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Home  > Tamils - A Trans State Nation > Beyond Tamil Nation: One World > The Strength of an Idea > Nations & Nationalism  > International Relations in an Asymmetric Multi Lateral World  > India: The Poverty of Progress

International Relations
in an Emerging Multi Lateral World

India: The Poverty of Progress

Chhandasi Pandya
(courtesy Znet Daily Commentaries) 1 August 2005

“(America’s) Silicon Valley companies are based on 'know what.' They know the market, they know the technology and they know what products to make to earn money. (India’s) Coolie Valley companies are based on 'know how.' They do the software coding for other companies that have the 'know what.' If you tell them what to do, they know how and will do it for you.” The Asian “coolies” of the late 1800s and early 1900s came to the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies as laborers, doing the physical, backbreaking work westerners didn’t want to do. ... In this new century, India’s tech workers are coming to be seen as nothing more than glamorized coolies (rich coolies, but coolies still). For the global corporate sector, India is just one large back office, not a formidable economic force such as China or even a political nuisance such as Pakistan."


This is how the official story goes: India is progressing. Period. From Bangalore in the south to Vadodara in the west, India’s cities are experiencing an industrial boom, leaving the middle and upper classes awash with money. Per capita income grew 5.2% in 2004 and the economy grew by 7% in 2005's first three months, bettering the estimates of global financial analysts.

Apartment buildings are popping up in newly developing neighborhoods for the young, rich and upwardly mobile. Office buildings and shopping malls are cropping up where huge tracts of farmland once stood, and at an astounding pace.

By 2007 in Mumbai alone, the number of shopping malls will surge from 23 to 79, according to real estate consultancy Knight Frank India. The physical transformation of the urban landscape is being matched by the transformation of the urban Indian populace. Throughout India’s cities, upper class urbanites can be perpetually seen talking on shiny new cell phones, driving SUVs and drinking bottled water. Prospering urban Indians have begun paying more attention to their health needs too. Eureka Forbes, a leader in the water and air purification device-market, says it has installed its systems in over 5 million Indian homes and is adding 1,500 new customers daily!

This is the new India – a country that is experiencing a rate of growth paralleled by few other nations in the world. As the story goes, by opening up to the free market, and thus saving its economy from stagnation, India has proven it can be a formidable force on the world’s economic stage. Perhaps, as Thomas Friedman posits, the world really is flat and the Internet and advances in telecommunications are finally leveling the playing field for human development and access to opportunity. And perhaps, as has been suggested, it is the West that is falling behind in the great economic game known as globalization.

Then again, perhaps this rosy picture of India suits the west’s rigid rhetoric on development and globalization all too well: the world is a global marketplace and India is finally reaping its rewards. Period.

But this illusion of progress, touted in the western media and large parts of the Indian media, leaves out such problems in India’s development as the massive poverty and social backwardness of states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It leaves out the communal violence and religious persecution in Gujarat – which recently was named the number one Indian state in terms of economic freedom by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies in New Delhi. It says nothing of scores of indebted farmers committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh.

The global corporate sector – understandably – will not shed light on these issues. It is not in their interest. In fact, eased barriers to entry, a consumption hungry upper class and cheap labor are major prizes in the new economic colonialism.

That India’s privileged classes have so comfortably accepted this status quo isn’t surprising, but the exuberance with which this has been done, is. Publicly and in private conversations, India’s elite seem quick to identify themselves more with their corporate masters than with their fellow countrymen.

Such is the twisted logic of Indian development – imposed from afar and embraced by India’s elite. It is a logic that rewards Gujarat for its “economic freedom,” while the state’s large Muslim population experiences internal displacement. It is a logic that nurtures growing information technology hubs in Andhra Pradesh, while thousands of its farmers die in the countryside.

If these two terms – development and globalization – mean people in poor countries get access to more consumer goods, then India’s current growth is a resounding success.

But, if by some wild chance, development and globalization are even tangentially related to the advancement of human freedom, unconditional, universal access to basic human necessities and social mobility, then India’s current growth is a failure and the foundations are being laid for far worse failure and inequity.

While news stories of India’s growth paint pictures of a consumption-hungry, information-technology-savvy, western-friendly population, a sense of the “other” India – one in which over 65% of the country’s 1.08 billion population depends on the agricultural economy - is suspiciously left out. In the same period that India’s economy grew by 7%, agricultural output rose by only 1.8%, compared with a 10.4% rate of growth the previous year.

Not all of this staggering decline in the productivity growth of an important sector of the Indian economy can be attributed to poor monsoons and crop yields, as has been asserted in both Indian and western media. Apolitical explanations for the highly politicized decisions being made in India right now do not suffice. As India diversifies its economy, the agricultural sector’s share as a percentage of gross domestic product has been decreasing, standing currently at about 21%. Yet over 650 million Indians still live and die, earn their livelihoods or starve, in rural India.

During a press conference in June, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, asked states to aim at doubling agricultural production in 10 years, saying “Indian agriculture in future must move from the traditional grain-based strategy towards diversification, emphasising horticulture, poultry, livestock and fisheries.”

Such a transition is of course wrought with many uncomfortable realities. To compliment this diversification Singh spoke of, the government has moved rapidly forward with its policy of dismantling agricultural subsidies in order to divert money towards infrastructure investment. Added to this is the ever-increasing presence in India of foreign genetically modified agricultural products produced and sold at low prices. In the midst of such changes, many of India’s farmers, faced with new competition and less government assistance, have been left with two options: Starve and watch their family starve, or trek to the cities and help build the glassy monuments to globalization.

India’s cities are brimming with migrant workers from surrounding villages. It is these workers – displaced farmers – who are the backbone of the manufacturing boom in urban India. If you ask the urban upper classes about these migrants, you will be told they are just temporary day workers looking to make a little extra money while they wait to harvest their large plots of profitable crops in the countryside. This is another comfortable myth that obscures the wretched reality that these temporary workers have brought their families and their livestock to India’s cities and have made permanent homes on the streets.

Vadodara city, in Gujarat – that beacon of economic freedom – is a classic example. The roadsides throughout this city are filled with tribal families from the surrounding village districts of Godhra and Panchmali. During the day, men and women look for whatever construction work they can find, and at night, they cook on open fires on the street, sleep next stray dogs and in the morning, they begin anew.

Visiting various parts of India, it is plain to see: this agricultural country is living for her cities. These cities are in turn living for the corporate sector – from information-technology companies to consumer goods companies, foreign and domestic. This is the current model of development taking seed in India, even as agricultural development is being uprooted. This model is driven by the consumerism of a select group in India and their counterparts in the rich countries. It is not a model based on the advancement of equal opportunity and quality of life.

The problem with such “development” is that it renders an entire population disposable. Just because the Indian marketplace has become bigger and more varied, it doesn’t mean that life in India has improved. If anything, it reinforces the notion of “disposability.”

Take Bangalore, the very essence of “modern India” and the city that launched the Indian-tech boom. The city, filled as it is with young, hard-working professionals and shiny new buildings, is bursting at its seams. It is a city so packed with rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and pollution that miles-long traffic jams and motorists with facemasks are more the norm than an anomaly.

It is a city where open sewers and piles of trash reside side by side with new office parks and shopping centers. The population has increased by an astounding 61% over the last 15 years, with 8% living in slums, according to U.N. statistics. What’s more, infrastructure development has not kept pace with this population explosion and so frequent power outages and shoddy water supply plague the city.

But this story – of a Bangalore unable to provide essential services to its booming population – isn’t given much attention in the media or in political and academic circles. Perhaps that’s because most of the corporations in Bangalore have back-up generators and hefty tax exemptions to attend to their needs and grievances. The fact that the residents of Bangalore suffer matters little. The idea of Bangalore - the great, cheap IT hub - lives on.

But it won’t live forever – it isn’t designed to. When the 1,300 software and outsourcing companies - 450 of them multinationals – get tired of doing business in Bangalore, they will simply pick up an leave for cheaper, more eager destinations.

Of course, the other Indian states are making sure this flight will be easy. New Bangalores - filled with hard working, eager young Indians – have cropped up throughout the country, from Pune to Hyderabad, Kolkata to Chennai. G. V. Dasarathi, a director of a software products development company in India describes India’s ‘progress’ and it’s role in the global market both crudely and accurately. Comparing America’s tech industry to India’s he says:

“(America’s) Silicon Valley companies are based on 'know what.' They know the market, they know the technology and they know what products to make to earn money. (India’s) Coolie Valley companies are based on 'know how.' They do the software coding for other companies that have the 'know what.' If you tell them what to do, they know how and will do it for you.”

The Asian “coolies” of the late 1800s and early 1900s came to the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies as laborers, doing the physical, backbreaking work westerners didn’t want to do. Their hours were long, the pay nominal, their treatment, unjust. Not only was the term derogatory, it became a concept used by westerners to caricaturize entire groups of people.

In this new century, India’s tech workers are coming to be seen as nothing more than glamorized coolies (rich coolies, but coolies still). For the global corporate sector, India is just one large back office, not a formidable economic force such as China or even a political nuisance such as Pakistan. With the help of the Thomas Friedmans of the world, India’s modern-day coolies have been caricaturized as well: they are eager, hard working, obedient, self-sacrificing and ready to take jobs westerners do with little to no enthusiasm.

It is plain to see. India’s development is being directed and defined by people outside of India – and the country’s upper classes and its government are happily going along for the ride. Its poor majority, which explicitly voted against such policies in 2004, doesn’t even get to ride.


(1) Central Statistical Organization figures released June 30, 2005 http://mospi.nic.in/mospi_press_releases.htm (2) For a government description of tax relief for companies operating in Bangalore http://www.bangaloreit.com/html/itscbng/benefit.htm (3) A good chart and subsequent story on rural indebtedness in India http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2005/05/04/stories/2005050402390100.htm (4) For G V Dasarathi’s description of “Coolie Valley” http://in.rediff.com/money/2004/mar/03guest1.htm

 
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