Wednesday, 23 January 2008

India's poor hold the key to its future

By Peter Foster
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 23/01/2008

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Worldstage: New Delhi

In a week when Gordon Brown has visited India and world markets have been rocked by fears of global recession, the stark contrasts between rich and poor in new India are more striking than ever.
# Peter Foster: Till we meet again

As this correspondent leaves the country for the last time, the disparities of wealth remain so vast, they are sometimes dizzying. How do you make sense of a world where you fly to Mumbai in the private jet of one of India's richest men one day and then spend the next in the teeming slums where nine million people live in conditions that, in Europe, would be declared unfit for animals?

Cows rest among the traffic in a busy street in India
Education and healthcare can remove the grinding poverty that afflicts most of India

One particular night, two years ago, the jet belonged to Vijay Mallya, owner of the Kingfisher beer brand and the man often styled as "India's Branson".

He was exhausted but very happy, having a few hours previously signed off on a new airline that would see his ever-present corporate banner take to the skies. He was brimming with excitement about the new India, a business story "of such humungous proportions", he said, that people in Europe and America "cannot comprehend".

As we lounged on the monogrammed upholstery, sipping a fine Chablis, Mallya punched a button on his arm-rest. A plasma screen television came to life and played a pilot of an advertisement for the new airline. It starred Mallya, exhorting would-be customers to "Fly the Good Times" with him, the self-styled "King of Good Times" in boom-town India.

As the plane touched down, its wing-tips seemed almost to brush the tin-roofed shanties that crowd the perimeter of Mumbai's airport, their sweet stink filtering through the air-conditioning system of Mallya's private Boeing.

On the tarmac, we went our separate ways - Mallya to his Bentley and penthouse; me and my notebook to a couple living in a hovel under a bridge in Dharavi slum.

Shenaz and her husband, Subir, both in their early twenties, made their living sifting household rubbish for metal, squatting on the floor of their shack searching for anything that might be worth a few precious rupees - an iron bed spring, a brass door catch, a few strands of copper wire - anything that had a price with the scrap dealers. Like millions of others, they had come from a village in rural India to scratch a living in the city.

Theirs was - is - a pitiful existence, but as I rapidly came to realise on my travels in India, pity is a commodity that most people, however poor, don't have much time for.

Shenaz and Subir lived on the edge of an open sewer, in a wooden box not much bigger than two large packing cases, actually and metaphorically at the bottom of India's billion-man economic dust-heap. Surely village life was preferable to this, I wondered? Shenaz smiled. "Here we eat every night," she said, "and we even save some money."

Development, as the economists say, is a "messy business", but in India that particular truism is all too often an excuse for inaction and indifference.

Foreign visitors to India (and plenty of wealthy Indians besides) often allow themselves to think that India's poor - some 700 million people, depending on where you draw the line - are content in their poverty; that they know nothing else and somehow manage to keep smiling. But in my experience, that is not the case.

The truth is that India's poor are angry, and rightly so. Their schools are too often empty of teachers - India sits only above Uganda for absenteeism, according to a UN survey this year - and, without education, the poor have no chips to join in the game of global capitalism.

Public health is a disaster - almost half of all children in India are malnourished - a fact that can largely be ascribed to the fact that their political masters are running a kleptocracy, often of African proportions. Why else did the World Bank withhold £550 million in health-project loans to India last year, a humiliation also meted out to Chad, Kenya and Congo?

At times over the past four years it has been hard to love India (though very rarely Indians themselves), such is the contempt with which much of the country's elite treats the unwashed poor. Ministers deliver laudable speeches almost daily, economic summits are attended with back-slapping fanfare but the gap between intention and action remains Brahmaputra-wide.

Perhaps it is caste discrimination - still endemic in 80 per cent of Indian villages, says Human Rights Watch - that allows such indifference to the poor to prevail. Perhaps it is just that India's middle classes are enjoying themselves so much - the stock market increased by 50 per cent this year - that they don't see the connection between rural poverty and their own futures.

But like it or not, while the poor are India's burden today, they are also the key to it tomorrow. More than 70 per cent of Indians believe their country will be an economic superpower by 2020, according to a survey published last month by a German research organisation.

But that commonplace prediction won't come to pass unless and until Shenaz and Subir, and several hundred million people like them, receive the health and education they need to become the next generation of consumers and workers.

It is a matter of pressing self-interest, not charity, for India's elite classes, because, without that investment in the human foundations of India's economy, Mr Mallya and his customers might not be "flying the good times" for as long as they currently seem to think.

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