7-13 August 2015 #770

India’s skewed rise

A must-read for employees of multinational corporations striving to do business in india
Susan Froetschel

The challenge in examining inequality among countries is relativity. The United States ranks higher than India for income equality, but each country determines its own standard on poverty.

‘In India, the term middle class is elastic,’ writes journalist and historian Dilip Hiro in Indians in a Globalizing World: Their Skewed Rise. ‘Whereas a middle-class household in the West has a mortgage on the house, owns a car, and enjoys an annual vacation of a few weeks, the one in India manages a balanced diet daily, sends children to school, and can afford to buy a colour television.’

Indians in a Globalizing World - Their Skewed Rise  HarperCollins India, 2015

by Dilip Hiro

344 pages, 

Hardcover

Rs 1,000

India’s richest 10 per cent own about three quarters of the nation’s wealth, and Hiro relays personal tales of fortune and woe that offer insights into reams of complex data on inequality and India’s rapid development as an emerging economy. Hiro’s book, a good reminder of the complex realities for Indian policymakers, is a must-read for employees of multinational corporations striving to do business in the country.

With the normal challenges in the developing world, let alone the lingering notions of caste, India is not an equal society. The rags-to-riches stories, the surge of ideas in the workplace or coffee shops, exhilarate and inspire, each peppered with details on deliberate plotting, hard work and clever persistence in the competition to develop one’s self and business. The tragic tales are frustrating because stagnation and failure are not so mysterious with entrenched poverty, corruption, nepotism, inability to control natural resources and exploitation. The greedy and ambitious find ways to subvert government’s egalitarian intentions. 

For Indians, the correlation between income and education is highly visible. Even in the slums, upward mobility, though slight, is possible. Hiro’s descriptions are blunt assessments. Education offers the most reliable path to comfort and affluence, and the theme is woven throughout the chapters. Agriculture is the leading source of jobs in India, employing two out of three Indians, but uneven education opportunities in the rural areas contribute to exploitive loans and support for subsidies, reducing India’s competitiveness in global markets.

Stark inequality is dangerous, injecting greed into every level of society for every transaction. The longing for shortcuts to wealth costs the country in the end. Irritating moments of corruption are detailed throughout, and the chapter on ‘Sleaze Grows Exponentially’ details more than 10 cases that ignited public outrage – including the 2G telecom scandal when, in exchange for kickbacks and bribes, government officials sold the limited licenses at low cost to unqualified applicants, who promptly sold them to other firms. The loss in government revenues was estimated to be near $5 billion.

The domino effect of bribes, corruption and excessive campaign spending is hard to slow. Foreign companies and investors must be wary of fraud entangled with politics. Corruption and injustice encourage extremism, as suggested by the chapter on Naxal/Maoist opposition to neoliberal economic development, privatisation and foreign investment on natural resources in tribal areas in eastern and southern India.

Hiro is eager for the country to tackle its most glaring flaws of inequity. He details the drudgery of call-center workers, the disdain of shoppers who depend on mall security to bar entry to ‘riff-raff’. He admires the industrialists, but maintains they are not the only innovators. He marvels at the resourceful in rural areas and city slums who struggle for survival and miniscule improvements for their children along with activists who risk harassment and injury to promote accountability and justice. There is hope when turnout for elections runs more than 80 percent.

The definitions of poverty vary wildly around the globe, and Indian officials estimate that 30 percent of the country’s billion-plus people are poor. The competitive and democratic society has an obligation to expand its meaning of the common good.

YaleGlobal   Susan Froetschel is the author of five novels; the most recent is Allure of Deceit, set in Afghanistan.

Read also:

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