Memo to Natalie Bennett: Not everyone in India is poor

The Green Party leader thinks being poor in India isn’t as bad as being on benefits in the UK “because at least everyone else there is poor too.” This suggests Ms Bennett has a strange view of India.

Business magnate Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion mansion in Mumbai’s business district

 

A House in Mumbai

The house of Mukesh Ambani is a rather remarkable property. Forbes magazine describes this structure in Mumbai’s business district thus:

The twenty-seven story, 400,000-square foot skyscraper residence, named after a mythical island in the Atlantic, has six underground levels of parking, three helicopter pads, a ‘health’ level, and reportedly requires about 600 staff to run it. It is the world’s most expensive home far and away with construction costs topping $1 billion.

As you might have gathered Mr Ambani is a phenomenally wealthy man. The managing director and majority shareholder of Reliance Industries Limited has a net worth of upwards of $23.6 billion. He is far from being the only billionaire in India: there are at least a hundred others.

‘At least everyone else is poor…’

Men (and a much smaller number of women) like Mr Ambani came to my mind today while reading about what Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told the Economist’s Bagehot columnist:

[The Greens] talk about the world sparingly and mainly to illuminate leftist British issues. They are broadly against consumption, for example: “The world is sodden with stuff, it cannot have more stuff,” said Ms Bennett. Yet they do not appear to have considered what that would mean for billions of the world’s poorest people, almost none of whom live in Britain. When Bagehot suggested to her that there was a problem with this, Ms Bennett said he was worrying too much: to be poor in India wasn’t so bad as to be on benefits in Britain, she suggested, “because at least everyone else there is poor too”.

I disagree with the sentiment of the entire piece. Nonetheless, it was this final sentence that struck me as a particular clanger. India is second only to Africa as a recipient of condescension from rich westerners. Ms Bennett’s image of Indian’s contentedly living in shared poverty is as patronising as it is untrue. It is true that Indian has more people living in absolute poverty than the whole continent of Africa. But it also has a middle class numbering 250 million. The World Bank estimates that statistically speaking the gap between rich and poor in Britain and India is virtually identical. However, those statistics don’t really capture the starkness of that divide because it is often the divide between comfort and desperation, between your children being malnourished or not, or between having running water or not. What’s strange about this point is that it even needs making. These kinds of divides in Indian society are obvious as soon as you step off the plane. That’s not much of an exaggeration: during my taxi ride from Mumbai airport to my hotel a few blocks away from Mr Ambani’s pad, you could see people sleeping rough on the steps of massive branches of multinational banks!

Benefit of the doubt?

There are a few points that could be said in Ms Bennett’s defence. Firstly, she claims that the Economist’s article did not accurately reflect what she said. But her explanation of the purported error seems more like an elaboration rather than a correction. She clarifies that she was talking about relative rather than absolute poverty, which seemed to me crystal clear from what appeared in the Economist though not necessarily from the coverage that followed. However, I’d suggest that doesn’t really deal with the point we’re discussing here. If you’re worried about comparative poverty then you probably want politicians to realise that the second most populous nation on earth has rich people as well as poor ones.

Secondly, we could perhaps excuse her some sloppiness given that she was speaking off the cuff. However, one would have to be a very indulgent soul not to see her comments as reflecting poorly on her. Apart from anything else she actually has a degree in Asian Studies, so this is a point that really should have been familiar to her.

New India, Old India

Finally, I suppose she could (in the unlikely event that she addresses what I’m saying here directly) respond that it’s all very well for me to come along with my anecdotes about what’s going on in Mumbai where neo-liberalism has taken hold but she was talking about life in the traditional rural communities where the majority of Indians still live. This is fair enough up to a point. However, I would observe that the figures on inequality I mentioned earlier were for the country as a whole including both towns and cities. It is also not as if rich Indians only emerged with economic liberalisation in the 1990s. In the 1940s, when India was still a firmly rural and agricultural society, Osman Ali the prince of Hyderabad was reputed to be the richest man on the planet. And even in an Indian village where there is something approaching material equality, there may well still be deeply unpleasant status hierarchies arising from the caste system. How this is being affected by economic growth and the move to cities is a complicated area. However, we can hope that the sheer mass of humanity in large cities will render the most stigmatising elements of the caste system, the notion that the mere presence of a Dalit or a member of another ‘backward’ caste is a form of pollution, will become untenable when living and working in such close proximity to so many people as one does in a city. Lest anyone think these kind of status hierarchies are a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, I would observe that the Duke of Wellington disliked the building of the railways because it would: “only encourage the lower classes to move about”.

Why it matters

I find Ms Bennett’s misapprehensions about India concerning for several reasons:

  • As the Economist’s reporter observed it perhaps speaks to a frequent flaw with leftist thinking whereby they proclaim solidarity with those in less economically developed countries but wind up treating them as props for their chosen narratives. Far from wanting saving from capitalism, a recent piece of research by Pew suggested people living in developing and emerging economies are more supportive of free markets than those in wealthier economies.
  • I would like politicians to have a reasonable grasp of big economic trends like the fact that India is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
  • An implication of the Ms Bennett’s comments seems to be that we choose between absolute and relative poverty. In fact, there are countries like Sweden in which both are low and countries like India in which both are high.

Postscript

None of this is to say that there is not a legitimate debate about the role of economic liberalisation and growth in India. Witness, for example, the very public battle between economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati in the run up to the last Indian General Election. It’s just that such debates ought to be well informed and be about India and not the West by proxy.

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