Monday 20 August 2007

Incredible India!

India has just celebrated her 60th year of independence. Western media have marked the event by doing specials (Time), featured articles (Irish Times), or documentaries (BBC). The tone of the coverage has been overwhelmingly upbeat – the flourishing high tech centre at Bangalore, the new middle class, the strength of Indian democracy. Some did mention that much work has to be done on the poverty front, but none that I saw came anywhere near conveying the magnitude of India’s chronic poverty problem.

I visited India two years ago as part of my honeymoon trip. Initially I wasn’t that interested, but my wife persuaded me. It turned out to be one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had. India is intense, in your face, charming, exhausting, magnificent, and utterly unforgettable. That’s all for another day. Here I want to write about poverty.

Nothing can prepare you for the scale of poverty in India – not even Africa. Between them, the two regions are home to the vast bulk of the world’s extreme poor. But the poverty in India is more intense because it is far more densely populated. India is home to about 400 million more souls than Africa, yet incredibly, the latter is almost 10 times as large.

Owing to its recent prosperity, India is by no means the World’s poorest country on average (GDP per capita $3,800 versus $1,300 in Mali and $44,000 in Ireland), but its wealth is distributed so unequally that the average hides the severity and extent of deprivation there. The earnings for India’s 300 million severely poor are so low that income is of limited use in measuring the severity of their destitution. Perhaps the best indicator is calorie intake. About 200 million people in India suffer malnourishment. According to Amartya Sen, about half of all Indian children are malnourished. The figure for Sub-Saharan Africa is around 40%. In the rural state of Assam a staggering 45% of households do not have access to two square meals per day.

Another measure is adult literacy. Here the rates in some Indian states for female and male literacy compare with those in some of Africa’s poorest nations. The rates for Burkina Faso are 10 and 31 while those in the Bahraich Administrative District in Uttar Pradesh are 11 and 36. Similarly for infant mortality. The average value in Sub-Saharan Africa is 104 per 1000. In the state of Uttar Pradesh (population greater than Russia) the figure is 97 per 1000. (For comparison the rate in Ireland is 5 per 1000).

An anecdote from the city of Jaipur will illustrate what these figures mean on the ground. We hired a rickshaw driver for the day for about 5 euros. His name was Abdullah and he took us on a tour of his native city. We saw the Temple of the Winds, the Markets, and the fabulous Jaigur Fort. But we also took a tour around the heart of the city’s slum area –near to where Abdullah lives. The slum was vast and miserable. Sewage ran openly in the streets, collecting in green putrid pools. Shelter ranged from sticks and canvass to more solid structures like sheds. No running water or sanitation of any kind. Temperatures ran close to 40 degrees. The stench is easily imagined. We made the following observation in our diary:

You can tell their degree of poverty by their sewage-there's about 4 categories- stagnant pools= lowest of the low, flowing openly down a channel= a little bit better, flowing openly but with little walkways over it= shop people, and finally if it's not visible at all= you're quite well off.”

Abdullah brought us to his house. He was moderately well off by Indian standards. He lived with his wife and 4 children in a two room house. Each room was about the size of an Irish box-room and both were built on top of another building. They had no sanitation or running water. Cooking was done outside. His entire worldly possessions fitted in one small trunk at the foot of the bed. He took out a little bunch of photos. He’d been married earlier in life but his first wife had died – he didn’t say how. Abdullah was earning enough from his Rickshaw driving to feed his family and to send his kids to school. But it was a difficult slog – he worked nearly all the time and never got breaks. Income was unreliable and at times he couldn’t meet the rent for the rickshaw. His family were by no means utterly destitute – indeed, his children would have some hope of a better future if they managed to stay at school. But their welfare was extremely precarious – should Abdullah fall ill or have an accident, this family would meet catastrophe. For Abdullah then, the India of high tech and consumer goods simply didn’t exist. That there are not millions, but hundreds of millions far worse off than he, gives some idea of the challenge facing India.

We saw much evidence of progress – new roads were being built; Delhi’s metro line was under construction; a middle class, wealthy and confident, was clearly on the increase; modern shopping malls had sprung recently up in the bigger cities; But in the city slums and rural villages, an unimaginably vast number of poor and destitute eke out miserable diminished lives.

The India Ministry of Tourism promotes their country with the slogan “Incredible India”. For me it was exactly that – an enormous, culturally rich, diverse, and brutally unequal place. Simply incredible.


vinod Kumar said...

Nice one..being an indian i can relate to the way u rated poverty based on the sewage scale.

Very true!!!

Anonymous said...

lasting impact of 300 yrs of colonial exploitation...will take some time to clean up