SPEAKING FREELY How Indians keep themselves poor
By Jiwan Kshetry
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The Global Slavery Index released by the Walk Free Foundation on October 16 claimed India is home to nearly half the world's modern-day slaves caught headlines. Its unlikely the findings surprised close observes.
Consider the findings alongside the fact that India is home to estimated one-third of world's poor, with 32.7% of Indians surviving on a meager US$1.25 a day and a 68.7% living on $2 a day, according to a 2010 World Bank report, and an ominous picture of the state emerges.
How are these statistic possible in a country that see itself as an aspiring world power? How do high GDP growth rates of the past
15 years square with the appalling living conditions of so many?
The index listed India as the country with by far the most slaves, with an estimated nearly 14 million, followed by China (2.9 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million). The presence of Nepal in fifth place in the ranking makes South Asia the deepest and most recalcitrant pocket of poverty and slavery in the world.
Amid the persistently high poverty and slavery, it seem the Indian middle and upper classes are living in denial about their role in sustaining the status quo.
While the people actually suffering from perpetual hunger and misery can't afford to think about lofty things such as India's image abroad, the middle and upper class seem to think of little else.
Though not exactly balanced, a section of the Indian media has been paying increasing attention to the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. Western media have also robustly covered these issues. A series of documentary films have explored different facets of the life of the poor people of various kinds in India. Movies like the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, did a lot to present the dark side of India's story.
There have been some more comprehensive Indian works dealing with society in India. In his elegant 2008 novel The White Tiger, Arvind Adiga vividly illustrates the dichotomy between the "dark" India and "bright" India with emphasis on how the progress of the people in the light is inseparably linked to the lack of progress or relentless downward mobility of the people in the darkness.
Reality and perception
Ask an average Indian, rich or poor, about the root cause of the country's woes and you are likely to get back another question: Politicians are corrupt, they enrich themselves by stealing money meant for the poor, they stifle institutions meant to serve the people, how can poverty decrease?
But is that all? Does the apparently straightforward link between the high level of corruption at every level of governance and the failure of the government's poverty-alleviation measures explain everything about the poverty and backwardness in the country?
While being popularly believed and mostly true, this explanation is incomplete at best. I feel there is a parallel socio-cultural narrative involving the subtler but equally important role of many more players in society.
While the economic policies and their immediate repercussions impact the lives of the people immediately, this is followed by a protracted process through which people adapt to them socially and culturally. A closer look at this process gives crucial insight on why the problem of poverty and backwardness is so intractable in India.
This adaptation - or "maladaptation" in India's case - of people towards stagnation and even regression in society has two components.
First, the poor, having tried and failed to rectify every anomaly in the life with the legal means at their disposal, adapt to their hopelessly depressing lives by seeking refuge in distractions like alcoholism, delinquency or religiosity. Second, the rich and the middle class develop a notion about poverty and backwardness that plausibly explains the cause of the ailments yet exonerates them from any responsibility towards sustaining the status quo.
Leaving everything aside, hereafter I shall focus on the process of maladaptation to the maladies that Indian society is going through. Let's connect some dots from the recent and not-so-recent news pieces from India.
The adaptation of the poor and the middle class
In mid-October, media reported a remarkable disaster management feat in India's history - with reported casualties of just around 20 in the wake of a powerful cyclone that displaced around 1 million people. However, in the same week there was also the more depressing news of the deaths of more than 100 people in a temple stampede.
This paradox amply illustrates the dilemma of India as the state of both encouraging progress based on scientific and technological prowess, and a disappointing social retreat caused by social dynamics that propels increasing number of people towards blind faith.
Indeed, the incidents of large numbers of people being killed in stampedes are so frequent in India that they no longer arouse the concern in society other disasters do. This is also because most of the people who die in such incidents are the abjectly poor and destitute who throng to the temples in a vain hope of being "liberated" from their miserable life.
The increasingly assertive middle class in India has adapted to the whole scenario differently. Their efforts aim at absolving themselves of their responsibility towards sustaining such an inequitable society. Let's take one example to make this point clear.
A talk show named Satyameva Jayate aired by many television channels in India last year enjoyed runaway popularity. Presented by popular Bollywood actor Amir Khan, the 14-episode program dealt with some of the most unpalatable issues in India like female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry, honor killings, alcoholism, and untouchability.
The praise showered on the program was so intense and cacophonous that some voices of criticism were simply drowned out. But as the astute anti-caste crusader S Anand noted in a piece in Outlook magazine,  a particular show on untouchability involved a strange interplay of omissions to make it palatable to the dominant section of the audience, thereby revealing the peculiar form of adaptive process that the Indian middle class engages in.
While displaying the plight of the untouchables by adequately shedding "tears with practiced ease", Khan had two choices. One, he could have delved into the practical ways of emancipating the 'Dalits' or untouchables from their miserable lives like the reservation. That would also demand referring to Dr B R Ambedkar, the most prominent Dalit leader in history of India. Instead, predictably, Khan chose the alternative of jettisoning the parts of interviews that referred to Ambedkar.
What was more flabbergasting was an interview on the show. As corroborated later by the interviewee herself, Kaushal Panwar, an emerging Dalit thinker and intellectual, was interviewed in total isolation, in an empty studio. Close-ups of fretful, anxious, pained and agonized faces of members of the studio audience were shown as Kaushal was narrating her story. All this turned out to be was faked - with clever editing and splicing of shots.
The end result: the middle class audience could congratulate themselves for "having heard and seen firsthand the plights of the untouchables", yet without having to express their militant displeasure towards the potential measures like reservation that could actually emancipate some of the Dalits but at some cost for themselves.
The real forces at work
There was a strange coincidence on August 20. The so called spiritual guru Asaram Bapu was booked that day by Delhi and Jodhpur police for allegedly raping a minor girl from Jodhpur. On the same day, two unidentified gunmen assassinated Narendra Dhabolkar, the rationalist and the anti-superstition crusader from Maharashtra.
The followers of Asaram, who has been thoroughly disgraced by now, were prompt in resorting to vandalism in protest and one of his followers even castrated himself apparently to protest his arrest. Even politicians blamed the authorities for having acted on behalf of their rivals to tarnish the image of Bapu.
But the response to the assassination of Dhabolkar was entirely different. Both the national and international media covered the incident well but not everyone was exactly surprised by the news. He had been receiving death threats since 1983 itself and many wondered how he had survived these three long decades with one of the most difficult tasks in India.
The reality is that both the increasingly pauperized lower class and the increasingly wealthy but insecure middle class have little faith in the political and other social institutions in the country. In a country of 1.2 billion people - characterized by some as an ocean of poverty with islets of wealth - with such a vacuum of dependable institutions of faith, a string of self-styled godmen have done everything to attract people to them through a clever manipulation of their spiritual instincts.
This gives them name, fame, wealth and power while altogether disempowering and literally looting the devotees. The fact that one former premier of India was among the disciples of the disgraced Bapu illustrates the hold of these men in the society.
As people throng to these godmen in their hundreds of thousands, people like Dhabolkar, who flay the superstitions and debunk the myths of their black magic, come to be seen as the mortal threats to their empires of wealth and power. Putting some bullets in the head of this man thus helped secure much of their future business in the country.
Amid all the talk about the impending world power status of India, much of the vocal Indian middle and upper classes have got the diagnosis of the nagging problems of Indian society wrong. Their confusion is between the symptoms of the disease and the disease itself, and they are reluctant to acknowledge their own - albeit indirect - role in the whole fiasco.
This, along with the poor Indians persistently resorting to lifelines like alcohol and godmen, forms one of the largest cohorts of people maladapting to their adversities. The complacency and even reverence shown towards people like Asaram and the neglect and even hindrance shown towards those like Dhabolkar from people across the spectrum of prosperity is, to me, the perfect explanation to why Indian society is like it is.
1 Silence Eva Jayate by S. Anand in Outlook, July 23, 2012 http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?281646
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jiwan Kshetry is a Kathmandu-based freelance writer. His primary areas of interest are corruption, violence and instability, particularly in South Asia. He regularly writes for his blog "South Asia and Beyond" (www.jiwankshetri.blogspot.com) and can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed in Twitter @jkshetry.