Nepali Times Asian Paints
Plain Speaking
More unequal


NEW DELHI-A few days in the Indian capital gives one a peek into India's political and economic trajectory.

Nepal's constitution makers could learn from India's mistakes to carve out institutions that are not only procedurally democratic, but also substantively accountable. Now that the Maoists have told us they were fighting for a bourgeois economic revolution, they should ensure the capitalist growth they envisage, unlike the Indian model, is inclusive of the poor from the outset.

Indian democracy is concentrated in the 5km power radius at the centre of the capital: the Lutyens bungalows of politicians, Congress and BJP offices on Akbar and Ashoka road, the Left hub near Gole Market, and the majestic government structures of North and South Block. Policy carved out here in the precincts of imperial Delhi affects 1.5 billion South Asians.

But there are built-in checks and balances. It is not easy for a singular power centre to push through its agenda. The coalition system means regional parties and smaller interest groups need to be heard. Inter-departmental bureaucratic battles are the norm. The judiciary is powerful.

Corporate India's influence has grown tremendously. Reliance's Mukesh Ambani and Narayan Murthy of Infosys are more important than most ministers. The sweep of the media means no government can afford to ignore issues which are broadcast relentlessly and reach millions. Fortunately for the powerful, news channels are too busy covering cricket, crime and cinema to keep tabs on the establishment and be the voice of the unheard.

That is why, despite the presence of what one would assume are balancing factors, there is a neat consensus on certain issues. A stark manifestation of the new Indian consensus can be witnessed in New Delhi and its paradoxes.

The capital is witnessing rising income and consumption. It is clearly booming, if booming means pockets of prosperity, rising real estate prices, young professionals working 16 hours a day six days a week selling everything from soap to insurance, roads teeming with cars, more and more malls and night clubs, and the rise of a self-obsessed middle class.

But there is another side to the Delhi, or more broadly, the India story. This is not merely about those who are left behind: it is about those who are willingly sacrificed for the sake of the booming economy. Over the past few years, the city's poor working class has been trampled. An over-interventionist judiciary teamed up with an administration eager to clean up Delhi before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The media, nauseatingly celebratory all the time, cheered on.

First, the slums were demolished. Technocrat planners said it was illegal. The poor had migrated from the rural hinterland fleeing crippling poverty, agrarian distress and the absence of employment or had been dispossessed due to development projects, dams, mining or SEZs.

It was government policy that forced them to leave their villages, but once they started eking out an existence on the city's margins, their urban habitat was taken away. A judge, ordering demolitions of slums, was asked where would the people go. He answered, "I did not call them here."

The slum dwellers lost not just their homes but also their livelihoods. The prohibition on labour-intensive industrial units within the capital, and the sealing drive against commercial establishments left the poor even poorer.

The workers, largely from UP and Bihar, also have to face a political backlash which stems from regional chauvinism. This may be more pronounced in Bombay than Delhi. But the Delhi chief minister has said that the city has problems because of workers from other states. Her target is obviously not the upwardly mobile Bihari IT professional in Gurgaon but the Bihari rickshaw-puller in Chandini Chowk. Such statements fuel the disdain and contempt with which the Delhi elite view the urban poor.

Inequity is the hallmark of the new Indian economy. The poor have a voice every five years and are distant from decision-making or formal institutions. Can Nepali politicians teach India a few lessons by carving out truly democratic and accountable institutions? Can they bridge the Gini coefficient to avoid the glaring economic gaps between the rich and poor? That will be the real revolution.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)