The India kaleidoscope has charmed the world for centuries. A flick of the wrist conjures up startlingly contrasting images. Maharajahs and millionaires. Snake-charmers and poor farmers. Beauty queens and burnt brides. A population explosion juxtaposed with high child and maternal mortality. BMWs and bullock carts.
Indians leapt for joy when Bill Gates dubbed India an IT superpower. And for the 250 million who make up the middle class, India is definitely the place to be. But while the new millennium was ushered in with champagne and caviar by the rich and famous in Delhi and Mumbai, the poor continued to die of cold in winter, heatstroke in summer, and of hunger, drought and floods in India’s most vulnerable states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa.
In the Nilgiri hills where I live, tea plantation workers have declared a ban on celebrations of Diwali (a major local festival). God knows, they haven’t much to celebrate with anyway. Tea prices have crashed, leading to the closure of tea factories and record unemployment. The poor are not buying even the subsidized rice in government shops because they can’t afford it. The poorest 20 per cent are eating less basic staple food; we are not talking here of luxuries. Meanwhile in Bangalore, just 250 kilometres away, there are price wars enticing the rich to buy Pepsi, Coke, pizzas and burgers.
Leader: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Economy: GNP per capita $370 (Pakistan $500, Britain $20,870).
Monetary unit: Rupee.
Main exports: Gems & jewellery (15%), engineering goods (15%).
India is the twelfth largest industrial power in the world, with its own nuclear industry, arms industry and even its own space satellites. But it also has half a million villages and 63% of the labour force dependent on agriculture. India has been self-sufficient in food for the last two decades.
People: 998.1 million (1999 figure, though India passed the one-billion mark during 2000). People per sq km: 299 (Britain 238).
Health: Infant mortality 69 per 1,000 live births (Pakistan 95, Britain 6). AIDS is a rising concern.
Environment: The key issue is the damming of the Narmada River, which is being resisted by campaigners all over the world. Large mammals are endangered, especially the tiger.
Culture: Ethnically diverse but the majority descends from the Aryan peoples who developed the Vedic civilization. Dravidian people predominate in the south.
Languages: Hindi is the official and most widely spoken language; Punjabi is official second language and English third. Of the myriad others Bengali, Gujarati and Oriya are widely used in the north; Tamil, Telegu and Kannada in the south.
Religion: Hindu 83%, Muslim 11%, Sikh 2%.
Sources: UN Population Division; World Guide 1999/2000; State of the World’s Children 2000; Asia & Pacific Review 1999.
Last profiled March 1990
At 50% still very low,
though slowly improving (Pakistan 39%, Majority
World average 70%).
India has signed the WTO agreement. We are flooded with foreign apples while apple growers in the state of Himachal Pradesh are being wiped out. It is suicide season, quite literally, for farmers all over India who are in absolute despair. Paradoxically, though the last decade saw India become self-sufficient in food grains, this decade has seen a slide in food production. In order to earn dollars to please the IMF and World Bank, we are switching to cash crops, despite the warnings of food-security analysts. I have seen tomatoes rotting in Andhra Pradesh fields because the prices crashed. I have seen silkworm and teak plantations subsidized by the World Bank. But I never see rice.
The contrasts abound. India houses nearly half of the world’s malnourished children – 47 per cent to be precise. And every third low-birthweight baby belongs to us. Yet many educated, urban people celebrated May 1999 as a coming of age when India publicly and proudly went nuclear with the Pokhran blast.
India has more women professionals than any other country in the world. Since 1947, there have been more women in politics in India than in the US or Britain. Yet we still have brides burnt to death because of unpaid dowry demands, female infanticides and the aborting of girl babies. In most parts of the country women live in utterly feudal conditions.
The rise of a fundamentalist Hindu party has led to regular attacks on minorities and the frightening emergence of strident anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric from a group which openly states that it takes Adolf Hitler as its role model. There are, however, an encouraging number of Hindus fighting to retain secularism.
The negative overshadows the positive. But the last decade has definitely brought a sea change in people’s awareness about human rights. India now has well-organized groups of human-rights activists fighting for the rights of dalits (‘untouchables’), adivasis (indigenous people), women, children and the poor. And the press has contributed to the greater awareness of human-rights issues, despite the wretched new Murdoch-like formats.
India’s hope lies in its people who through centuries of oppression have shown the most amazing resilience. The movement for independence (achieved in 1947) bred a spirit of resistance which periodically surfaces, with astounding results. And against all odds, I believe Indians will win through again.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara
The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have headed the coalition government since 1998 - and conducted open nuclear tests within weeks of coming to power. The irony is that by signing the WTO agreement and opening the economy to Western corporations they have probably done more than any past government to undermine India's traditional independence. The rise in communal politics is eroding the secular values of the Constitution.