Source: The Guardian Unlimited
Neoliberalism has failed the vast majority of India’s people. But the spirit that gave the nation independence is stirring.
In five-star hotels on Mumbai’s seafront, children of the rich squeal joyfully as they play hide and seek. Nearby, at the National Theatre for the Performing Arts, people arrive for the Mumbai literary festival: famous authors and notables from India’s Raj class. They step deftly over a woman lying across the pavement, her birch brooms laid out for sale, her two children silhouettes in a banyan tree that is their home.
It is Children’s Day in India. On page nine of the Times of India, a study reports that every second child is malnourished. Nearly 2 million children under the age of five die every year from preventable illness as common as diarrhoea. Of those who survive, half are stunted owing to a lack of nutrients. The national school dropout rate is 40%. Statistics such as these flow like a river permanently in flood. No other country comes close. The small thin legs dangling in a banyan tree are poignant evidence.
The leviathan once known as Bombay is the centre for most of India’s foreign trade, global financial dealing and personal wealth. Yet at low tide on the Mithi river, people are forced to defecate in ditches, by the roadside. Half the city’s population is without sanitation and lives in slums without basic services. This has doubled since the 1990s when “India Shining” was invented by an American advertising firm as part of the Hindu nationalist BJP party’s propaganda that it was “liberating” India’s economy and “way of life”.
Barriers protecting industry, manufacturing and agriculture were demolished. Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, Microsoft, Monsanto and Rupert Murdoch entered what had been forbidden territory. Limitless “growth” was now the measure of human progress, consuming both the BJP and Congress, the party of independence. Shining India would catch up China and become a superpower, a “tiger”, and the middle classes would get their proper entitlement in a society where there was no middle. As for the majority in the “world’s largest democracy”, they would vote and remain invisible.
There was no tiger economy for them. The hype about a hi-tech India storming the barricades of the first world was largely a myth. This is not to deny India’s rise in pre-eminence in computer technology and engineering, but the new urban technocratic class is relatively tiny and the impact of its gains on the fortunes of the majority is negligible.
When the national grid collapsed in 2012, leaving 700 million people powerless, almost half had so little electricity they barely noticed. On my last two visits, last November and 2011, front pages boasted that India had “gatecrashed the super-exclusive ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] club”, launched its “largest ever” aircraft carrier and sent a rocket to Mars: the latter lauded by the government as “a historic moment for all of us to cheer”.
The cheering was inaudible in the rows of tarpaper shacks you see as you land at Mumbai airport and in myriad villages denied basic technology, such as light and safe water. Here, land is life and the enemy is a rampant “free market”. Foreign multinationals’ dominance of food grains, genetically modified seed, fertilisers and pesticides has sucked small farmers into a ruthless global market and led to debt and destitution. More than 250,000 farmers have killed themselves since the mid-1990s – a figure that may be a fraction of the truth as local authorities wilfully misreport “accidental” deaths. In one district of Maharashtra, farmers die by the dozen every week.