By Colin Todhunter
30 May, 2012
When a rich tycoon was interviewed about India’s inaugural Formula 1 race and asked if the nation’s priorities should lie elsewhere (with alleviating poverty, for example), he said let’s concentrate on what India has, rather than what it hasn’t got.
Easy for him to say. With a mouthful of dust and a rock for a pillow, the poor have for too long received little airtime or column inches when compared with the concerns of the middle classes and elites.
When the Sensex goes up, we are led to believe that this is good for India. In the west, when a company sheds workers to decrease costs, its stocks and shares go up. This is also presented as good news. But such things are not health indicators of the economy or the country. They are indicators of how happy the rich are, of how much they are benefiting from free market policies.
And India’s rich have become very happy indeed. At a time when so many are suffering financial hardship, ‘High Net-Worth Individuals’ (HNWI), according to a report by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, have more than doubled in India. In 2008-09, India had 84,000 HNWIs. In 2010, it rose by 50 per cent, the biggest increase of all countries.
Almost everywhere, the sickening displays of conspicuous consumption are plastered on billboards, highlighted in TV commercials and expounded by various millionaire celebrities endorsing some or other worthless product that is, partly by virtue of them endorsing it, touted as being priceless. It can be easy to become desensitised by the poverty we see around us on a daily basis. Easier to say “leave me alone” and take refuge in the living room and tune in to the latest feel good TV programme, or read the latest gossip column in the glossy supplements.
Appealing to base instincts, greed and narcissism has become the priority value of ‘modern’ India. The need to shop is more of a priority than is the need to fill an empty belly. How many gleaming malls selling ‘must have’ international designer goods have been built on the backs of ‘never have’ sweated labour? ‘Never have’ education. ‘Never have’ enough food. ‘Never have’ the opportunity to fulfil their human potential.
For too long, the poor have prayed each day for what tomorrow never brought. The cruel fact is that tomorrow could have delivered. And it could have done so some time back.
How many rupees have ended up in Swiss banks, robbing such folk of a quality of life they can now only but dream of? According to some estimates, it could be over Rs 72,80,000 crore. Data from the Swiss Banking Association in 2006, indicated that India had more black money than the rest of the world combined, or 13 times India’s total national debt. And then there is the UP rice scam, direct theft from the poor, involving some Rs 2,00,000 crore. Astronomical figures were also involved in the 2G Spectrum scam. And so on.
Last year,Global Finance Integrity reported that USD 460 billion had gone missing from the Indian economy since Independence via illegal capital flow, thus widening the gap between rich and poor. The report suggested the main guilty parties have been private organisations and High Net Worth Individuals. The figure, however, could be grossly underestimated because it doesn’t include other illegal practices, such as smuggling and cash transfers outside the financial system.
After a while, though, statistics and claims about corruption become mere figures, mere words. Like the poor who we see living on the pavements, we can become desensitised to them. But beneath them lies a story of wasted human potential and sickening greed, whether that greed is by individuals or whether it is underpinned by the institutionalised corruption of an economic system that ensures wealth flows from bottom to top –and stays there. And as these processes continue and we can seemingly do little to challenge them, further desensitisation occurs.
The cost of this corruption has been a proper education system for all, a first class health care system and decent roads, buses, city and rural infrastructures. Instead, India’s elites have conspired to leave this country with cities that are becoming nightmares to live in, with a rundown rural sector mired in problems and poverty and with a mass of people that are treated little better than cattle by the police, politicians and authority in general.
Too many still accept this. Too many accept the cattle prod lathi of corrupt, sneering, contemptuous officialdom. Partly, unlike the middle classes, they do not have the time, energy or luxury to protest. Partly, they have become conditioned to accept this state of affairs. A good old dose of fatalism is reckoned on by those in charge to keep the less well off grateful for their miserable predicament.
The term ‘crimes against humanity’ is thrown around quite liberally these days. But seldom on such a list will you see sections of the Indian political and economic elite who have been responsible for the mass malnutrition and hunger, the early deaths, the wasted potential, the massive poverty, the daily suffering and by implication, the complete and utter contempt for the lives of crores of their own countryfolk.
Better for some to lie back and indulge if a grotesque form of cerebral masturbation by thinking of Formula 1, by thinking of a bulging Swiss bank account, by thinking of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Life’s easier that way. For some.
Colin Todhunter : Originally from the northwest of England, writer Colin Todhunter has spent many years in India. He has written extensively for the Deccan Herald (the Bangalore-based broadsheet), New Indian Express and Morning Star (Britain). His articles have on occasion also appeared in the Kathmandu Post, Rising Nepal, Gulf News, North East Times (India), State Times (India), Meghalaya Guardian, Indian Express and Southern Times (Africa). Various other publications have carried his work too, including the London Progressive Journal and Kisan Ki Awaaz (India’s national farmers’ magazine). A former social policy researcher, Colin has been published in the peer-reviewed journals Disability and Society and Social Research Update, and one of his articles appears in the book The A-Z of Social Research (Sage, 2003).