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Is India’s middle-class looking beyond their next LCD TV?

Last week, I came across Simon Lazenbatt’s post on 2point6billion blog* about how India’s middle class may be failing the country 

2point6billion1com.JPG      Now the middle class in India has – at various times – been blamed for everything from the AIDS epidemic to pretending that everything around them is nice and happy.  

Simon’s post – although broadly in a similar vein, was slightly different. It appeared to suggest that the middle class in India was apathetic and indifferent to the plight of the poor and the under-privileged and – possibly – perfectly happy for the status quo to continue so that they can enjoy their life and the comforts of middle class existence (such as having maids and servants at your beckoning).

*** CAUTION: Long Post ***

First some extracts from the article followed by my response:

The crowd of young men and women on the dance-floor of the noisy restro-bar, one of many currently opening around the city, were enjoying a mix of local dance numbers and dated western hits. The scene can be observed in any liberal society in the world, except for one detail which typifies Mumbai. Among the bobbing Trendies, in the middle of the floor on hands and knees a slender, dark figure was mopping up spilled drinks with a cloth. The fashionably dressed middle class youngsters, seemingly oblivious to this ‘peon’, danced around and over him, aware perhaps instinctively that he would flinch out of their way, for he belongs to the great masses, and is almost invisible.

The scene is revealing because in this society of entrenched inequality there is little sign that the emerging generation of decision makers is any more idealistic about creating an inclusive future for their fellow citizens than their predecessors were. For most young educated Indians challenging the status quo is restricted to deciding to change their brand of denim hipsters or hair gel.

…Even seasoned travellers, familiar with grinding poverty from other parts of the globe on first visiting India will be disconcerted by the juxtaposition of wealth next to extreme privation. It is not just the existence of so many who are clearly living in squalor, as the fact that there is a shared perception amongst the middle class that this situation is somehow acceptable, or at best unavoidable.

…it is no surprise that there is an unending stream of migrant cheap labour available to the cities. Life in the urban slums may be grim but for many it is a step up from the deprivation of life in the rural areas. A glance at any construction site in Mumbai reveals how little plant and machinery is involved in construction of the new high-rise developments. Often it is more economical for the contractors to use human muscle-power to move all the construction materials rather than cranes and lifts. Child labour, despite regulations, is common.

The migrants also serve the domestic needs of the middle class. The bitter truth is that it suits many to keep the poor in their place. The average urban householder uses cheap labour for almost all day-to-day chores – I know a clean-shaven, middle-aged company driver who has never in his life shaved himself. He has somebody come to his house every morning to perform this basic task. In a myriad of ways the Indian middle class depend on others to perform tasks that in other countries (including much of China) are done by devices, or by the consumer himself. The nature of these tasks means that education of the masses is not a priority. It has been said that in the USA only the truly poor do not own a car. In India only the truly poor do not have a servant.

…In the 1960’s there were a rash of doom-laden predictions published as sober analysis in the West that India would disintegrate under the pressures of economic failure, religious divisions and corruption. Those predictions proved to be incorrect. The new paradigm is that India is an unstoppable superpower in the making. This belief has been eagerly and uncritically adopted in India. I would suggest that unless the middle class begins to care and make sacrifices in the interest of a common society these current predictions may also prove to be unfounded.

In response to Simon’s assertion (that the middle class and educated youth may not be doing enough), I wrote the following comment…

Thoughts, comments and counter-arguments very welcome…

P.S. From today, I will begin contributing some of my posts here to 2point6billion Hope to see some of you on that site too.

******* my comment on Simon’s post *******

Simon,

Thought-provoking post.

Although I broadly agree with your observations, I feel that there are some sweeping generalisations which may not really reflect what is happening at the grass-roots level (or in an India that is hidden/invisible and/or inaccessible to most eyes).

For instance, you mention that: “there is little sign that the emerging generation of decision makers is any more idealistic about creating an inclusive future for their fellow citizens than their predecessors were. For most young educated Indians challenging the status quo is restricted to deciding to change their brand of denim hipsters or hair gel.”

I beg to diasgree. You appear to ignore the work of a very large (several hundreds) number of NGOs working towards a more inclusive future for the most vulnerable sections of the society – those working towards the uplift-ment of the poorest of the poor and several others working in the areas of health, education, self-help and economic development. I will just mention a few names – the list is neither exhaustive nor representative – there are many many more…CRY, Pratham, Ekal Vidyalaya, Gian, ASHA etc…

You may also wish to have a quick look at this siteAs its tag line says, it is about “News from India : of positive action, steely endeavour and quiet triumphs ~ news that is little known”.

You mention that: “It is not just the existence of so many who are clearly living in squalor, as the fact that there is a shared perception amongst the middle class that this situation is somehow acceptable, or at best unavoidable” – not true at all.

I can only hope that you have been deliberately provocative in this observation…Large sections of the more fortunate class in India (which you refer to as the “middle class”) are very seriously concerned about the issues that you raise – and a very large proportion of them are actively involved in some effort or the other to help ameliorate the situation.

Contrary to what you say, there is a shared belief that the promise and potential of India is unlikely to be realised unless there is more equality, more access to opportunities, basic education and healthcare for all…You see this in the media but also on the streets in action…I noticed from your profile that you live in Mumbai…I am sure you must be personally aware of at least a few such groups.

You also say that “It is widely assumed that an increase in general prosperity will be achieved due to the economic growth that India currently enjoys.”

Again, I am not sure where you picked this up…most well-read, well-off and educated Indians believe that economic prosperity alone will not help the situation – although they may differ on the extent of government involvement in addressing these issues…the middle class – contrary- to what you suggest – is actually seized of this matter – as is the government, big business, industry associations and experts in academia – as I said there is a shared consensus – and I am somewhat surprised that you dont notice it in your conversations (or perhaps it is down to our tendency to hide the “warts” from outsiders?)

The problems you mention are familiar and real – although most Indians may not see (or read about them) so starkly.
Two final points: you seem to suggest that there is more income disparity in India than China. In this context, this postmay be interesting. It has mention of comparative GINI coefficients: India is estimated to be between 33 and 37, compared to 41 for the United States, 45-47 for China, and 59 for Brazil.

And you mention the mention the “much overlooked AIDS epidemic”. Have a look at this: things are not always what they seem to be: “India ‘overestimates’ HIV/Aids” and this: “Of AIDS, Indian disasters and Apple IIe mindsets” 

And while I am not sure that, “The new paradigm (…of India being an unstoppable superpower in the making) has been eagerly and uncritically adopted in India”, I do agree that we need to do a lot more…

Thanks for a good post.

****** end of comment ********

April 23rd, 2007 Posted by | Development Issues, India | 10 comments

10 Comments »

  1. What Simon essentially expresses is the unease many Western persons feel at the dire poverty in India. However to suggest that it is uniquely an Indian problem, or that no country in the throes of rapid economic growth has ever ignored its abject poor both betray naivete as well as a sense of examples having been chosen to suit the author’s dominant thesis namely that the middle-class are to blame.

    Of course, just as he reports by macro-economic numbers – and I do not blame him for not having intimate access to a different reality in the homes of the middle-class Indians – an equally loose – if perfectly defensible, even statistically valid – argument can be made by micro-numbers. Most middle-class employers pay more than a living wage to their servants (a word that sends many, but the upper classes, squirming in their shoes in the UK); several families pay for their servants’ children’s education by directly paying fees (so that an errant, drunkard father does not squander the cash); several families also enforce savings by paying half of the servant’s wages into a bank account instead of paying cash; many families actively teach their young servants to read and write, and enough well-off families are known to arrange and pay for marriages of their servants on reaching the legal age.

    The problem with prevention is that nobody sees its results. Who is to say how, in the absence of domestic employment as servants, the homeless ‘migrants’ may become victims of crime, prostitution, drug-dealing and other bigger social problems?

    I also think the scale of the problems faced by a country with 1.2 Billion people, is unfathomable for most commentators who live in countries with 50-60 Million people. There are enough middle-class families making changes that will eventually bring more benefit than harm. That is not to say education is not important – it is, and I did post something today that acknowledges that too – but to blame the middle-class is an argument too easy and too far.

    I also think comparing with China – esp in the context of social and political issues – is an increasingly facetious comparison for many reasons which you have documented in your earlier posts.

    Of course, Shantanu, you make a great point about the work of the NGOs and I believe too that every change begins with a small step. Partly the trouble is with living life in Twitter-mode where every move is open to criticism and critique even before its effect is felt.

    Comment by Shefaly Yogendra | April 23, 2007

  2. Shantanu,

    Firstly, I appreciate that you felt the piece was worthy of the carefully considered response you posted. Yes, it is certainly intended to be provocative. If it ruffles a few feathers, so be it. The approach I have adopted for the ‘Letter from Bombay’ format is personal observation rather than academic analysis (perhaps the title hints at this?) and I feel the polemical approach is justified in such an opinion piece. Of course when one interprets from specific observations one can be criticised, no doubt reasonably, for making sweeping generalisations. I cannot know the motivation of the better-off segments of society; I can only observe behaviour and ask those people I interact with their views.

    True, the piece doesn’t focus on the good work being done by NGO’s and other positive initiatives, but I feel unapologetic since that is not the subject matter of this piece (it is however part of the subject – again, personally-based – of a future ‘letter’). However, it is my belief that – while their initiatives certainly ameliorate the suffering of some of the less fortunate – the many NGO projects in India cannot take the place of the massive economic measures required to address the problems.

    The problems are of course huge and complex, and a bout of collective hand-wringing is not going to solve anything, but, and this is the basic point of the piece, down-playing the situation is not in the interest of anyone.

    I would like to comment that selectively importing extracts of my post into your blog in order to critique it has lead to some confusion about the thrust of the original piece (see my following comments to Shefaly).

    Shefaly,

    I don’t believe that I suggested anywhere in my piece that poverty is a ‘uniquely Indian problem’, although I commented on the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty here. Still, since you raise the subject, India has certainly got an unenviably high proportion of the world’s disadvantaged. Nor do I accuse the middle class of being ‘to blame’. I do, however, accuse the middle class of being far too complacent about the situation.

    You disapprove of comparisons with China of social and political progress, although I fail to see why such should be characterised as ‘facetious’. In any event, my post was written for 2point6billion blog and in that context the China comparisons are entirely appropriate.

    While I don’t want to even appear to accept the apparent implication that people living in smaller, or more developed countries, are not entitled to an opinion, I am afraid I don’t recognise which ‘commentators’ you are refering to, living ‘in countries of 50-60 million people’. I should point out that I live and work in India. Previously I lived in China for six years and before that many other countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, going back 20 years.

    Incidentally, over those years, I have employed, and continue to employ, servants (I can write this, I assure you, without the slightest ‘squirming in my shoes’) and I have no problem with the practice. It has indeed been essential, given the infrastructure and security realities in those countries. I hope the people I have employed, and their many dependants, have benefited from the ‘more than a living wage’ that I have paid them. Nevertheless, I cannot agree that such ‘micro-economic’ support, including savings and school fees is an alternative to society addressing on a macro-economic level the crying needs of its people. Real progress will not be achieved through the accretion of small acts of kindness and patronage at whim, even if it does give us a nice warm (and complacent?) feeling.

    Comment by Simon Lazenbatt | April 24, 2007

  3. Yet again, I find a wonderful conversation as a result of your post.

    It isn’t surprising that Simon observes what he observes. If, staying in this country I observe what he observes, being an outsider he is bound to see it stand out more starkly.

    In spite of all the efforts that our middle-class is putting in to improve the lot of our poor people, I do feel that they are not sufficient considering how rapidly we are growing in numbers. One must not ignore the fact that ensuring a decent (indeed, the definition of this word is a subject of debate) quality of existence itself is such an enormous task for an average Indian – I don’t blame them even I feel that not much is being done. Add to this the dire external circumstances (like inflation, energy shortage, global warming, terrorism) looming large, and our middle-class has quite a task to ensure its survival rather than care for many others around.

    Am I sounding pessimistic? May be. I’ve often questioned myself but find it difficult to find any answers. All that I tell myself is I must do whatever’s possible and see how much I can contribute.

    Comment by Siddharth | April 24, 2007

  4. Shefaly, Simon and Siddharth…

    Thanks for your thoughts and enriching this debate with your comments. I am little rushed for time this evening but will respond more thoughtfully in a day or two…

    Comment by Shantanu Bhagwat | April 24, 2007

  5. Simon, thanks for your response.

    Contrary to what might appear to be the case, I *did* read your entire post and not just the bits quoted by Shantanu. I did also read the link on your background.

    But as you say above, the polemical tone and the personal observation style of the note was received as intended; my opinions were also meant as such. So I am as guilty of broad generalisations as the original article we all seem to be discussing.

    Ironically, at the moment I live in the UK, via several cities in India, Europe and the USA.

    Our society – and government, not to mention plenty of NGOs – in Britain is doing a lot for social causes, by way of funding, support, programmes etc. from which there is plenty of nice, warm and complacent feeling to be had.

    And what do we have? Growing gun crime (in an irreverently politically incorrect way, the PM singles out black individuals of a certain background), growing poverty co-existing with the largest burden of unsecured personal debt in Europe, reduced social mobility, dire public health statistics, and swelling ranks of NEETs (16-25 year olds, Not in Education, Employment or Training). Not to mention employers lamenting graduates and school-leavers with no skills, or even the basic ability to spell and do basic maths (so much so that students entering university are now being given remedial lessons in English and Maths). Some picture that is, for a developed country!

    By way of achievement, I think the Prince’s Trust, a charity, does more to make youngsters financially capable and independent than any NEET-rehabilitation programme and new benefit and claims schemes by the Government might.

    With all that I see here – and in the US, such is the nature of my work – I can only see how, *despite* social change and macro-measures, real progress is slowly being reversed. There is, I believe, no singular formula for social progress and improvement. And I believe India will continue to require – and utilise – a mix of approaches to shape its future: macro- and micro-, institutional and individual, for-profit and not-for-profit. Playing down the contribution of a range of ‘sectors’ is, therefore, at least, as bad an idea as down-playing the situation.

    Personally, I move between two extremes of pessimism and optimism, knowing that as long as there is a big majority in India clamouring to be labelled ‘backward’, real progress will only be a discussion point, not a realisable goal. (I wrote the comment here in an optimistic moment.) Meanwhile inaction or hand-wringing is not a choice for the educated middle-class, a point on which I think you would agree.

    PS: I do maintain my view that comparing India and China, while tempting and inevitable is eventually just good conversation. Both countries have similar populations but very different political systems, philosophies, social structures, and most importantly, future trajectories. Of course, both you and I shall be around to observe what evolves out the current dynamic situation. Thanks.

    Comment by Shefaly Yogendra | April 24, 2007

  6. Simon, I re-read your comments just now…and it appears to me that we are all in broad agreement…

    There are huge challenges before us in India and the task of building a propserous and equitable society is daunting.

    You say in your comment that “downplaying the situation is not in the interest of anyone” and I agree with that…The concluding sentence in my comment was “we need to do a lot more”.

    A different perspective – such as yours – is often very useful in prodding evryone into action (and thought)..so thank you for that..and I do hope that in spite of the numerous challenges, difficulties and problems around you, you will continue to have an affinity with the country where you are today.

    Look forward to your next “Letter from Bombay”!

    Comment by Shantanu Bhagwat | April 25, 2007

  7. Simon,

    My point is – the average Indian Joe you’ve seen is not exactly *apathetic* to the underprivileged, he sees his own reflection. He remembers his grueling days when he harked back to see no social security behind him. He sensed his back had always been up against the wall and had worked hard his way up. He’s not exactly sure that he has arrived as he realizes there are others briskly marching past him. He wants to keep pace and has little time to lose. If he also watches MTV occasionally and wants to shake a leg at the disco, why not grant it to him ! A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the King… 🙂

    You might have also noticed that both the disadvantaged and the privileged class that you watched is not a fixed quotient, but a transient mass ?

    It’s a bit counter intuitive though, the extreme poverty and squalor drives many to toil and transform themselves into relative affluence. Yesterday’s poor as a result are today’s rich. A couple of generations later, when the richness gets taken for granted (as a rightful legacy, more visits to discos) until they mess themselves up again. So look deep within the populace, you’ll see a recursive cycle – virtuous, vicious, virtuous and so on.

    Joe knows that only too well. He just expects other poor also to come up like he did – so he’s not exactly pretending to have not seen what he had or being indifferent to the goings on. He wants that vision of apathy to drive more `currently poor’ to develop a distinct brand of self-help methods because he thinks that’s healthy.

    Joe seems to say “You can’t hand hold 70% of 1.1 billion to prosperity”. I am not saying it’s right – but goddamit, it works….like hell.

    Grant it to him !

    Comment by Krishna | April 26, 2007

  8. Good point Krishna, thanks…

    Comment by Shantanu Bhagwat | April 27, 2007

  9. i m agree with your view indian middle class is doing very well i came to read your blog from http://diggindianews.com/

    Comment by payal | July 11, 2007

  10. Thanks Payal. I did have a look at DiggIndiaNews…interesting.

    Shantanu

    Comment by Shantanu Bhagwat | July 12, 2007

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