Tariq Thekaekara

India’s spectacular economic growth is the talk of the town in Davos, London, Geneva, Washington DC and other centres of influence. Talk to alternative economists, however, and they’ll say: ‘eight per cent growth, yes, but what about distribution?’ Nobel laureate Amartya Sen tells us India lags behind Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in health and malnutrition statistics, and that the poorest in India are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa.

But India’s political classes simply shrug their shoulders. We’ve always had the filthy rich alongside the desperately poor, they reason. So the wealthy and the middle class continue to flourish while the poor scrabble for the crumbs.

Indians take pride in the fact that this is not Pakistan. We have a free press which criticizes the government stridently. Currently The Hindu’s WikiLeaks exposé is delivering an Indian Watergate, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Yet our human rights situation remains appalling. Writer and campaigner Arundhati Roy was attacked by right-wing newspapers and politicians for her scathing indictment of the genocide that is currently being perpetrated on adivasis (indigenous people) in central India in the name of countering Maoist terrorism. We do have a terrorist problem. And there’s no simplistic solution. But in many places the adivasis are being killed and pushed out of their traditional homelands because of the mineral wealth they live on. Transnational corporations move in, rapidly destroying a millennia-old lifestyle, and people are crushed, exploited and pulverized like the minerals the predators so desperately desire.

The underlying malaise is an all-pervasive greed which appears to have taken over the corridors of power. 2010 will go down in history as the Year of Scams – thanks to the unholy nexus between the corrupt corporate world and venal politicians. Corruption contaminates everything. It is completely out in the open now. The question is, will these revelations change anything?

So far, so negative. And yet India is a kaleidoscope. A flick of the wrist and a new picture emerges.

Flag of India

The last decade witnessed spectacularly innovative legislation. The Right to Information Act gives more power to human rights defenders. The Forest Rights Act admitted centuries of injustice to adivasis, virtually gave them back their forests, but implementation remains dismal. The controversial Right to Education Act needs many changes, but is nevertheless a huge milestone for India’s children. Another new law ensures 100 days’ employment per year for every rural family below the poverty line.

In March 2010, a historic Bill was passed reserving 33 per cent of parliamentary seats for women. Female lawyers, doctors and politicians have always been around but now we are seeing women conquering traditional male bastions, with a visible increase in female police, pilots, techies and so on. And yet flip the kaleidoscope again and remember that in the states of Haryana and Punjab a generation of women has never been born due to sex-selective abortion, leaving men to travel to other states in search of brides.

There are also myriad new schemes for the absolute poor such as almost-free rice, special allowances for pregnant women, providing schoolgirls with bicycles and so on.

Turn the kaleidoscope again and consider that many of the gains of the last 10 years threaten to be wiped out by the government’s policy of opening liquor shops to generate revenue. This has led to health problems, domestic violence and social breakdown, the costs of which completely outstrip the revenue.

The hope, as always, lies in activist-led people’s movements fighting for freedom, for an organic food revolution – for everything needed to make India a better place for our children and grandchildren.