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 *******
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 site. As 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.
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