New Internationalist


March 1990

new internationalist
issue 205 - March 1990



Map of India 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.

Dinyar Godrej

Leader: Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh

Economy: GNP per capita $300 (US $18,530)
Monetary unit: Rupee
Major exports: pearls and precious stones, cotton apparel, engineering goods, iron ore, leather and leather manufactures. The main imports are petroleum products, non-electrical machinery, iron and steel.

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.
Religion: Mainly Hinduism, Muslims are the largest minority.
Language: 15 official national languages, 225 main languages. The division of the country into linguistic states means the imposition of any single national language is strongly resisted. English, known by a minority, is the only language that is country-wide. India became independent from Britain in 1947.

Sources: State of the World's Children 1990, Asia Yearbook


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Half the wealth in the hands of the richest 20 per cent.

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Imports of food and primary commodities reduced, but droughts slow progress.

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Consititutional equality, but still much discrimination; poor economic status.

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Theoretically 'democratic socialism'; but authoritarian tendencies under former Congress rule.
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43 per cent; among the lowest in the world.

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Preventative detentions and long periods in remand.

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58 years
(US 75 years)

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This feature was published in the March 1990 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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