The wide gap between rich and poor in India is difficult to miss. But like the weather, who is going to do anything about it?
Last month, India’s Oberoi hotel chain proudly announced that Travel & Leisure magazine had named its lakeside Udaivilas resort in the desert state of Rajasthan as the best in the world. The hotel, where standard rooms cost more than US$300 a night, boasts private swimming pools, luxury spas and high-end dining.
But P.R.S. Oberoi, chairman of the EIH Associated Hotels group which owns the five-star Oberoi chain, said that despite the award, India had big problems when it came to attracting tourists. He was clear on the reasons for this.
“Water is a big problem, power is a big problem, the roads are a mess. Cleaning up our cities must happen. In most cities, people can’t get anywhere on time and time is more valuable than money.”
Enclaves like the Oberoi hotels are few and far between – a walled version of India. The unsurprising conclusion of an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report on regional inequality published in August was that income disparity is growing by leaps and bounds in most of the 21 countries from east to central Asia.
China’s Gini coefficient, a standard measure of inequality, was topped only by that of Nepal. The spending gap between the wealthiest 20% of the population and the poorest 20% in the country is growing faster than almost anywhere else in Asia, as a decade of rapid growth continues to accelerate the rate of spending of the rich over the poor.
India sits in seventh place on the Gini coefficient list as its inequality problems are less acute, but the country’s poor still have less money to spend than their Chinese counterparts. India also fares badly in non-income categories, notably infant mortality and child nutrition.
India and China grapple with many of the same rural issues and their respective governments have promised action. Both countries are working under the direction of an 11th Five-Year Plan and both plans say tackling inequality is a priority.
Despite the similarities, it can be argued that Indian democracy has been far less effective than Chinese communism in providing power, water and education in rural areas. Meanwhile, no one who has traveled to Shanghai and Mumbai would confuse the two countries by quality of urban life.
Mumbai is a complete shambles from the moment a visitor steps off a plane: chaos is everywhere, from the shabby airport facilities where lavatory attendants charge for toilet paper to the taxis that seem to have once been props in 1950s Bollywood movies.
Indian newspapers are filled with stories of Beijing’s rapid progress in building facilities for the 2008 Olympics and lament that New Delhi’s smaller plans to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games are far behind schedule and that a shortage of hotel rooms has prompted the city’s government to ask residents to open their homes.
India’s woeful infrastructure was exposed over the summer as monsoon rains and Himalayan snowmelt combined to displace millions across the subcontinent’s vast drainage basin, taking 2,000 lives in the process.
The hardest hit were, of course, the poor, but such crises happen regularly enough to go unnoticed in India’s capital of New Delhi or financial hub of Mumbai. The economy is booming, so knocking down India’s growth story with tales of woe is seen as a waste of time by many of the country’s elite.
Much has changed in the last 10 years – just look at the explosion in mobile phone use – but the question remains as to whether these changes are just a drop in the ocean for a nation where 600 million live on less than US$2 a day.
For many who ponder the other India, the answer is yes. They argue that the gap has become so big, so fast, that it’s only a matter of time before the dozens of new television news channels broadcast the revolution live. This is not idle talk in a country where there are dozens of armed separatist groups, from northeast India to Kashmir to a Maoist rebellion in 14 of the 29 states.
As development writer P. Sainath put it, “The larger direction is overwhelming … Our orgy in inequality plays out on borrowed time.”
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