Monday 23 January 2012

India's Unsustainable Growth

Jack Barton

David Cameron is met by Indian PM Manmohan Singh on July 28, 2010 - Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images AsiaPac zimbio

On 10th January the results of a survey were released revealing that in India 42% of children are malnourished and 60% stunted. While no-one would deny the utter tragedy of this, what is most surprising is that we are not surprised.

Over the past few years, something strange has been gradually developing in terms of our relationship with, and perception of India.  Depending on the context, when we think of India one of two very different countries comes to mind: there is India, the emerging great power with enviable economic growth statistics, and there is India, of grinding poverty, slums and social injustice.

PM Manmohan Singh with Ethiopian counterpart Meles Zenawi NetIIndian
The effect of this double vision is remarkable, it allows us to accept that India is a nuclear state with the second largest military in the world and to approve of the British cabinet’s 2010 trade visit there as simply smart foreign policy – building trade and diplomatic ties with a rapidly growing power.  We can accept the results of a study by Oxford University which found more people in poverty in 8 states of India than in all of the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined, yet it seemed unremarkable that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged $5billion in aid to Africa last year.

The reason behind this paradox is not complicated: every move made by the Indian government in internal and foreign affairs is done to promote its international image and attract investment from governments like our own.

If you walk through a city like Bangalore, the centre of India’s IT boom, examples of this policy are abundant.  City workers cover pollution with brick-red paint while black and yellow hazard stripes on the road below fade to nothing; everyday life is disrupted by the well-publicised building of a metro, unlikely ever to be finished, while underneath the rails shelter hundreds of beggars and crippled workers, ignored by city authorities.

The supposed justification for this horrific misuse of money is that the government is playing a long game – attracting investment will eventually make life better for India’s huddled masses.  This carries the assumption that the atrocious human cost of growth is worthwhile – something which the overwhelming majority of Indian citizens patently do not agree with.  Take for example the development of large-scale agriculture and selling of the rights to enormous amounts of the country’s natural resources to external corporations.  While such measures contribute to India’s modernization and accelerated GDP, they have destroyed rural communities and misplaced tens of thousands of people.  Small-scale farms have suffered so much that is was recently estimated that a farmer commits suicide in India on average every thirty minutes.

This aspect of government policy has led to a huge growth in support for groups such as the Naxalites, a Maoist guerilla group which fights for the rights of the rural poor.  While it has existed since the 1960s, its numbers have grown enormously over the last decade with estimates ranging from 70,000 to 120,000 fighters.

Support for the current government in the mainstream of the population has been flagging for years now and it is clear that the majority of the Indian population disagrees with its misuse of their money.  Apart from the economic argument that India’s current rate of growth is unsustainable, this unrest surely puts in doubt the likelihood that the country will continue to seem a fruitful investment.  Whatever politicians believe, this is not a long game at all – it is short-term politics and egos.  It is a sobering fact though that the Indian government will continue to ignore all forms of opposition to this policy as long as it continues to garner them external investment – essentially it will ignore the problem as long as we do.

Cameron inspects the troops at the official residence of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in Delhi. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images Guardian

It is the job of governments like our own therefore to acknowledge the other India and in doing, force their government to do the same.  Investment must rely on stability, take the potential for further economic growth as a given and insist that their partnership relies on a real settling of their internal issues.

Perhaps it is a form of post-imperial guilt that makes us hope and therefore believe that Indian economic development is making poverty there a thing of the past, perhaps we are happy to believe in the image the Indian government has constructed for itself because we are so desperate not to be left behind by the rise of the East.  It will be governments like our own which will be condemned by history for feeding the modernisation of India and forcing the development which is leaving millions of people behind.

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