Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Class Profile of India - take your pick

On July 19th, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell's Open Source Radio net-aired an interesting discussion on what and where India is, in the context of the Mumbai blasts of July 11.

It was an interesting debate - even though, Christopher Lydon (the moderator) had set-up the "terms of debate" in a west-o-centric terms, i.e, the Mumbai blasts were a repurcussions of the increasing class-divide in India).

The Panelists (alphabetically):

  • Atanu Dey
    Chief Economist of a Mumbai based company, Netcore, and a blogger on

  • Pankaj Mishra
    The author of Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond, and more recently, of an IHT article The Myth of the New India

  • Suketu Mehta,
    Author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and more recently, of an article in The New York Times (July 12, 2005), A Passage From India

    One can listen/download the debate from here (about 50mnts and 24MB MP3):
  • Listen
  • Download (right-click and save)

    Some Excerpts:

    Atanu Dey:
    "...It is not true that this bombing represents something like the clash between the haves and the have-nots. India has always had that disparity. We need to understand that the bombings are part of the global phenomenon, and not localized to India… More people have died since India’s independence through Islamic terrorism than [in] the wars that India fought with Pakistan and China...

    ...It is undeniable that the rate of growth has been low up to the early 1990’s, but [now] there’s real improvement, and poverty levels have gone down all around. It’s a secular improvement across the board. Although the top segments have benefitted more, it is a rising tide, and it is going to lift all the boats."

    Pankaj Mishra:
    "What people do not realize.... is how a very very small percentage of India’s population is actually employed in… outsourcing and call centers. If that’s what you’re preoccupied with, so you have a woman wearing a headphone on the cover of Time magazine, this is the kind of myth that gets multiplied many times.

    ...I was trying to counter the increasingly commonplace Western perception of India as this rising economic superpower, this is a kind of perception that has originated within a very tiny elite… people who are writing in the newspapers and in the blogs. This infectious enthusiasm, a lot of which is based in fact, is now spreading to the American media, business, political elite, and somehow these two elite have come up with this wonderful idea that India is rising. I wish it were true, but there are a lot of problems that India has not reckoned with."

    Suketu Mehta:
    "There are sections of the country that are enjoying a boom, and there are large sections that have been left behind and have found their standard of living actually dropping year by year… In the years of socialism, there wasn’t so much of a perception of inequality, because people didn’t have access to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Now with television, and with the internet in every little village and hamlet in India, people have their noses rubbing up against windows, literally, they can see how this new middle class lives...

    There is a potential for tremendous social conflict, but I think what moderates it is that there is that democracy, which has been established, and it is real and it is irrevocable.."

    One India/ many Indias...

    ....take your pick!


    gaddeswarup said...

    Again the impressions of a naive NRI. I got the impression that Atanu Dey did not get much time. The recent article in EPW:
    (pointed out by Acorn) indicates that Atanu may be right on the decrease of poverty. Pankaj Mishra's recent impressions seem to be from tours of U.P. and Bihar which are supposed to have different levels of development to the fastest developing states. EPW article does not give state level figures. Suketu's opinion expressed here sounds reasonable but I got the impression that he may not know much outside Bombay ( from his description of the Bollywood influences). But I know only bits of rural Andhra and few cities. From what little I have seen of the North ( a few cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Allahabad, Chandigarh a few villages in Bengal in the 80's and Bihar in 70's)), there is a lot of variation in India and may be that is why Gandhi and Nehru made extensive tours of India at the beginning of their political careers in India. I am not sure about Atanu's point about Islam. From what I can see from blogs, Muslims seem to underrepresented in blogs and jobs. Pankaj Mishra seemed to be somewhat reticent about it; perhaps he did not want to stroke the tensions. There is some analysis in:
    I am surprised of the expectations about Pankaj Mishra. He seems to be a good writer. I read only one story "Edmund Wilson in Benares" and a few articles. He probably has some good insights and seems to be still exploring. He is not an economist. His writings should be taken as an interesting perspecive of a writer rather than a detailed analysis of difficult problems.
    Hoping to learn but still confused,

    shikha said...

    Madhukar..have only read your blog and have not read/heard the entire interview....however what Suketu Mehta has also something that I have been thinking for a while...Have you read this book called "Confessions of an economic hitman." by John Perkins!!

    Madhukar said...

    Yes, actually, I had blogged it about a year back. See:
    Economic Hitman: Globalisation as Neo-Colonialism

    Read the book a couple of months later, when I could get it. In the last chapter Perkins makes an interesting observation: that during his time, there was a secrecy about the profession, but now there is a vast army of economic hitmen, all elites and educated working in some of the most respectable organisations.... and completely oblivious to the impact their decisions make...

    Prof Swarup,
    I think Pankaj Mishra was invited because of his recent article in NYT - The Myth of India...

    re the EPW article, and the figures about declining poverty ratios, I am somewhat doubtful for two reasons. One, somewhere during 90s, the Govt of India changed the formula for calculating the poverty (i.e., figures over a period of time are not exactly comparable). And two, even if they are, in India "not being poor" only means earning more than Rs500/- (about 10-12US$) per month!!!

    Had once made a post on the meaning of "not being poor" in India. Do have a look.

    Pankaj Mishra and Suketu Mehta had a point (the talk show can be downloaded) about what is happening in India, and the kind of "economic mythologies" floating around.

    Supratim said...

    This whole post brings to my mind the parable about "half full" vs "half empty". People like Atanu and me prefer to think of India as half-full, because we have seen the glass filling from 1/4 to 1/2. However, people like pankaj mishra and others will constantly belabour the fact that 1/2 is empty. Sure, it is empty now, but the direction is right.

    You can not raise 1.2bn people out of poverty overnight as we have seen with so many misguided, and abused programmes of poverty alleviation. You can only do that with growth. Sure, the growth right now is all urban-centric and hence the gap between the "urban rich" and "rural poor" has increased, but have you noticed that in most cases the "rural poor" are better off today, than 10 yrs back?

    The gap will reduce with increasing urbanisation, and rational agricultural policies. But, the pity is that those who would help the poor continue to espouse policies that will continue to keep them poor.


    Supratim said...

    BTW, prof, I still await your response to my real estate comments.

    And, in today's paper I read about a talukdar in New Panvel, a town outside Mumbai, being arrested for demanding Rs50,000 as bribe to register a land document. The police in its searches recovered investment documents (FDs, stocks, etc) worth Rs1.7 CRORES.

    This is a mere talukdar in one of the smaller towns in Maharashtra. And, he could extort this toll because he was a gatekeeper to the myriad real estate regulations.

    Imagine the toll extorted out of poor Mumbai citizens by politicians and babus that run this racket.

    But, no the government wants to enact more rent control/FSI laws.


    Supratim said...

    It is such a tragedy of India that the poor and those who profess to protect them or speak for them are unable to understand cause and effect. The enormous over-regulation of Indian economy, education,and civil life has extracted a heinous cost in terms of both opportunity losses and real losses in standards of living. Yet, the "pro-poor" parties will only clamour for more regulation. How is it that they do not see that it is this over-regulation and the people who administer these regulations that feed on them and keep them in poverty?


    gaddeswarup said...

    Professor Shukla,
    Many thanks for your patient comments. I should try to catch up by some reading. At the moment, I am browsing through "Saving Capitalism from Capitalists" by Raghram Rajan and Zingales as well as well as "Infectious Creed" by Frank Partnoy. Do you have any suggestions about reading material to get a better understanding of the current economic realities? Thanks.