In credible India

Sometimes, a fortnight can mirror a year. With the year-end approaching, a flashback is usually in order. But recent events have made completely clear to me where we are and where we are headed.

This year, the world’s who’s who landed up. Our leaders basked in the floodlight of economic prowess. The prime minister spoke at a meet of the global consultancy company, McKinsey, and applauded the organization for helping India prepare reports on governance. In the same week, he addressed the Fortune Global Forum—a collection of the world’s power elite. The finance minister spoke to the Indian business glitterati in Mumbai, where he not only profusely thanked industry for taking the effort to turn around India but also said—to huge applause—that industry’s progress was despite government. In other words, growth was a private sector gift to us all. Then the Sensex touched dizzying heights, and we discovered the world’s richest man was our very own Mukesh Ambani. An incredible display of incredible India.

This same fortnight, some 25,000 landless farmers and tribals marched into Delhi. They had walked—many barefoot—for about a month, covering some 350 km, to say they were tired of being pushed around. They wanted their right to land; their right to survive. The only minister who met them was in charge of rural development—the subject of the so-called ‘other India’. They did not get an audience with the prime minister. What they got was a police barricade around the venue of their sit-in. The government tele-responded to their demands—a council on land reforms headed by the prime minister and a government committee to advise on what needed to be done. They returned home, I imagine, as desperate as they came.

Then farmers marched in to protest against the wrongs they were reeling under. The usual motley of Left-leaning leaders addressed them. Concurrently, Gujjars held a massive rally to demand reservation for their caste. The capital city complained—of traffic chaos. It is besides the point that the city’s traffic, even on a good day, chokes in the fume of its congestion. Clearly, incredible Delhi was fed up with ‘credible’ protest. This, while Naxalite violence spilled over in tribal districts; lives were taken, trucks carrying iron ore—that rich resource extracted from the poorest districts—burnt.

I find it strange that it took a multinational clothing giant to bring these two worlds together. A British newspaper reported that Indian children, many of whom were bonded labourers, were stitching clothes Gap Inc sold in stores across the world. The response was swift. Gap recalled the ‘slave’ labour blouses. The company head (a woman) said as a mother she was shocked. Child labour was abhorrent and their sub-contractor was to blame.

Incredible India’s response was incredibly equal to the challenge. Our commerce minister dismissed the incident as an effort to besmirch Indian industry and to put up non-trade barriers on exports. This is true in many cases; high quality standards are trade policy tools for the rich. But how can we deny the images we saw of children, working not in some far-off place but in the very heart of incredible India, posh south Delhi? Children were found working in the most horrible of conditions, working for hours without a break, being fed by the contractor, sleeping on the floors where they worked through the day.

It is too simple to say this is India’s reality. It would be stupid to deny these children have no alternative but to work and that even after they are “freed” they will go back to something as bad or worse. And it is definitely a travesty not to admit this is the way the globalized economy runs. The market today works on volumes and volumes require cheap labour and cheap raw material. It is equally true that the rich world’s economy, which on the one hand is thriving on the profits of cheap goods, is also groaning under fears of unemployment. Paranoia over the progress of China, India and all the other have-not economies is also screaming for attention.

But the one insistent truth this fortnight has revealed is that this India is now getting divided not just by class but also by politics. We may believe we don’t know this; we may not accept it. To me, in this final ascendance of middle-class India, we are seeing a country separated in its dreams, by its icons, in the media and by its politicians.

My postscript: what I read recently. Tucked away of page 16 of a daily newspaper in Delhi was a tiny news item. Some 40,000 farmers had stormed into the headquarters of local administration in a sleepy Orissa town. They were protesting against the government’s move to take away the water from their reservoir and to allocate it to the mining, aluminium and steel industries. They wanted this stopped. They said they would kill or be killed.

It is people versus government and industry. Can we call this credible India’s incredible Indianness?

Sunita Narain