(this is a piece I wrote for EasternEye, back in 2013)
Rahul Gandhi made a speech in August about the need for nations to take social responsibility. It was a decent speech but unfortunately it also included a gaffe about how poverty ‘is a state of mind’.
In the same week India marked its 66th Independence anniversary and, as someone who happened to be in the country at the time, I couldn’t helping making some observations about this huge diverse nation with over 1.3 billion people, 350 languages and an unmentionable number of religions and religious sects.
So how far has India come in just over 60 years? – a question that is perennially asked by Western commentators.
There are of course different ways of answering such a question. From one perspective it’s a stable prospering nation governed by the laws of production, enterprise and capitalism despite its communist sounding formal name – the Republic of India. It is, for instance – along with China, one of the most influential nations in the Asian economic bloc asserting its influence on the world market and maintaining its barricade against external forces eager to take a slice of its potentially mass consumer economy. It has applied some restriction on foreign companies wanting to open branches including retail stores like Marks and Spenser – not because it is fearful of the West but because it wants to safeguard its own retail industry.
Apart from that, it has also hosted successful international tournaments including the Commonwealth games for the first time a couple of years ago, setting up a lucrative 20/20 cricket league attracting top global teams/players as well as the multi-million pounds F1 motor-racing. It has also made it easier for film companies to carryout production abroad in places like Switzerland, Germany, USA and Britain – giving a truly international feel to the locations.
And what’s more, internally there is a rapidly improving infrastructure – road improvements, buildings, huge skyscrapers in all major cities and vast developments in railways. The famous GT road running from the Wagh border in the north to Delhi is being expanded, developed beyond recognition. Tourist areas have also been cleaned up to meet international standards. For instance, at one time so many people used to complain about attractions like Agra where Taj Mahal is situated or Amritsar, the site of the Golden Temple. But today the roads outside these monuments are relatively clean, passable and almost beggar-free.
But despite its fairly successful dealing with secularism and investment in a mass urbanisation programme, India is also moving into modernity. There is the availability of internet in rural places, latest mobile phones and computers and a sizeable young educated group of professionals with disposable income. In fact it’s astonishing to see how much has improved – you only have to look at the multiple shopping malls emerging in all cities with international stores and/or brand names.
So it would seem it’s a nation on the move, looking towards a bright new dawn.
However, and rather sadly, India is still in the grip of its own past. There are still important aspects it has to deal with before it can be seen as having made a transition from a developing to a developed nation.
Firstly all parties have to put social responsibility high on the agenda of social programme – and not just use it as campaign soundbites for the general election in 2014 . In particular India has to recognise the role and status of women in a developed/developing society and that means it has to deal with the issue of violence against women/girls whether at home or outside in public. This is not an observation but a fact. For instance, on Wednesday last week on its first three pages, The Hindustan Times had six stories of child/girl abuse which included a school’s denial of admittance to a 12 year old victim of rape. Violence against women is rampant in India. The gang rape of a female student which received world-wide abhorrence and indignation in December last year, personified this clearly.
Similarly it could be argued that though India may seem progressive and moving towards modernity, this is mainly cosmetic. The underlining problems concern attitudes to lifestyle and ‘difference’. In the last three weeks I have noted racist/derogative comments made by Punjabis regarding students and migrant workers from African countries such as Uganda and even towards their own compatriots from other parts of India. Such intolerance is indicative of how entrenched India is in its own cultural and geographical insularity. And this is also the case regarding politics. Seniority of politicians – irrespective of ability – enables men (usually men) to manipulate the ignorant, illiterate sizeable population that can be bribed with rice, flour, eggs and even gadgets. There might not be open corruption as was once the case when as NRI (Non-Resident Indians) people had to bribe airport officials to let them through legally, but corruption is still rife in public and private domain.
Poverty is not, as Rahul Gandhi suggested, a state of mind. It is to do with the machinery of governance and politics and, rather more aptly, how we think about the accumulation and distribution of a nation’s wealth. Wealth and status should not be a right but a privilege that is earned. The poor are not asking for handouts but the right to operate in a fair system that enables them to work themselves out of poverty.
And, linked to this, India has to deal with its harbouring of the caste system that denies education, training and employment opportunities to the lower caste. And this is important because the caste system is deeply embedded in the psyche and consciousness of all Indians. In a recent report, for instance, 66% of young people said they would not marry someone of the lower caste than themselves. Violence is meted out to the so-called ‘untouchables’ with authorities either turning a blind eye or refusing to prosecute due to, as in many cases, ‘insufficient evidence’.
Coupled with suttee, forced marriages, conflicts over dowry, the abuse of daughter in laws and a host of unfair cultural and religious practises in the name of honour evidenced all over the country, India has still got a long way to go.
Conservative attitudes or an outdated mindset from the new generation suggest how far the country needs to improve before its leaders can start preaching to other countries in the west about social responsibility especially when their hypothesis is based on dubious assumptions that poverty is the mind and implicitly, therefore, a fault of the poor.