Looking At, Rather Than Away             

Harsh Mander's new book is a compelling and readable work that exposes the rigid inequalities of New India

I approached this book with some trepidation. I imagined it would be a diatribe against the ruling elite and it would be laborious to plough through.

I should have known better; Mander, as his regular columns show, has a light touch. He is never pedantic and fleshes out his understated criticism of the way things are with human anecdotes. Every point is illumined by one or more cases, all poignant and revealing in a way which academic analysis can’t provide.

Very early in this book, he questions the Tryst with the Market, a different destiny that Pandit Nehru would never in his wildest dreams have imagined. The middle and upper classes are getting seduced by the message Greed is Good, and the rest can go to hell.

A mall is a pretty good exemplar of this tendency, which Arundhati Roy has called the “secession” from the rest of India. When Mumbai opened its first, it was thronged by thousands, even the unwashed, who came in droves to experience the wonder of goods in an air-conditioned, sanitised environment – often foreign – in such a brazen, unprecedented display. They caused traffic jams.

The catch was they came, they saw but were not conquered enough to reach for their wallets. This wasn’t what the promoters planned. So they introduced an interesting innovation: only people with cell phones or credit cards would be admitted into it. Some people are more equal than others.

Poverty is violence

Ela Bhatt in a 2013 NDTV programme showcasing the greatest living Indians asserted that “poverty is violence…perpetuated with the consent of society”. Mander regrets that NDTV chose to celebrate its silver jubilee with this show by including tycoons like Mukesh Ambani “and numerous popular film and sports stars … [that] lead opulent lifestyles and do little public service.” I wonder, in retrospect, whether Ambani had already loaned the channel Rs 400 crores two years ago.

Mandar’s theme is clear from his title and it is reminiscent of Katherine Boo’s brilliant exhumation of a single Mumbai slum: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. The reference is to a hoarding advertising marble blocks for the homes of the ultra-rich, which obscures the grim conditions in the shanty immediately behind it.

Roy, in essay titled “Listening to Grasshoppers”, traverses not her well-trodden Naxal territory but the “the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India – the secession of the middle and upper classes in a country of their own, somewhere in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world’s elite… [this] vast middle class, punch drunk on sudden wealth” has created a kingdom with “its own newspapers, films television programmes, morality plays, transport systems, malls and intellectuals”.

The journalists’ grapevine has it that a former editor of the Times of India was asked by media students why the paper didn’t carry enough about child malnutrition. He replied that the Times’ readers didn’t suffer from it.

Legitimizing inequality

Slums in Mumbai (Photo: Atilla Hargitay)

Slums in Mumbai (Photo: Atilla Hargitay)

Mander lists three normative systems which legitimize inequality in our society. The first is the caste system. This reviewer can admit that till he went abroad as an undergraduate, he thought that the caste system had disappeared. At a noisy Cambridge Union debate, when an Englishman harped on it, I declared, to loud acclaim, “You should be castrated!”

In his excellent 1998 book, Words Like Freedom, Siddharth Dube enlightened me that in a typical UP village, boys from landless Dalit families can’t even enter the classroom; they have to bring their own mats to sit outside. When a Thakur’s wife accidentally fell into the village well, and some Dalits fished her out, her first response was to rush home to have a bath.

Mander’s second is the British class system, meant for people with old wealth: the schools’ names, such as one I went to, can trip off people’s tongues. On 26 August, the ToI carried a “top” edit page article titled “Schooling without learning”, alleging that the Right to Education “destroys private schools and destroys standards in public schools”. The old boy/girl network is alive and kicking.

The third is the “celebration of conspicuous consumption associated with the collapse of the socialist world and the rise of neo-liberal, market-led growth…This is the new India which celebrates when India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, follows up his gift of a 60-million-dollar jet-plane to his wife with the most expensive residence in the world, a 27-storey house for a family of four, built at an estimated cost of 1 billion dollars, which boasts three helipads, four storeys of handing gardens, and a staff of 600 domestic helpers.” In a city where six out of every ten people is homeless, this verges on the obscene.

According to the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), not a champion of socialist ideology, only 12% of the population can comprise the middle class. Mander quotes the CEO of Oxfam India to point out that just a 1.5% wealth tax on 65 of India’s uber-rich could lift an astounding 90 million out of poverty. If the country could reduce inequality by just over a third, it could eliminate extreme poverty. However, as anchors on business channels are asking these days, why hasn’t the NDA reduced corporate taxes, as promised in the last budget?

The most telling data on India’s inequality – apart from the recent, suppressed, Socio-Economic Survey, which encompasses caste – is from, surprisingly, the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2014. Since 2000, the share of wealth of the richest 1% in the country has been rising, in contrast to the rest of the world, and it now owns nearly half the country’s wealth. The wealth share of the top 10% as increased by a tenth since 2000, which is when the toxic triad known as “Liberalisation, Privatisation & Globalisation” or LPG kicked in here.

Mander’s book should be prescribed reading in universities across the country. The publishers ought to have included an index, so people can check on each vital piece of information. Hopefully, they will do in the next edition.

And some unsolicited advice: he could consider bringing out another version which has b&w photographs and captions instead of text, somewhat on the lines of John Berger’s co-authored classic, A Seventh Man (1975) which dealt with (the proportion of) migrants to Europe at the time. It would remain a lasting testament to our less fortunate brothers and sisters.