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Friday, November 1, 2013

Explaining India's poverty and slavery: a neglected narrative

(First published by Asia Times Online on Oct 31 2013, as 'How Indians keep themselves poor', this article was also subsequently carried by Foreign Policy Journal.)

Amid persistently high poverty and now ‘slavery’, much of the vocal Indian middle and upper class has got the diagnosis itself of the nagging problems wrong. As middle and upper class live in denial about their role in sustaining status quo and the poor seek solace in alcohol, delinquency and godmen, the roots of India’s problems extend beyond corrupt politicians.

The report by Walk Free Foundation pointing to India as the country of nearly half the world's modern day slaves recently caught headlines in the media across world. But that is not quite surprising to anyone closely observing today's India.

Juxtapose that with the fact that India is home to estimated one third of world's poor with 32.7% Indians surviving on a meager $1.25 a day and a staggering 68.7% living on $2 a day according to a 2010 World Bank report, an ominous picture of India as a state emerges.
The 'dark' India jostles to secure a standing space in the general compartment of a train in Mumbai. Much of the modern day slaves mentioned by the Walk Free Foundation are indeed the working people who work all their lives in poor to horrible conditions with minimal to absent dignity and nil work security.

But how is that possible in case of a regional power and aspiring world power with its indigenous aircraft carrier? How do the high GDP growth rate of the past one and a half decade and the appalling living conditions of such a high proportion of people add up? These questions seem to vex anyone unfamiliar with the workings of the Indian society.

Obviously India cannot be compared, in any other aspect, with Mauritania and Haiti which reportedly top the list of slaves as the proportion of total population. The only other country to have higher proportion of slaves than India is Pakistan in the third rank. This, along with Nepal in the fifth rank, makes South Asia the deepest and most recalcitrant pocket of poverty and slavery in today's world.

Contrast that with the bright India, the crown of Hotel Taj here glowing in the evening. Many analysts compared the seize of this hotel by some terrorists few years back with the apocalypse. But they feel no pang of built when hundreds get simply thrashed to death in temple stampedes that are so frequent; nor when millions of people simply starve to death. 
The malady which forces today's India to identify itself with such embarrassing reality has been the subject of discourse for long. While the people actually suffering from perpetual hunger and misery can far from afford to think about lofty things such as India's image abroad, the middle and upper class with access to both the domestic and international media is genuinely worried about it. The rampant poverty and backwardness and the potential ways of fighting them are thus a subject of passionate interest in India.

Though not exactly balanced, a section of Indian media has been paying an increasing attention to the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. Western media have also been robustly covering these issues. A series of documentary films have minutely explored different facets of the life of the poor people of various kinds in India. The movies like Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire have also done a lot to present the dark side of the Indian story to the world in a rather emotional way.

There have been some more comprehensive and praiseworthy works as well dealing with the workings of the society in India. In his elegant 2008 novel The White Tiger, Arvind Adiga vividly illustrates the dichotomy between the 'dark' India and the 'bright' India with emphasis on how the progress of the people in the light is inseparably linked to the lack of progress or relentless downward mobility of the people in the darkness.

Bright India: The way the Indian middle class wishes to project India to the world as. The slums in between the skyscrapers that are home to millions of urban poor, however, resist the oblivion and their stories pop up every now and then. 

Reality and perception

Ask an average Indian, rich or poor, about the root cause of such sorry state of so many people in the country and you are most likely to get back another question: politicians are corrupt, they enrich themselves by stealing money meant for the poor, they stifle institutions meant to serve the people thereby leaving people uneducated and in poor health, then how does the poverty decrease?

But is that all? Does the apparently straightforward link between the high level of corruption at every level of governance and the failure of the government's poverty-alleviation measures explain everything about the poverty and backwardness in the country?

While being popularly believed and mostly true, this explanation to the ailments of Indian society is incomplete at best. I feel a parallel socio-cultural narrative of the failure story with due focus on the subtler but equally important role of many more players in the society is required.

While the economic policies and their immediate repercussions impact the lives of the people immediately, this is followed by a protracted process through which people adapt to them socially and culturally. A closer look at this process gives crucial insight on why indeed the problem of poverty and backwardness is so intractable in India.

This adaptation--I call it maladaptation in India's case-- of the people towards the stagnation and even regression in the society has two components. First, the poor, having tried and failed to rectify every anomaly in the life with the legal means at their disposal, adapt with their hopelessly depressing lives by seeking refuge in distractions like alcoholism, delinquency or religiosity. Second, the rich and the middle class develop a notion about poverty and backwardness that plausibly explains the cause of the ailments yet exonerates them from any responsibility towards sustaining the status quo.

Leaving everything aside, hereafter I shall focus on the process of maladaptation to the maladies that the Indian society is going through. Let's connect some dots from the recent and not-so-recent news pieces from India.

Adaptation of the poor and the middle class

On a day when the media reported a remarkable disaster management feat in India's history with the reported casualty of around twenty in the wake of a powerful cyclone that displaced around 1 million people, there was also a depressing news of death of more than a hundred people in a stampede in one temple.
This paradox amply illustrates the dilemma of India as the state of both the encouraging progress based on scientific and technological prowess and the disappointing social retreat caused by the social dynamics that propels increasing number of people towards the blind faith.

Indeed, the incidents of large no. of people being killed in stampedes are so frequent in India that they no longer arouse the sentiment in the society the way the other forms of mass casualty do. This is also because most of the people who die in such incidents are the abjectly poor and destitute who throng to the temples in a vain hope of being 'liberated' from the miserable life.

On the other hand, the increasingly assertive middle class in India has adapted to the whole scenario differently. As indicated earlier, their efforts are aimed at absolving themselves of their responsibility towards sustaining such an inequitable society. Let's take one example to make this point clear.

A talk show named 'Satyameva Jayate' aired by many television channels in India last year enjoyed runaway popularity. Presented by popular Bollywood actor Amir Khan, the 14-episode program dealt with some of the most unpalatable issues in India like female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry, honor killings, alcoholism, untouchability, etc.

The praises showered to the program were so intense and cacophonous that some voices of criticism were simply drowned. But as the astute anti-caste crusader S. Anand noted in a piece in Outlook magazine, a particular show on untouchability was a strange interplay of omissions and commissions aimed at trimming the show to make it palatable to the dominant section of the audience, thereby revealing a peculiar form of adaptive process that the Indian middle class engages in.

While displaying the plight of the untouchables by adequately shedding 'tears with practiced ease', Khan had two choices. One, he could have delved into the practical ways of emancipating the 'Dalits' or untouchables from their miserable lives like the reservation. That would also demand referring to Dr. B R Ambedkar, the most prominent Dalit leader in history of India.  Unfortunately, this was sure to disappoint the militantly anti-reservation people dominating the audience. Predictably, Khan chose the alternative of jettisoning the parts of interviews that referred to reservation and Ambedkar.

What was more flabbergasting, however, was the part of fabrication. As corroborated later by the
interviewee herself, one Kaushal Panwar had been interviewed in total isolation, in an empty studio. And in the television, as Anand recollects, close-ups of fretful, anxious, pained and agonised faces of members of the studio audience were shown as Kaushal was narrating her story. All this turned out to be evidently manipulated and faked—with clever editing and splicing of shots.

The end result: the middle class audience could congratulate themselves for 'having heard and seen firsthand the plights of the untouchables', yet without having to express their militant displeasure towards the potential measures like reservation that actually emancipate some of the Dalits but at some cost for themselves.

The real forces at work

There was a strange coincidence on August 20. The so called spiritual guru Asaram Bapu was booked that day by Delhi and Jodhpur police for allegedly raping a minor girl from Jodhpur. On the same day, two unidentified gunmen assassinated Narendra Dhabolkar, the rationalist and the anti-superstition crusader from Maharashtra.

The followers of Asaram, who has been thoroughly disgraced by now, were prompt in resorting to vandalism in protest and one of his followers even castrated himself apparently to protest his arrest. Even politicians blamed the authorities for having acted on behalf of their rivals to tarnish the image of Bapu.
But the response to the assassination of Dhabolkar was entirely different. Both the national and international media covered the incident well but not everyone was exactly surprised by the news: he had been receiving death threats from 1983 itself and many wondered how he had survived these three long decades to do one of the most difficult tasks in India.

The reality is that both the increasingly pauperized lower class and the increasingly wealthy but insecure middle class have little faith on the political and other social institutions in the country. In a country of 1.2 billion people—characterized by some as the ocean of poverty with islets of wealth--with such a vacuum of dependable institutions of faith, a string of self-styled godmen have done everything to attract people to them through a clever manipulation of their spiritual instincts. This gives them name, fame, wealth and power while altogether disempowering and literally looting the devotees. The fact that even one former PM of India was among the disciples of the disgraced Bapu illustrates the hold of these men in the society.

As people throng to these godmen in hundreds of thousands, people like Dhabolkar who flay the superstitions and debunk the myths of their black magic come to be seen as the mortal threats to their empires of wealth and power. Putting some bullets in the head of this man thus helped them secure much of their future business in the country.  


Amid all the talk about the impending world power status of India, much of the vocal Indian middle and upper class has got the diagnosis itself of the nagging problems of Indian society wrong. Their confusion between the symptoms of the disease and the disease itself apart, they are reluctant to acknowledge their own-- albeit indirect-- role in the whole fiasco.

This, along with the poor Indians persistently resorting to lifelines like alcohol and godmen, forms one of the largest cohort of people in the globe maladapting to their adversities simultaneously. The complacency and even reverence shown towards people like Asaram and the neglect and even hindrance shown towards those like Dhabolkar from people across the spectrum of prosperity in the society is, to me, the perfect explanation to why Indian society continues to remain what it is.

(Asia Times summary of the article:
Indians from the lower and middle classes blame official corruption for widespread poverty and regressive trends such as modern-day slavery. However, graft and government failings are only partly responsible. The people also bear responsibility for adapting too readily to stagnation, manifested in turning to alcohol and blind faith.)

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