rich like you.”

“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”

At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”

“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.

“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.

“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”

“They’re fine,” said Kumar.

Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.

“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”

“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”

Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.

“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”

Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”

“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”

Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.

This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.

Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.

Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.

Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”

Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”

Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”

Mohan was silent.

Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”

Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”

Parvati was silent.

The driver heard everything.

II.

On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.

He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.

It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.

Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.

“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.

“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”

This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.

Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.

“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”

She grinned a gap-toothed smile.

“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”

In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.

“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.

“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”

Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.

Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.

“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”

Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.

When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.

“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”

Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”

“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”

“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”

“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”

Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”

Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”

Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”

They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.

Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.

Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”

His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”

He left and returned.

“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”

Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Flowchart: How to Rip Off the Poor

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Courtesy of Mint.com

TheShaft-5
budget planner – Mint.com

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm

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India: Progress and Development

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Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.

And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of  thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.

“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.

“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded,  “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”

It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.

But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.

“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.

Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.

But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.

This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):

About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.

And another view:

Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.

At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?

The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.

On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!

Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.

The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!

Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.

It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?

“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”

He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”.  But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.

India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further  away from whatever independence it may have gained.

And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!

India!

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India! Where the streets run yellow
With the urine of every fellow
Horns blare loud, and crowds roar large,
Where pollution and apathy paint a collage!

India! Thou hast reached your limit
Of people – 5,000 born every minute!
Well, no matter, you’ll make them room,
If it gets too crowded – send the poor to the moon!

India! Bullock cart and airplane!
Where life is a misery, and life is a game!
Light and darkness live side-by-side
And you know one takes the other for a ride!

India! Giant caught in a lurch
Both modern and rural, and you know which is worse!
With coal and petrol, you move farther away,
They’ll never run out – or then, so you say

India! Adidas, Reebok and Nike
Creep their way into your national psyche!
The British have left,  but 60 years hence,
You still view it all through the imperial lens!

India! oh, the world’s largest slum
Where two meals a day means having great fun!
Skyscrapers tower, and tents sprawl beside
And the one and the other will never coincide!

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm

The Food Stamp Queue

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I have often heard people remark, “If things are so bad, where are the bread lines?”

Observe:

Food Stamp Participation

There they are!

Written by pavanvan

December 13, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Capitalism in India

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Walking down an Indian thoroughfare in 2009 will strike anyone with previous experience of the country — something has changed. It isn’t so much the visible poverty, the pollution, or the surging, unceasing crowds; having grown, they still resemble their 1990s counterparts. Nor should the lawless traffic, the variety of vehicles, or the belches of black smoke they exude come as very much of a surprise. The rickshaws have multiplied, the cities sprawl, the population grows by, oh, 50,000 per day, but this is all very much as it has been. But one can now buy from any major US or European business; and therein lies the difference.

At the screening of a film on climate change, an audience member remarked, “Three years ago, in Hyderabad, there wasn’t a single shopping mall. Now there are eight on Banjara Hills Road alone. The city probably has twenty by now.” And so it does; great glittering concrete towers dot the dusty roads advertising McDonalds, Adidas, Gucci, and a hundred other brands.  Naomi Klein, in her excellent No Logo, attested that “the most successful corporations don’t sell products. They sell brands.” By that standard the Euro-American conglomerates who have wormed their way to the subcontinent have seen wide success indeed.

Wearing Reebok shoes, owning a Ford automobile, sporting Levi’s and sipping your Coke blares a clear message to the unwashed Indian masses: “I am not one of you. I have made it.” It is undeniable that association with western brands immediately elevates one, sets one apart from the teeming peasants below. They, after all, must wear no-name brands, and many consider themselves lucky to own one set of clothes. Living side by side as they do, the rich and poor occupy wholly different worlds, each as alien to the other as it would be to the moon.

An outgrowth of Indian capitalism which seems to be on everyone’s lips these days is the dreaded mining mafia. Consisting of large mineral firms and small scavenger operations, this interest group acts wholly outside Indian law, though nearly every lawmaker is in on the deal. Their power stems from the vaunted “deregulation” India underwent in the 1990s. The Indian Government  sold its mining operations then to private corporations at ridiculously low rates. These companies turned around and began exploiting their newly acquired resources at fantastic profit. Many of these mines lie on ‘tribal areas’ – undeveloped forests where dwindling communities carry out a traditional, pre-industrial lifestyle. With their new lease on ‘development’, the mining conglomerates began brutally clearing forests and villages, eager for the valuable minerals below. The villagers organized and fought back in an attempt to preserve their homes, at which point India began its notorious “Operation Green Hunt“, a devastating offensive using modern weaponry on landless farmers, much in the manner of America in Pakistan. Here, too, government acts only in the interest of the wealthy.

A typical report from Operation Green Hunt:

Gachanpalli is a small village some 30 km from the town of Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. According to witnesses, the security forces raided Gachanpalli sometime in late October. They allegedly killed Madvi Admaya, Madkam Sulaya, Madvi Joga, Kovasi Gangaya, Madkam Moiyi. Witnesses say four of the five men were past 60 and too old to escape into the jungle. Madkam Moiyi was apparently crippled and incapable of walking. They were said to have been bayoneted and shot to death in the middle of the village.

Or take, for instance, the actions of Coca-Cola, a brand much beloved in India, whose customers number in the tens of millions:

Tests conducted by a variety of agencies, including the government of India, confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained high levels of pesticides, and as a result, the Parliament of India has banned the sale of Coca-Cola in its cafeteria. However, Coca-Cola not only continues to sell drinks laced with poisons in India (that could never be sold in the US and EU), it is also introducing new products in the Indian market. And as if selling drinks with DDT and other pesticides to Indians was not enough, one of Coca-Cola’s latest bottling facilities to open in India, in Ballia, is located in an area with a severe contamination of arsenic in its groundwater.

One could multiply such examples. The corruption here would shock and disgust anyone used to its coy western counterpart. It is not uncommon for high-ranking officials to retire with tens of millions of dollars in bribes. India’s graft bears striking resemblance to “campaign donations” in the US, but it remains much more powerful, and impossibly more open. In India, enough money can induce the government to overlook anything.

This is a land of beggars and billionaires, where a single person could eliminate hunger, child labor, and slavery if he chose. “Some people in this country have trillions of rupees!” a friend of mine remarked, “They could feed every homeless man here, for generations! Why don’t they?” I admit I could not answer, but if pressed I would say: “Because the poor are invisible in this country.” How many times one sees a well-dressed young man avert his eyes to a destitute on the street! How often one hears a wealthy businessman arguing with a cab driver over what amounts to a few cents! India has finally imbibed that spirit of the free market (“make as much money as you can, and screw everyone else”). Thus, no one pays much attention to the plight of the poor in India. “They’ll get on as they always have, why should I share with them?” seems the overriding sentiment.

In many ways, perhaps more than can be counted here, India mirrors America of the early 20th century. As then, one sees now in India a burgeoning middle class, a vast nouveau riche who can live like kings for the first time. Again, one sees the same disregard for environmentalism or even basic cleanliness, typified by India’s refusal to cut carbon emissions, but truly brought home by the clouds of car exhaust that permeate every major city and the rotting piles of refuse on every street corner. America in the 1950s, before the Clean Air and Water Acts, was incomparably dirty, where open sewage flowed into rivers, where one car in twenty had a catalytic converter, where factories and power plants blew their unfiltered smoke into the shifting winds. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, the American ghettos were a terrible blight upon their cities, the chasm between rich and poor yawned wide, and one could still encounter open starvation on the streets. Just as one can in India today.

India resembles a spacecraft entering a black hole. As it crosses the event horizon, the front of the craft accelerates faster than the rear, causing it to stretch (theoretically) to an infinite length. The rich in India have become unimaginably richer in the past two decades, while the poor have seen no such gains. Much as the Rockefellers and Morgans of old, the Ambanis and Tatas of today’s India race ahead, amassing billions and trillions of rupees, while the rest of the country makes do with mere thousands. Just as in America, this is ceasing to present a problem. No longer do large sums of money taint one as corrupt, a thief – on the contrary, many young Indians today thirst for the chance to become the next Ambani, to make the next billion. It has become a national obsession, if such a thing can be said to exist.

One need look no further than the legion of “computer science” students choking the halls of every Indian university for evidence. The students I have spoken with give no particular reason as to why they should choose computer science; in fact, they invariably betray a strong distaste for the subject, but it is the easiest way to get a job and the surest way to find a place in America, so students flock to those programs by the million.

And so it goes, the steady, unyielding rhythms of India of old making way for the hyper-consumerist capitalism of New India. Yet more than one half of the country has been left behind. More than 500 million have no regular food supplies, no access to clean water. 400 million are illiterate. Today, the population mired in poverty is greater than the entire population of India in 1947, at independence.

But what grand eloquence we hear on India’s so-called “development”!

India: A Local Perspective

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A young man on the street was gracious enough to share his opinions regarding India:

“Corruption is endemic here. Let’s say, for example, I get stopped by the police. I jumped a red light. Now I can either take the ticket, around Rs. 1000 or so, or I can simply bribe the policeman, say Rs. 200. Who, I ask you, would prefer to pay the ticket? 99.9% of us will just give the bribe and  be done with it. That sort of thing simply cannot happen in America.”

“Oh yes, income inequality is still huge, still a major problem, but I think there is reason to believe it is getting better. If you came here, say, 10 years ago, you would have seen it a lot worse. Come in another 10 years or so, and you’ll likely see it less. Can poverty ever be truly eradicated here? Probably not. The rich are getting a lot richer in this country; they have been for the past two decades. The poor have not seen anything like that; life for the bottom has continued in much the same way.”

“Pollution… well, what can you say about a people who throw their trash on the ground and then blithely forget it? These are cultural problems, but they are also political problems. You think there isn’t enough money to make it so that people don’t have to beg? You think we lack the knowledge and manpower – I mean, you think it’s beyond us to construct a decent municipal trash system, to make sure the sewer reaches all areas of the city, to make regularized trash pickup a basic right? Of course it isn’t, but the political will to enact such programs just isn’t there. The vested interests who run our political system would rather see our resources to go different ends. Their ends. Look at New York City – every vehicle has a catalytic converter, trash is superbly managed – hell, there’s a trash can on every street corner. We’re a long way from that.”

“In fact, I would say we in India are about 100 years behind the West.”

(At this, I demurred.)

“No, certainly we are! The things you take for granted there – social security, regularized pensions, food banks, homeless shelters, scrupulous policeman; we have none of those here. P. Sainath said that all the judges and magistrates in India don’t have the power of a single police constable, and he said it right. We hardly even have a sense of ourselves as a nation, as such. We would much rather identify with smaller communal structures: Religion, race, caste, social status, and so forth. What do the Indian billionaires really have in common with the destitute on the street? Not a damn thing.”

“But – and here is the rub – we are all implicated! Take the example of the policeman. Who will say they have never given a bribe?  I know I have. Our politicians – we say they are corrupt, we complain and moan, but in the end who elected them? We did. It is a vicious circle, without a beginning or end.”

“Perhaps I misspoke, however. If I could point to a beginning of the circle, it would surely be the population. All of our problems stem from that. But again, it is a cultural problem. Everyone gets married here; it is basically a law. And if you get married and don’t have kids, people will immediately assume something is wrong. The gossip one hears! ‘Cheh, did you hear so-and-so still hasn’t had a child? They’ve been married for more than a year! I think his wife may be infertile. Such a shame, such a shame!” One cannot escape talk like that, and one cannot, I think, live with it for more than a short time. So we are compelled to have children by a thousand different pressures. And one is not enough, you must have at least two! And woe unto you if they turn out to be girls, especially if you’re poor! In that case the dominant strategy is to just keep having children until a boy turns up. What can you do in the face of that? We distribute condoms, but nobody uses them – we hold sessions on family planning, but no one shows up.”

“About the future, I am not too optimistic. Our pollution corresponds directly with our need for an “affluent lifestyle”, and there is no getting away from it. We rely on coal to an alarming extent. Our population keeps growing and there seems no power strong enough to check it. 40% of our population is under the age of 30, but that is both a blessing and a curse. What will we do in ten years when they all start to want families?”

Written by pavanvan

November 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm

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