During the last presidential primaries, Sen. John Edwards, who has since disappeared from the political radar, constantly referred to “two Americas” — one America that struggles to get by and lacks political clout, and another that has plenty of everything, including the ability to shape government policies. While this duality is subject to debate, such a schism is certainly visible all the way across the planet — the “First World” India of commerce, call centers and high technology, versus the poor and backward millions of “Third World” India.
After being ignored by successive American governments all through the Cold War, India now gets considerable attention. We have now had three successive, and successful, presidential visits by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Of course, the economic and geopolitical angles are what interest the United States, and it is this “First World” India that we are increasingly familiar with. It is also thanks to such a familiarity that NBC now features a sitcom, “Outsourced,” whose context is India and its call centers.
And when the media report about the world’s first billion-dollar house, which will be home to the family of India’s richest individual, Mukesh Ambani, we are certainly impressed — and perhaps made a little insecure, too, by rapidly growing prosperity in a country that for years did not rank that much higher above Ethiopia in our mental impressions of poverty on the planet.
However, poverty has not really gone away; it is, unfortunately, alive and well in “Third World” India.
While it is true that rapid economic growth has lifted quite a few million Indians from poverty, the poor are by no means an insignificant minority. A multidimensional poverty index used by the United Nations Development Program counted 421 million people living in acute poverty in eight Indian states, exceeding in sheer numbers the 410 million in the 26 poorest African countries combined.
This is a staggering number of poor people, a number that does not show up in our calculated economic and geopolitical interests in India. Even those skeptical about the accuracy of the UNDP estimates will not find it difficult to imagine that the number of poor in India will be in the hundreds of millions.
Over the years, this parallel existence of an India that is poor has also resulted in a growing radical and violent movement, whose members are referred to as Maoists. Yes, Mao — as in China’s Mao Zedong, who has been pushed aside ever since Deng Xiaoping opened the Chinese economy in 1979 and declared that “to be rich is glorious.”
It is no surprise that India’s Maoists are active in the same states that are home to the vast numbers of poor tallied in the UNDP study of poverty. Decades ago, in a much poorer India, Maoist “rebels” were present in other states, too.
During my childhood, the adults in the family often spoke in hushed tones about a much older cousin of mine who had suddenly dropped out of college and gone “underground.” As a kid who only knew the literal meaning of the word, I didn’t understand then that “underground” meant that he had joined the radical, and often violent, communist groups.
But now, such groups are almost nonexistent in the southern parts of India that I visit — these states boast of homegrown multinational computer and automobile corporations. Maoists have long exited these regions, which have experienced economic growth and prosperity, and where governments offer considerable support for the economically and socially disadvantaged.
It is also not a mere coincidence that this cousin later on completed his college education, had a successful banking career, and is now a retired grandfather.
It is time for my next trip to India, and it includes spending a couple of days at a conference that will be held in one of those eight states with high poverty — Orissa. The focus of this academic conference is on rural laborers who, without land, property and political weight, find themselves in precarious economic situations.
Through the conference papers and a little bit of traveling, I hope to understand this “other” India, even as I spend most of my time in the successful “First World” India and report as your correspondent.
Published: Monday, Nov 29, 2010 05:01AM