There are many exiles faced by India’s poor. They are exiled from the consciences of the people of privilege and wealth. They are exiled from our cinema, television and newspapers. They are exiled from the priorities of public expenditure and governments. They are exiled from debates in Parliament and offices. They are exiled from institutions that could offer them some basic security through education, healthcare and social security. And they are exiled from the hope that their children or their grandchildren will one day escape a life of backbreaking toil and social humiliation.
This last is the most profound of their exiles. In my new book ‘Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India’ I speak of these many exiles, but most of all, the exile from hope.
P Chidambaram, former Finance Minister, in an interview with the BBC in 2007, declared his confidence that by 2040, India would wipe out poverty. What is noteworthy, firstly, is that the poverty of which he promised erasure is closer to near starvation-level ultra-poverty, not poverty as defined by the global norm of $2 income per day; secondly, he did not regard this timetable problematic in any way. The deputy chairperson of India’s Planning Commission during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, also went on record with the same time frame. Anthropologist Akhil Gupta observes: ‘By the time the Indian government plans to wipe out poverty, very few of the poorest people living today will still be alive. Such a statement makes sense… only against a backdrop in which high rates of poverty are taken as normal.’
Gupta illustrates this normalisation of poverty by posing a vexing question: why does a state whose legitimacy should derive from bettering the lives of the poor, continue to allow between 250 and 427 million people to live in desperate poverty, and deny them food, shelter, clean water, sanitation and healthcare? He suggests that poverty is a form of ‘structural violence’; that there is little substantive difference between genocide and simply allowing poor people to die. He calculates conservatively that about 2 million people have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases every year in post-colonial India. The total number of people who died in India’s last major famine, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, was three million. The annual number of India’s hidden, avoidable deaths dwarfs the annual loss of human life resulting from all natural disasters globally, estimated at about 300,000.
The reason why the preventable deaths of these many millions year after year is not ‘considered exceptional, a tragedy and a disgrace’, according to Gupta, is the normalization of poverty.
Indeed, for most people in India, just as there are hills, valleys, deserts, rivers and forests in this teeming, ancient country, there is also poverty. There has been poverty in the past, it exists in the present, and it will endure long into the foreseeable future. The social acceptability of letting people stay poor, therefore, is not considered problematic. Not providing food, clothing, shelter and healthcare to people in dire need is not seen as killing them. This social violence is rendered invisible so that poverty does not constitute a scandal, and the preventable deaths of masses of the poor do not provoke soul-searching or public outrage.
I argue also that the challenges of inequality in India are compounded by the powerful revival of the politics of difference, a new conservatism, and the evidence of active social and state hostility towards minority groups and communities, reflected in grossly under-provisioned Muslim ghettoes, religious profiling in both terror-related and other crimes, and the extra-judicial killings of tribals, Muslims and Dalits. There is a growing appeal among the middle classes of right-wing politics that often combines market fundamentalism with hostility towards minorities and India’s neighbours. In the general elections of 2014, this mood was best represented by Narendra Modi, who fought a blistering electoral battle deploying ‘shock and awe’ tactics against his adversaries-including liberals, socialists, ‘secularists’ and minorities – whom he felled decisively to become India’s sixteenth prime minister.
Of all the major political parties seeking votes in the 2014 elections, the BJP, through its prime ministerial candidate, offered the Indian electorate perhaps the most cohesive, if troubling, vision for the country. Modi offered a combination of three fundamentalisms. First, a market orthodoxy, which guarantees unprecedented levels of subsidies to big business in the form of long tax holidays, soft loans, cheap land and electricity, at the expense of public expenditure on education, health, social protection and public infrastructure. Next was communal fundamentalism, constituting barely -disguised hostility towards religious minorities, especially Muslims, which was the main rallying agenda on the ground in electorally-crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And the third was a militarist fundamentalism, envisioning an aggressive foreign policy, including war with Pakistan.
Modi’s offer to the voters was a kind of ‘buy one, get two free’ political bargain, but one in which you cannot embrace one of the fundamentalisms without also accepting the others.
The attraction to the middle classes to this kind of politics, I argue in my book, is because they are raised in three normative systems which justify inequality. The first of these is the caste system, which validates a social order in which a person’s birth legitimately determines her life chances, her access to education and the livelihoods open to her. The second is the British class system, in which people with old wealth, combined with exclusive education, acquire ‘refined’ lifestyles that mark them out from the ‘boorish lower classes’ and the ‘upstart new rich’. And the last of these is the more recently acquired celebration of conspicuous consumption associated with the collapse of the socialist world and the rise of neo-liberal, market-led growth. The dominant value is that ‘greed is good’- it is time to liberate oneself from the ‘socialist guilt’ of the past, to abandon old-fashioned values of thrift, restraint and modesty, and instead to make – or inherit – money and spend on oneself with no restraints or inhibitions.
This is the new India which celebrates when India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, follows up his gift of a 60-million-dollar jet-plane to his wife with the most expensive residence in the world, a twenty seven-storey house for a family of four, built at an estimated cost of one billion dollars, which boasts three helipads, four storeys of hanging gardens, and a staff of 600 domestic helpers. This, in a city where at least two hundred thousand people sleep on pavements, and more than 40 per cent of the population lives in shanties.
In the words of film-maker Saeed Mirza, “Large sections of the formerly ‘stoic’ middle class got seduced. It got seduced by all the goodies on display: food, clothes, cars, electronic gadgets, toiletries, beverages, shoes and everything else on display in those incredibly inviting store windows and shelves. It began to party. It was almost as if after years and years of abstinence this solid bloc of sobriety had gone on a binge. What nobody realized was that the centre of the nation had caved in. There was nothing to temper the onslaught of excess. All this was happening in a country where over seventy per cent of citizens lived on less than two dollars a day.”
This explains also why there is resistance among people of relative privilege to legislation which aims to make access to food, shelter, education, work and healthcare the fundamental right of every Indian citizen. Or to efforts to implement policies of affirmative action for historically -disadvantaged groups. There is, in reality, a hierarchy of citizenship under the thin veneer of equal citizenship guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Full citizenship is enjoyed only by the middle and upper classes-and even within these groups, it is enjoyed much more fully by urban, upper-caste, Hindu, non-tribal, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Today, the neo-middle classes and the aspirational classes are knocking on the doors of these dominant groups, hoping not to change the status quo, but to share its privilege.
(Harsh Mander is a human rights worker, writer, columnist, scholar and teacher, works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His books include ‘Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives’, ‘Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre’, ‘Fractured Freedom: Chronicles from India’s Margins’, ‘Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger’ and ‘Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India’.)