issue 205 - March 1990
India presents a bazaar of images. In my home town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, the images are those of a boom city: baroque villas of the newly rich industrialists; a marble public school run on British lines; a bridge named after Gandhi, draped with the bodies of the sleeping poor at night.
India's contradictions are well-known. For a country which had a cash-crop based economy with little industrial infrastructure when under British rule, India's 'recovery' has been remarkable. Industrial growth and investment is high. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's technocrats initiated a love-affair with modernisation. Sharpness and efficiency were the new watchwords, creating opportunities for the private sector to step in, showing up the cumbersome bureaucratic public sector.
But the condition of India's poor is worsening. Early development programmes followed the 'trickle-down' route, with capital creation urged in the hope that the benefits would eventually reach the poorest, They didn't. Today, businessmen, merchant farmers and politicians are the new exploiters. They organise the landless poor to create goods they cannot themselves purchase.
The persistence of poverty reinforces population growth, as poor people view children as assets capable of begging, then working, rather than liabilities. The late Mrs Gandhi's forced sterilisation programmes of the 1970s have left people mistrustful of family planning. Today's programmes are aimed at women, reflecting male domination. Women may have constitutional equality but they still labour for lower wages than men.
In agriculture, India is now self-sufficient in food grains and exports them too. This ability to feed its own people prevented mass starvation in the droughts of 1989. High-yielding varieties of rice and wheat have brought bounty to the larger farmers who could invest the land and money for the fertilisers required.
No longer viewed by the outside world as a basket-case, Western news of India relates to border disputes with neighbouring Pakistan and China, and the internal turmoil in the Punjab.
But for poor people, chronic hunger persists. They are a nation apart, existing in limbo, dividing dwindling scraps between them, sleeping on the streets, excluded from the decision-making process. Prime Minister V. P. Singh's promises of 'transparent' government may reassure some, but others will remember that his predecessor, Rajiv Gandhi, was once called 'Mr Clean'.
Leaders, with their promises, come and go. Meanwhile, even by conservative government estimates, about 40 percent of the rural population struggle below the poverty line.
Leader: Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh
Economy: GNP per capita $300 (US $18,530)
People: 818 million
Health: Infant mortality: 98 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
Culture: Though racial distinctions are blurred, cultural identity is strongly maintained. The government discourages casteism, but social reform in this area has not been encouraging.
Sources: State of the World's Children 1990, Asia Yearbook
Theoretically 'democratic socialism'; but authoritarian tendencies under former Congress rule.