The feel good factory

Published : Jan 23, 2015 12:30 IST

Chennai, February 2004: A hoarding on India Shining, near the Madras Medical College.

Chennai, February 2004: A hoarding on India Shining, near the Madras Medical College.

This story, part of the Cover feature seeking to debunk the National Democratic Alliance government's "India Shining" campaign ahead of the general election of 2004. The NDA lost the election, proving many psephologists wrong.

First the good news.

There’s been a huge decline in poverty levels.

The government, the CSO, the Media, the CMIE, and just about anyone else you talk to is bullish on growth.

We have emerged one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The Sensex has crossed the 6000-mark three times in as many months. Our foreign exchange reserves are now so huge that Jaswant Singh commands Indian companies to “Go out and conquer the world. (George W. here we come.) We will be there at every step for you. There is over 100 billion dollars of forex reserves. That is to be put to use, not to be kept under a lock and key.”

Leading economists are telling us we’ve never had it so good.

In the media, The Golden Age is Upon Us. Leave alone the mainstream for a moment. You know it’s a new world when Economic & Political Weekly finds space for a piece that trashes the Millennium Goals as irrelevant. In India, we achieved those a long time ago.

What’s more, thousands of young Indians are successfully faking American accents. (If you can’t beat ‘em, cheat ‘em.)

And while we may have got thumped in the VB series, we did retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. That too, against Australia in Australia. Pakistan, here we come.

What more could anyone possibly ask for? When have we ever had it so good?

WELCOME to India Shining. To where the government spends—and various media receive—4,000 million rupees of your money to tell you how good you’re feeling.

Let us be fair, though. Most of the India Shining claims are true. As long as we are talking about 10 per cent of the population. When some of this country’s top economists and academics tell me we have never had it so good, I believe that too. Truly, some of them have never had it so good. Never in the annals of Indian academia have so many “consultancies” brought so much to so few—at the expense of so many.

But let us not deny true credit where it belongs—to the media as well. India Shines Best when they apply the polish.

In the media world of 2003, India shone brightest —justly so—in Mumbai. All the great events of the year could not rival a single week in that city. Remember those “Century’s Greatest Drought” headlines? Or the farmers’ suicides? Many young journalists tried hard to tell those stories. But they were denied the space or time to do so by their bosses.

The best figure I could come up with for “national” media journalists covering the rural crisis through one full week was six. Those covering the Lakme India Fashion Week for a full seven days? Over 400 (accredited plus daily pass holders). Between them, they produced in one count, some 400,000 words in print. Also, over 1,000 minutes in TV coverage. Some 800 hours of TV/video footage were shot. And close to 10,000 rolls of film exposed.

India does not get much shinier than that. Consider that this was the main media event in a country where less than 0.2 per cent of the population sports designer clothes. Where per capita consumption of textiles in 2002 at 19 metres was way below the world average. And this was a fashion show which drew more journalists than buyers.

The Sensex might be on a dream run and the markets booming and investors thrilled. But it’s still worth recalling this happens in a country where 65 per cent of households do not have a bank account. (In rural India, that is 70 per cent, according to the Census of India household survey.) And where tens of millions of farmers live and die in debt.

The fastest growing sector in India Shining is not IT or software, textiles or automobiles. It is inequality. That has grown faster than at any other time since Independence. And at a stunning pace these past five or six years. What has grown with it is the mindset that inequality breeds. One that dehumanises the poor. That sees their plight as solely of their own making. Where farmers committing suicide are people with “psychological problems” (code for being nuts). And “you know how much these people drink”.

It is in the shining years that we exported grain to foreign markets at prices far lower than those we forced our own people below the poverty line to pay. At the height of misery in rural Andhra Pradesh in 2002, the hungry were forced to buy rice at Rs.6.40 a kilogram. This, in drought-hit regions. At the same time, we exported rice at Rs.5.45 a kg.

Maybe Walter Bagehot got it right in the 19th century. This early editor of The Economist wrote: “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult (for them) to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”

It is in these past few years, too, that India slipped from rank 124 to 127 in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme. That is an index measuring average achievement in terms of “a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living”. And it shows that you are better off being poor in Botswana, El Salvador, Guatemala or the Occupied Territories of the Palestine—than in India.

The orgy of celebration over elite consumption, under way these past so many years, is most dangerous. The exercise called India Shining might draw a little criticism in some sections of the media. (Usually those that did not get their share of the ads.) But it reflects fairly a national elite that is into kidding itself big time. (The Congress(I)-Bharatiya Janata Party debate over India Shining is mostly over who applied the polish first.)

Others, too, have joined the celebrations. The global media have done their bit to add lustre to the shine. Last October, an impressed New York Times gave much space to the rise of the mall culture in India. Which set off another round of self-congratulatory stories on this subject within the Indian media. The kids eating at McDonalds. The “mushrooming” of fast food joints. The idea of whole families spending much of their weekend at the malls. All pretty symbolic of India Shining. “Feeding Frenzy” was one cover story last year about how well Indians were eating. How speciality restaurants were booming.

Sure, much of this is true. It is happening. Whether food or other items, rich Indians are consuming on a scale even they have never managed before. In a country which accounts for the largest number of malnourished children in the world. Which is still home to about half the planet’s hungry people. Where nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from malnutrition and anaemia. And where about half of all children under five suffer moderate or severe malnourishment or stunting. Most of these are girls. (Luckily, we do have a reassuring headline from The Times of India. That is from its Sunsilk Femina Miss India contest: “Beautiful Women Don’t Starve”; January 21, 2003).

In at least three States, no mid-day meal scheme was in place in 2003. That is, a year after the Supreme Court made it mandatory for them to have one.

It is an India where, as Prof. Utsa Patnaik devastatingly points out: “The average family is absorbing annually nearly 100 kg less of foodgrain today than a mere five years ago. (That is) a phenomenal drop... never seen before in the last century of India’s history.” As she has shown, the absolute amount of per capita food availability for the year 2002-03 was lower than during the time of the Bengal famine.

But the Utsa Patnaiks are talking of a different territory. Call it India Burning. The planned destruction of agriculture has pushed millions more into mass migrations. That in turn has seen more children drop out of school and even college in large numbers. Dalit and Adivasi students are worst-affected. Studies from crisis districts clearly show that. The number of days landless labourers find work has fallen steeply. For too many, there is no work to be found. Not that it is easy to get it elsewhere. Last year, lakhs of workers from Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh arrived in Bangalore and nearby towns. This simply crashed the daily wage there.

Sure, it is nice that a few thousand youngsters in urban India are getting work at call centres. But it does not begin to address our problems. The years 1996-97 to 2000-01 had seen close to nine lakh organised sector jobs vanish. Little has happened to turn that around.

As what little remains of the public health system goes under, people are more than ever at the mercy of private providers. Health expenditure is now the second fastest growing component of rural family debt. Meanwhile, the rich patronise super-speciality hospitals and weight-loss clinics. There’s India Shining in a nutshell. Thousands of well-off Indians trying to lose weight. Hundreds of millions of poor Indians, consuming less calories than before, trying desperately not to lose any more weight. Weight loss versus weight already lost.

The debt crisis in rural India has led to loss of land, spurred more migrations and pushed women and young girls into prostitution. In some villages, the number of marriage functions has dropped sharply as many cannot afford them.

At the other end of the spectrum are “theme weddings”. In these, lakhs of rupees are spent on structures that will be pulled down in a few hours. This means building huge canvas and wooden structures replicating, say, the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel for the couple to be wed in. Delhi, in its patriotic fervour, has had Kargil for a theme wedding. Where dead plastic soldiers lie atop the tent, doubtless to bring home the solemn nature of the occasion to guests. These costs are apart from what is spent on food, drink, transport and wardrobes.

And yes, CEO salaries in this period have been shining. Take the list citing Dhirubhai Ambani’s last salary. This appeared in The Economic Times a little before his death. It showed him taking home close to Rs.9 crore. (And that from just Reliance Industries.) That is about 30,000 times what a poor landless agricultural worker in Kalahandi might make in a year. Which is around Rs.3,000.

What sort of society can endure such inequality? And for how long? Prof. Paul Krugman of Princeton wrote in The New York Times that he believed a gap of 1:1000 between the lowest worker and the top CEO to be more than bad. He sees that kind of gap as harmful to democracy itself in his country. How do we measure the impact on our democracy of a gap of 1:30,000? A country in which such inequalities still grow swiftly at so many levels?

In Mumbai, bowling alleys opened up in the past few years as part of this growing prosperity. This, on the land once occupied by textile mills—several of whose retrenched workers have taken their own lives. You might spend hundreds of rupees in such places in just hours. The laws then did not permit the use of this space for the leisure games of the rich. So the bowling alley and its add-on facilities went up as a “workers’ recreation centre”. The millionaires ran their alley. The mill workers face destitution. This is where India Shining meets India Burning.

The spread of such places of diversion for the better off is a major feature of India Shining. Water Parks are high on this list. Last May saw bad water problems in Mumbai. Countless thousands of women queued up for water in the slums each morning for hours on end. In and around the same Mumbai, others had no such problems. There were 24 amusement and water parks using 50 billion litres of water a day for the entertainment of the rich.

It has been during these shining years that the Supreme Court of India has pulled up six States—more than once—over starvation deaths. Still the deaths continued to mount. In October 2002, an angered court said it would hold the Chief Secretaries of the States directly responsible for such deaths. But they still occur. In Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and several other States. Rich Maharashtra has seen a large number of such deaths in its tribal belt.

In 2001, these trends, amongst others, forced K.R. Narayanan to make the harshest Republic Day Speech ever heard from a President of India. “It seems, in the social realm, some kind of a counter-revolution is taking place.... As a society, we are becoming increasingly insensitive and callous....

“The unabashed vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche has left the underclass seething.... One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages, while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water.”

Last year in Rayalaseema, I found villagers ashamed to offer me water. It was a filthy, dark brown liquid. Sediment floated around the glass tumbler. However, Coke and Pepsi were easy to get. The soft drink makers were able to access clean water in the region. But locals could not.

In May 2003, some colonies in Hyderabad were getting water once in two or three days. And that for a few hours. At the same time, the government of Andhra Pradesh was supplying clean, processed water to Coke at about 25 paisa a litre. The same stuff that can be resold to you at about 12 rupees a litre in a plastic bottle.

In the mindset inequality has bred amongst us, one aspect stands out as perhaps the saddest. The lack of outrage over farmers’ suicides across the country. Too many academics, researchers and journalists have looked away. Where is the time? When there are so many “purchasing power studies” to be planned? So many consultancies and plugs to be done for the very forces driving the farmers to despair?

In just the single district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, over 2,000 people committed suicide between 1997 and 2001. Mostly farmers in severe debt. The next two years, too, saw suicides mount. In 2002, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was frank with the press. He said there had been at least 600 farmers’ suicides in his State in the preceding year. One estimate in The Tribune placed the numbers of suicides in Punjab at 3,000 annually. In Uttar Pradesh, it has been sugarcane farmers. In Maharashtra, cotton growers. But when did farmers’ suicides as a national phenomenon make the cover of any news magazine?

There is much achievement in India to celebrate. The claims of India Shining are not amongst them. And they will increasingly prove an embarrassment to the campaign’s authors. Meanwhile, one small section benefits while many millions suffer the effects of our present economic policies. And while the gap between rich and poor gets ever more obscene, maybe we need another kind of campaign.

Call it India Thinking.

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