International: Dark Spots Come out in ‘Shining India’

The World Social Forum took place in January this year in Mumbai ( Bombay ), India . Praful Bidwai paints a colourful picture of the city with its contrasts between ” the filthy rich and the wretchedly poor” , the country and the effects of globalisation on working people .

The World Social Forum, to be held in the Indian city of Mumbai between January 16 and 21, could not have been convened at a more different place from Porto Alegre in Brazil , its venue for the three years since 2001. Porto Alegre is in a province of Brazil ruled by the progressive Workers’ Party, as much a forward-looking popular social movement as a political organisation contesting elections, whose leader is now that country’s president. Mumbai is in Maharashtra state, ruled by a rickety semi-conservative alliance uncertain of its own future and its links with the people. Porto Alegre has been the site of bold experiments in community-controlled development and participatory democracy, in which equality is a major theme. Mumbai is a city of ugly contrasts between the filthy rich and the wretchedly poor, which has given up on the ideal of building a relatively equitable, shared community in which there is social opportunity for all. Mumbai , India ‘s financial capital, with its gleaming chrome-and-glass buildings in affluent enclaves, generates more than a fourth of the country’s direct tax revenue. But two-thirds of Mumbai’s people live in indescribably dirty shantytowns, where there are no water taps or toilets in most homes. The people’s present is sordid, their future bleak. Mumbai in some ways is a microcosm of India , although its urban existence bears sharp contrast to the rest of the country, 70 percent of which is rural. Yet Mumbai contains a concentrated expression of India ‘s many contradictions–globalisation-led warped and uneven development, vicious and growing gender inequalities, growing crime and social insecurity, collapse of public services and the rule of law, massive corruption and a hollowing out of democracy. Mumbai’s — and India’s — reality gives the lie to the Indian government’s claim that globalisation, along with privatisation and deregulation, has transformed the conditions of life of the people for the better and holds the key to genuine development and progress. The government, the most right-wing in independent India ‘s history, has been tom-toming the achievements of its neoliberal economic policies through a series of expensive and lurid advertisements in print and on television entitled ‘India Shining’, which have been run in the entire media for two months. They are part of propaganda by the ruling coalition before a probable early parliamentary election around April. These all celebrate India’s “gains” and “brilliant achievements” — 7 percent growth rate in Gross Domestic Product, rising stock prices, lower interest rates, a boom in information technology, a tripling of the number of cellular phone lines in two years, construction of new highways. Yet, all these claims are suspect or downright meaningless from the point of view of the people. High share prices carry no relevance for the majority: less than 60 million out of India ‘s one billion people own stocks and shares. Low interest rates are part of a new deflationary regime in India . Along with the gobbling up of precious public assets by foreign institutional investors, deflation is likely to reduce wage incomes, weaken indigenous industrial capabilities, and impoverish the economy. All of India ‘s new highways are being built as toll roads, which will raise the costs of transportation while unjustly rewarding contractors. The expansion of the cellular phone market, undoubtedly impressive, is taking place at the expense of access of the majority to basic phone lines: less than five out of 100 Indians have a simple land line. Land line rentals and call rates have been jacked up to subsidise cellular lines used by the middle class. As for the IT boom, India is producing lots of “cyber-coolies”, low-wage, sweatshop workers at the lowest end of the value-addition chain. Indian software exports account for less than 3 percent of the global software market. There are few Indian companies at the high end of value-addition — despite the success of U.S. nationals of Indian origin in Silicon Valley in the United States . Two sobering thoughts are in order. For all the hype, IT accounts for under 2 percent of India ‘s national income. Likewise, the fastest growing sector within it is the most wretched and undignified of all: call centres, where young people work 12 to 14-hour shifts for 150 U.S. dollars a month — only to reach a career dead end. However, what of the claimed high GDP growth? India ‘s average growth rate in the past three years has been its lowest in a decade. It is only this year that growth is estimated to clock 7 percent, largely on account of a good monsoon after two years of drought in parts of the country. Ironically, more GDP growth means less employment in today’s India . The annual GDP growth of five to six percent in the past couple of decades is not producing enough jobs. India ‘s organised-sector workforce has actually shrunk during each of the past five years. The sector shed 420,000 jobs in 2001-02, and now accounts for just 7 percent of total employment in India . Today, it has 910,000 fewer jobs than in 1997. So much for ‘ India Shining’! The fall has not been made up by the unorganised or informal sector, where total employment has risen by a mere 1 percent a year over the past decade. The population growth rate is almost double this. And the less said about the quality of employment for the 370 million who labour in the informal sector, the better. They work in abysmal conditions, and without minimal security of employment. Over the past 15 years or so, annual employment growth in India has decreased from 2.7 percent to just 1.1 percent. In the past, an additional output of 10 percent meant creating 6.8 percent more jobs. Today, it means only 1.6 new jobs — a shocking 76 percent decrease. Rural employment is so high even in some prosperous states like Punjab that thousands of young men and women try to smuggle themselves abroad. There are other distressing figures that tell Indian reality better: appalling stagnation in health, nutrition and education indicators. India now lags behind Bangladesh in primary education access. India ‘s rank in the U.N. Human Development Index has fallen from 124 to 127. There has been a decline in public spending and capital investment. Growth distribution has been hideously skewed. According to U.N. statistics, 47 percent of Indian children under five are underweight. A quarter of the population is undernourished. And 35 percent live below one dollar a day. India now spends less per capita on health than it did half a century ago. Public health services are near collapse, even as corporate hospitals boom. Primary education remains elusive for a third of India ‘s children. Thanks to greater military spending, there are severe cutbacks in state funding for schools. The difference is not made up by the donor agencies. India ‘s military spending has doubled in the last 6 years — the highest such increase since independence. This is of a piece with rising national chauvinism and militarisation of social life and values. When higher GDP means less employment and lower income for most people, horrendous social regression and discontent become likely. This creates precisely the cesspool of inequalities, disparities and discontent in which extreme right-wing politics thrives. No wonder forces like the Hindu-extremist Bharatiya Janata Party and the proto-fascist Shiv Sena are on the rise in ‘Shining’ India .

This article was written for Inter Press Service, 12 January 2004