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The many Indias

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011

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THE FIRST GRAND Prix of India under way at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida on October 30.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

THE FIRST GRAND Prix of India under way at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida on October 30.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

The sleek Metro trains and the wobbly cycle rickshaws are, together, an eloquent metaphor of an India racing ahead with F1 speed.

A FEW weeks ago the first ever Formula 1 motor race in India was held in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. It was, as apparently is the custom, accompanied by huge entertainment extravaganzas and dazzling parties, entry to which cost something like Rs.40,000. But then, tickets to watch the race cost around the same.

Quite apart from the rich and famous who came to all the events, a surprisingly large number of persons came from all over the country just to watch the race, though I doubt if many of them also went to the grand parties afterwards. Perhaps some did, if only to gawk at the celebrities who were there in their glittering best.

After this event was over there were reports that this was proof, if such proof were needed, that India was indeed a great economic powerhouse, an emerging superpower. (Actually, going by various declarations within the country and outside, we have been emerging for quite a while but do not seem to emerge finally.)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which never loses an opportunity to show India's terrible poverty, its horrific urban slums and bedraggled, tatty villages, did a story on the Formula I event and showed poor rural folk watching it in wonder, framed by a broken bullock cart or something similar. Not that the BBC was the only news organisation doing it; almost all the others did this in greater or lesser degree. And the fact is they were right. The Formula 1 race and all that went with it obviously cost an astronomical amount, so astronomical as to sound ridiculous. This is in a country where hundreds of children are dying of malnourishment or lack of basic medical care.

In Delhi, a city where the state and the media are very proud of the metro oddly, ordinary people are not really doing somersaults of joy because of it, and many grumble about the terrible crowds and the ugly behaviour of the goons who travel by it each Metro station has, swarming around it like flies, hundreds of rickety cycle rickshaws, which a huge number of commuters use to get home from the station. The sleek, air-conditioned Metro trains and the wobbly cycle rickshaws are, together, an eloquent metaphor of what the country is.

Could the enormous amounts spent on the Formula 1 event have been used to build health clinics and schools, to provide the impoverished with work, and to build roads from villages that even today have no connection to a hospital or school? No, because the event was privately financed, and if Formula 1 was not held, the money would have gone to something else. It is the brisk activity of the business houses of the country that has led commentators to declare that India is an emerging economic superpower. Not the rickety rickshaws outside metro stations or the noxious slums of Mumbai and Kolkata. This is an overly simplistic statement, I know many of those living in those slums and using the rickshaws work in the engines of growth set up in the country by the Ambanis and the Tatas. The lines are, therefore, a little blurred but the fact is that India has enormous contrasts grinding, near hopeless poverty on the one hand and a burgeoning, well-to-do middle class on the other, and, presiding over all this the super rich, who have to have their Formula 1 events, private planes and magnificent palaces.

And while the affluent middle class will continue to grow in size, I think we should not fool ourselves on one fact. The rickety cycle rickshaws are not going to go away. They will always be there for decades and decades to come, just as there will always be impoverished people in cities and villages. We have built ourselves that system; without them we will not be the emerging economic superpower that people say we are. The BBC and other international news organisations will always have wonderful material for the stories they present at regular intervals on the grinding poverty, disease and dirt in India. It is essential to round off any economic story they may do. (How it must have rankled with the affluent countries when Tatas bought up Jaguar and Land Rover.)

The state will go on trying to find solutions, but it knows it cannot really find them because it is mired in corruption corruption that oils the wheels of democracy. So the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) will always be flawed; crores of rupees will be skimmed off from it in different ways. It may be convenient for Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh to find suddenly the dreadful mismanagement and corruption that exists in the implementation of the project in Uttar Pradesh; but he knows, as do all of us, that it exists in other States as well, in greater or lesser degree. He will turn on them, too, when the time is right, politically.

But that scheme, like some others, has done some good, and it is as well that this be put on record. It has put money in the hands of many of the very poor in rural areas, which has had a salutary effect on the economy in those regions. The fact that more and more farmers are beginning to protest against the harsh, exploitative land acquisition laws which, mercifully, will change soon, one hopes means that they are beginning to see the coming prosperity and want their share of it. There are, of course, other sly forces at work; those, for example, that obviously organise agitations wherever a nuclear plant is coming up, be it at Jaitapur in Maharashtra or at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. Is it only a coincidence that agitations hold up the mining for uranium in Meghalaya? Will other proposed sites for nuclear power plants also not be areas for agitations, conveniently with women in the forefront? India with double the existing number of nuclear power plants will have that much more clean power. It looks as if someone or some group is not very comfortable with the idea. But that is another story altogether.

The fact is that even those of us who want to see a prosperous India, where wealth is shared in whatever manner, must accept that we will not see an end to poverty and deprivation, ever. It is a necessary facet of our growth, even if we deny that it is. It may, however, be possible to minimise it over a long period of time; and the little signs one sees of what seem to be precursors of all-round growth and development must give us the energy and enthusiasm to persist with our efforts to build and develop our systems and society.

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