Sunday, 31 January 2010
I've been reflecting for some weeks now on my recent visit to India - four years since my previous visit. Every time I go, something always astounds me - either the fact that youth drinking culture, however clandestine, is taking off or that street vendors are now selling copies of the Harvard Business Review or US Vogue instead of animal shaped balloons or plastic toys. I've named this blog entry after an advert that prevails on every international channel shown in Indian hotels including my preferred channel - BBC World. The ad, colourful and slickly shot aims to showcase some of India's greatest treasures. It features a sprightly twenty-something Caucasian male flitting between the Taj Mahal, getting covered in Holi colours, strolling along a Kerelan beach and tiger-spotting in one of the national parks. It's also accompanied by a convincing Cafe del Mar meets Nitin Sawney soundtrack. If you've never actually been to India, the ad would get you there in a flash. It encapsulates the cultural variety, natural beauty and warm welcome commonly associated with the country and, my brown bias aside, these things do exist there. I myself have done most of the things that the guy in the advert has done and in that respect India is indeed incredible. But incredible is a word loaded with ambiguity. One dictionary defines 'incredible' as 'beyond belief or understanding' and while India is incredible in the many positive ways depicted in the advert; there are serious issues in India, both old and new that I'm trying very hard to get my head around.
India has always been a country struggling with poverty. The continuous population growth, persistent government corruption, lack of welfare system and the suggestion that only 3% of Indians pay the correct amount of income tax means that it's near to impossible to try and change the fortunes of those at the bottom. Even after a fleeting moment of glitz and glamour at the Oscars, the child stars of Slumdog Millionaire still ended up back in their slums. If you're at the bottom, chances are you will always be at the bottom. Having said that, the slightly-less-than-poor, i.e. the people a couple of steps up from the bottom have started making things of themselves and have consequently been changing the demographic shape of India. If you can rustle up enough cash to get a decent degree or college qualification and then work your socks off 6 days a week for many years, it is possible to make a good life for yourself. And lots have - leading to the unprecedented growth of India's middle class (even though 'middle' refers to a lower standard than in Europe or the US) and consequently the growth of India's economy. This class is now said to consist of over 300 million people - more than the entire population of America. But it's debatable just how positive this rise of India's middle class is. While it's admirable that India's economy grows steadily while Western democracies sit in recessionary slumps, the growth in spending power has fostered a culture of neo-yuppyism which, it seems, no one in India seems to notice. People in India are now very serious about owning Stuff. They want to go to American style shopping malls and spend their money - buying everything from flatscreen TVs to designer sunglasses and the latest mobile phones. They shun some Indian brands for posher European counterparts. I was laughed at in one cosmetics shop for wanting to purchase the apparently backward Fair and Lovely facecream given that Garnier and Neutrogena both had 'better' products - better meaning that they weren't Indian. But the realities of this new consumerism only came to a head when I was taken to lunch at Emporio - a new mall near the district of Vasant Kunj in south Delhi. It was here that I realised some people in India had become so rich that they can afford to buy stuff that most in England would have trouble affording - Louis Vuitton handbags, Armani suits, Jimmy Choos. This mall had nothing but designer outlets of the highest degree. You couldn't really buy anything, even a basic top for less than ₤100. But as you drive into the haven of marble, mahogany and the mega-rich you see what those who approved the mall probably wouldn't want you to see - a shanty town, the ultimate symbol that things in India still haven't changed for so many people. I could see two young women with babies sitting under a cloth canopy held up by two uneven wooden poles surrounded by dust and debris from the newly constructed mall. That was their home. I was heartbroken. The Nouveau Riche of Hindustan have become so obsessed with their new found wealth that they have forgotten what it's like to have very little. Worse still, quite a lot of them try and block out the signs that India is still poverty-stricken. They don't want to see or know that it still exists. Maybe this is in part due to guilt, but quite often I think it's to do with the fact that they want everything to be shiny and new, like the things they're purchasing from the malls. This being the case, it's highly unlikely they're going to give any of it up to help anyone else, after all a lot of them came from very little too. Redistribution of wealth through a proper system of taxation would be a complete turn-off for them.
As you can see, the discrepancies between India's highest and lowest is a huge concern for me. During my visit, I actually felt a heavy cloud of greed across Delhi. There's immense pressure for people to prove that they can buy what they want and live how they want to live, even at the expense of those who have nothing. Over a third of people in India live under the international poverty line, surviving on less than $1.25 a day and if the middle classes continue to behave as they have been, this won't get any better despite India's overall economic growth. Maybe this is a chance for India's old money - those that have been sitting at the top of the tree for decades, (most probably on pre-colonial wealth) to follow some philanthropic role models from the West - Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and give some of their cash to help those who can't even feed their kids or educate themselves to get a menial job. Maybe then the new money will follow suit and the government might be able to implement some sort of poverty eradication policy. It's all well and good for the Incredible !ndia ad to portray the nation as a cultural paradise, but the consumerism eating away at India's romantic soul may well prevent future visitors from seeing it through rose-tinted glasses as they previously did. With the Commonwealth Games being held there in October, Indians need to become more self-aware. They want to be seen as citizens of a modern country that can complete economically with the rest of the world but until the impoverished can have a chance in life, the rest of the world will start seeing through their inner selfishness.