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India High and Low

Your child will be served “food from many traditions including Indian, Continental, Mexican and Chinese. Meals are carefully planned by expert dieticians and only premium quality mineral water, juice and organically cultivated fruit, vegetables and eggs are served.” That’s from the website of one of New Delhi’s fancier schools.

And who could resist the offer? Here’s a school that will turn your kid into a global citizen who can dine with the best of them. Not into some clod who can’t tell a pasta from pav bhaji.

Note the reassuring insertion of `organic’ for those possessed of a social conscience. The jargon, at least, is from the right menu. Though I wonder if the dieticians are based at those Delhi five-star hotels that have actually catered meals for this kind of school for a while. The options are a bit more limited though, for the millions of Indian children who simply do not go to school at all. Or for those who do and still fail to get a decent mid-day meal. Quite a few grown ups would, however, gladly go back to school for the menus on offer in some of the capital’s tonier institutions

Then there’s the famous Mumbai school now in the news for creating a VVIP enclosure for the richest of parents at its annual celebrations. Given that the school is already an enclave of the privileged, this means cordoning off the super elite from the merely wealthy. (Is this brand segmentation?). How flush you are with funds will decide your place in the parental pecking order at the big school event.

For many children, there’s no place to go at all. We have more children out of school and more people who cannot write or read than any other nation. There are more places of religious worship in India than schools. That is: 2.4 million places of worship to 2.1 million schools, colleges and all kinds of hospitals together. That’s what an analysis of census household data by Dr. S.L. Rao threw up a while ago.

The school scene captures a larger truth. For the top five per cent of the population, the benchmarks are Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia. For the bottom 40 per cent, the benchmarks can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearer home, Sri Lanka has done much better than us in schooling its children. Yet, as Jean Dreze writes: “many development experts in India would be surprised and interested to learn that private schools have been banned in Sri Lanka since the 1960s.”

The crass inequality on display in our schools runs across all spheres of India’s brave new world.

India now ranks 8th in the world in the number of billionaires. But it clocks in at 127th in human development. Our 27 billionaires, Forbes assures us, are the second richest in the planet. Their combined net worth is bettered only by those of the U.S. As for Japan, Australia, Europe, et al, our dads are richer than their dads.

It’s a fine snapshot of an engineered inequality. It is worth knowing, too, that the other new entrant to the top ten hits of the billionaires list is Russia. An economy where more and more luxury cars sell each year, even as infant mortality and other indicators have worsened. The country saw lower birth rates and higher death rates in the 1990s. As more than one report points out, a boy born in Russia today is unlikely to cross the age of 60.

It’s nice to know our billionaires are doing so well. And that our CEOs are earning more than they ever did. But an ILO report, “Labour & Social Trends in Asia and the Pacific 2006,” suggests that others may not be having it so good. It says labor productivity in India shot up 84 per cent between 1990 and 2002. But real wages in manufacturing fell 22 per cent in the same period. It sees this as “an indication of deterioration in the incomes and livelihoods of workers. Despite the increasing efficiency of their labour.”
Sure, we have this crouching tiger economy. But life expectancy here is less than it is in Bolivia, Honduras or Tajikistan. Things are booming. But per capita GDP, as the UNDP’s Human Development Report shows us, ranks below that of Nicaragua, Indonesia or Guatemala. Our growth rate is the envy of many. But the rate of decline of child deaths actually slowed down in the 1990s. “India alone,” points out the HDR, “accounts for 2.5 million child deaths” each year. Many of which need never occur if we put in just a modest effort to end them.

We’re moving fast towards new landmarks. We could soon have 100,000 dollar millionaires. And India may have emerged the 15th biggest donor to the World Food Program last year. But since the time we began that journey we also added more newly hungry people than the rest of the world put together. It even saw a period when hunger rose in India and fell in Ethiopia. That’s what UN FAO data show us. We also exported grain to Europe at prices we denied our own hungry people. And we subsidizrfed that grain – which went to feed cattle on that continent.

Farm incomes have collapsed. And poor rural families, as Dr. Utsa Patnaik has pointed out, are consuming 100 kg of grain less annually than they did just a few years ago. Meanwhile, National Sample Survey data tell us that the number of farm households in debt has nearly doubled in the years of the `reforms.’ The government of India admits to a figure of more than 112,000 farm suicides in the past decade. Mostly driven by debt. In some districts, such suicides have almost doubled every year in the past five.

There’s pride in the press over the rise of `medical tourism.’ But more than a fifth of our own people no longer seek health care of any kind. They just can’t afford it. We’re proud of being the `fourth largest’ cyber nation in the world. Never mind that the numbers this claim is based on are suspect. Never mind, too, that we’d tend to be the `fourth largest’ anything in the world. Or that if we did have 50 million users, it would still not be something to email home about. The message, though, is clear: India Shining is back with bells on. What’s crucial is that there is no attempt to address this inequality. We strive only to enhance it. In the framework we now have, almost each and every policy deepens the divide. Even the few good measures tend to be drowned in this.

Meanwhile, those urging us to adopt the `Chinese model’ are not keeping up with events in that nation. China is not so gung ho any more about the `Shanghai’ model. The country is also waking up to huge income gaps and social tensions. Large swathes of rural China have done pretty badly. Inequality is now a key issue. The Wall Street Journal found that courts in China had received 3.97 million petitions and complaints in 2003. Many of these linked to such tensions. The next year, the government issued a “Decree No. 1” aimed at tackling the rural-urban income gap. A year later, this had not worked.

By October last year, the Chinese were seeking to limit the damage. Interest-free farm loans were just one step. Free education for large numbers of rural students was another. There was an effort to bring back health care for sections of rural people who had lost it. Farmers will get more subsidies.

This year, China plans new laws that curb sweatshops. If brought in, these laws would also give labor unions powers they did not have before in foreign companies. Even before they are passed, foreign corporations are squealing in protest. This move of the Chinese is also driven by concerns of growing unrest and rising tensions. Whether all these measures work or not – for the divide is truly huge – there is at least a sense of something having gone wrong.

Here, we proceed with righteous cause. The inequality we so strongly pursue breeds its own mindset. It’s the one we now entrench in our elite schools. The students of some of which are ferried back and forth in air-conditioned buses. Shangri La and sub-Saharan Africa (or worse) in one nation. Until the bills start coming in.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where this piece initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.

 

 

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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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