Indians in a Globalizing World: Their Skewed Rise
Income inequality depends on circumstances – mobility, opportunities for work and investment, good teachers and schools, and even parenting styles. Each country follows a distinctive path, and the same holds true for families and individuals. Personal success hinges on flexibility, good fortune – and how one’s family, community and country adapts to globalization.
The challenge in examining inequality among countries is relativity. The United States ranks higher than India for income equality, but each country determines its own standard on poverty. ‘In India, the term ‘middle class’ is elastic,” writes journalist and historian Dilip Hiro in Indians in a Globalizing World: Their Skewed Rise. “Whereas a middle-class household in the West has a mortgage on the house, owns a car, and enjoys an annual vacation of a few weeks, the one in India manages a balanced diet daily, sends children to school, and can afford to buy a colour television.”
India’s richest 10 percent own about three quarters of the nation’s wealth, and Hiro relays personal tales of fortune and woe that offer insights into reams of complex data on inequality and India’s rapid development as an emerging economy. Hiro’s book, a good reminder of the complex realities for Indian policymakers, is a must-read for employees of multinational corporations striving to do business in the country. It’s also useful for anyone who wants to better understand the nature of globalization.
With the normal challenges in the developing world, let alone the lingering notions of caste, India is not an equal society. The rags-to-riches stories, the surge of ideas in the workplace or coffee shops, exhilarate and inspire, each peppered with details on deliberate plotting, hard work and clever persistence in the competition to develop one’s self and business. The tragic tales are frustrating because stagnation and failure are not so mysterious with entrenched poverty, corruption, nepotism, inability to control natural resources and exploitation. The greedy and ambitious find ways to subvert government’s egalitarian intentions.
For Indians, the correlation between income and education is highly visible. Even in the slums, upward mobility, though slight, is possible. Hiro’s descriptions are blunt assessments. He expresses admiration of a Jodhpur man who left his ancestral village to become a taxi driver, proud of a son studying to be an engineer; disappointment in young men who quit school, leave their villages, join relatives for hard jobs polishing marble or other construction work, and get hooked on cheap homemade hooch, or tharra.
Education offers the most reliable path to comfort and affluence, and the theme is woven throughout the chapters. Competition is keen to attend one of the country’s Indian Institutes of Technology, supported early by UNESCO and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. India now has 18 IIT’s with more to open. Likewise, Indian students compete to study abroad. Those who understand the global markets became wealthy sometimes by studying western management practices – encouraging an open culture and innovation, stressing client satisfaction and rewarding talent – but also by leapfrogging technology and competing to meet needs by relying on India’s large pool of low-cost labor.
Agriculture is the leading source of jobs in India, employing two out of three Indians, and another source of glaring inequality. Of rural households, 10 percent are landless and 70 percent have small holdings w1 hectare or less. The remaining 20 percent own 73 percent of the agricultural land. Uneven education opportunities in the rural areas contribute to exploitive loans, support for subsidies reducing India’s competitiveness in global markets, and reliance on problematic crops like rice or cotton that require excess water that India can ill afford to waste. Advocates bluntly theorize that the government views the poor farmers as a source of low-cost labor for growing cities.
Stark inequality is dangerous, injecting greed into every level of society for every transaction. The longing for shortcuts to wealth costs the country in the end. Irritating moments of corruption are detailed throughout, and the chapter on “Sleaze Grows Exponentially” details more than 10 cases that ignited public outrage – including the 2G telecom scandal when, in exchange for kickbacks and bribes, government officials sold the limited licenses at low cost to unqualified applicants, who promptly sold them to other firms. The loss in government revenues was estimated to be near $5 billion.
The domino effect of bribes, corruption and excessive campaign spending is hard to slow. Foreign companies and investors must be wary of fraud entangled with politics. Corruption and injustice encourage extremism, as suggested by the chapter on Naxal/Maoist opposition to neoliberal economic development, privatization and foreign investment on natural resources in tribal areas in eastern and southern India. Politicians in the world’s largest democracy are sensitive to the broad appeal of corruption-free systems, whether promoted by the Maoists, Kisan Baburarao Hazare or hundreds of NGOs that promote sustainability and improved quality of life. Social media, the globalization of communication, ensures that excessive displays of wealth invite prompt ridicule and anger. When extremism gains traction, governments must pause and reassess policies.
Hiro is eager for the country to tackle its most glaring flaws of inequity. His curiosity leads to many diverse sources, rich and poor, men and women. He details the drudgery of call-center workers, the disdain of shoppers who depend on mall security to bar entry to “riff-raff,” the gratitude for mentors by CEOs, the rickshaw drivers who know every corner of their neighborhoods. The writing is direct, objective, rich in imagery.
But like his descriptions of gated communities with separate wells, generators and other amenities, the stories of wealthy and poor rarely intersect. Juxtaposition may be enough for readers, just as visitors to India are startled by crumbling sidewalks and streets with open sewage lines steps away from lavish hotels, the crowded hovels near elegant homes that require staffs of 100 or more for maintenance.
Hiro admires the industrialists, but maintains they are not the only innovators. He marvels at the resourceful in rural areas and city slums who struggle for survival and miniscule improvements for their children along with activists who risk harassment and injury to promote accountability and justice. There is hope when turnout for elections runs more than 80 percent.
The definitions of poverty vary wildly around the globe, and Indian officials estimate that 30 percent of the country’s billion-plus people are poor. The numbers are daunting with India destined to become the world’s most populous nation over the next decade. The competitive and democratic society, one focused on family, has an obligation to expand its meaning of the common good. Hiro has performed a valuable service by throwing light on the complex relationships for a populous democracy grappling with globalization.
Susan Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal Online. She is the author of five novels; the most recent is Allure of Deceit, set in Afghanistan.