By Chris Harman
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India: Poverty behind the tiger

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
India's growing economy has benefited a corrupt elite. But the masses only get poorer.
Issue 333

November’s deadly attacks in Mumbai had one peculiar side-effect on the British media. Journalists were forced out into the streets and discovered that the vast majority of the city’s population are still poor.

Since then the deep contrast between the lives of India’s upper middle class and that of the mass of people has been emphasised in Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger, and Danny Boyle’s rags to riches film, Slumdog Millionaire.

Such revelations have not been welcomed universally. The Indian elite prefer the other media message of India as a new economic giant. So Amitabh Bachchan, former host of India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, complains that Slumdog Millionaire portrays “India as a Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots”.

Both media messages reflect something real. There has been industrial and economic growth in India, in sharp contradiction to the old left orthodoxy from writers like economists Paul Baran and Andre Gunder Frank who saw this as impossible.

India’s manufacturing output today is about six and a half times greater than at the end of the 1970s. This growth has produced a burgeoning upper middle class. City streets are clogged up with expensive cars as well as the auto rickshaws used by the lower middle class.

These changes have caused some to switch to a different view, pioneered 40 years ago by Bill Warren and embraced today by former Marxists Meghan Desai and Nigel Harris. Capitalism, they say, means development and that is positive. A version of this view led the Indian Communist Party (Marxist) two years ago to help drive peasants from their land in West Bengal to provide greenfield site for Tata Motors.

Yet India shows clearly that capitalist development has not meant a general improvement in people’s lives. The growth in middle class girths is accompanied by the continued skeletal thinness of the workers and the poor, with half the population chronically malnourished.

Statisticians have in recent years faced a strange anomaly. One lot of figures shows average rural incomes rising. But another shows average peasant food consumption falling. Class differentiation within the peasantry means that some are buying a few of the cheaper mass consumer goods, while the majority have to cut back on the necessities of life, with farmer suicides reaching record levels.

Life is barely better for the great mass of people in the cities. The number of jobs in the “organised” manufacturing sector (that is, jobs with employment rights), at around 6 million, was no higher in 2005 than in 1991. Alongside these are 17 million manufacturing and 43 million other workers in the “unorganised” sector with no rights and daily incomes rarely higher than 30 to 50 rupees (at a time when rice costs 20 rupees a kilo). And now an Indian business lobby group is forecasting the destruction of “up to 10 million jobs over the next three months as many struggling companies shut up shop in the face of plunging export markets.”

A World Bank report on India has estimated that 40 percent of growth had ended up in the pockets of a mere 1 percent of the population – or as Karl Marx would have put it, there has been “an accumulation of wealth on the one side, of poverty on the other”.

The White Tiger is a powerful novel because of the stark way it shows this. Its fictional protagonist is driven by family poverty to seek work in Delhi as the driver and general servant to one of the new yuppie class. He soon realises the rest of his life is going to be spent at the beck and call of a class of people who can squander in one minute more than he will earn in a year. He witnesses the reality of Indian democracy when one of his jobs is to carry his master’s bribes to the “socialist” politician whose electoral victory is meant to provide hope for the poor.

The protagonist of Slumdog Millionaire escapes from poverty by winning a TV show, and that of The White Tiger through crime – robbing and killing his master, and using his loot to establish himself as a much acclaimed entrepreneur in the country’s software capital, Bangalore.

The image of entrepreneurial success as coming through crude crime is, of course, a caricature, but only a slight one.

India’s other great software centre is Hyderabad, where the authorities built a whole satellite town, Cyberbad, to cater for Satyam Computers and its 25,000 employees. The company’s boss, Ramalinga Raju, has been India’s young entrepreneur of the year. While I was in Hyderabad over the new year all the city’s political parties, including the Communist Party, declared their wholehearted support for his role in “creating jobs”. Two days later he admitted to a £1 billion fraud on the company’s books and was arrested.

While all this was happening the country’s media was concentrating on one thing – the whipping up of war hysteria against Pakistan.

Capitalism in the Global South does not always mean the complete stagnation of Baran and Gunder Frank. But neither does it involve the raising up of the mass of population. It means growing poverty in the midst of growing wealth, sudden obliteration of people’s hopes by economic crisis, the lauding of the most corrupt, and the use of national and ethnic hatreds in a concerted attempt to prevent the growth of class feeling.

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