Saturday, February 28, 2009

India's "Dark Underbelly" set to bloat

While it has swept away the Oscars and the Golden Globe awards, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” has offended some and hurt the sensibilities of many Indians. It has been exuberantly praised and has also been subjected to caustic criticism. Its technical qualities have been unreservedly extolled but its exploitation of the sordid life in Indian slums has come in for wholehearted denunciation. No wonder, it has been accused of purveying “poverty porn” and is alleged to have prostituted India’s “dark underbelly.

This is not a new phenomenon. Indians have always been touchy about depiction of the age-old poverty with all its ramifications. Even Satyjit Ray, the master film-maker, was accused of “exporting (Indian) poverty” through his much-acclaimed Pather Panchaali, “The Saga of the Road “. This sensitivity towards so pervasive a phenomenon is inexplicable. It is something which cannot be obscured from view – camouflaged or veiled. It is there for everyone to see, though it may not strike many of us as appalling – so thoroughly benumbed are we by its constant assault on our senses that we do not even happen to notice it. To us it is a part of the rural and urban landscape. Not so, however, for a Westerner, who finds such hopeless poverty curious and an object of enquiry.

Poverty generally resides in India’s myriad villages and rapidly multiplying urban slums. Time was when slums were virtually unknown in most of the towns except in the metropolitan cities. I, for one, saw a slum when I happened to visit Bombay (now Mumbai) more than half a century ago. And, slum-wise even Bombay was then considered to be no patch on Calcutta (now Kolkata). Our small town in Central India was free of them, though it indeed had areas where the impoverished lived. Those were the remnants of old villages which were overtaken by the town when it expanded. Today, slums are ubiquitous – visible in every urban Indian settlement, housing 20 to 30% or even more of the urban population. With their agglomeration of haphazardly built shanties they stick out like sore thumbs from every unlikely corner. If anything, they are burgeoning, fuelled by migrations from the depths of the rural hinterland that is devoid of economic opportunities. Rising population, fragmented uneconomic holdings, progressive impoverishment and absence of openings for making even a stark living have fostered a steady exodus from villages in search of livelihood. Drawn by the seemingly more affluent urban centres the poor and ignorant fall prey to the urban land mafia, who, backed by unscrupulous politicians, oblige them for a consideration to illegally build shanties on public lands. The politics of votes assuring grant of ownership of the illegally encroached public lands or rehabilitation in ready-built tenements, foster further influx. Thus the cycle goes on, promoting creation of massive shanty-towns of closely-built bare, unhealthy and unsanitary shelters that have become the hall mark of the Indian urban scene.

This is the Indian “underbelly”, with its nether universe of crime and criminals, illiteracy, hunger, mafia-controlled professionalized begging, prostitution, decadence and filth, the exposure of which by Boyle, with a touch of escapism, has offended the sensitive and the phoney-patriot. Although, dark and gloomy with desperately deprived and sometimes depraved souls, yet many slums have developed, despite severe handicaps, certain positivities of industry, enterprise and above all a “market”, a fact which caught the eye of the current Home Minister, which, he said, alone was reason enough for viewing Boyle’s film. What’s more, the inmates of some slums provide goods and services which, apart from being exported, are frequently the mainstays of middle-class homes. Nonetheless, it indeed is the Indian “dark underbelly” the candid display of which has embarrassed some of those who, pumped up by the country’s consistent 8%-plus growth, fancy it as having acquired a stature fit enough to occupy a place on the international high table.

Despite its frequent embarrassing exposure for viewers across the world it seems a trifle strange that nothing drastic has been attempted to redress the situation. Barring some cosmetic effort under the ongoing Urban Renewal Mission to improve sanitation and hygiene in the slums or to rehabilitate the “slumdogs” into indifferently built tenements nothing fundamental has so far been attempted. What, seemingly, needs to be done is to tackle the rural economy to make it attractive for the villagers to find a life of dignity in villages, discouraging them from looking for greener pastures in urban India that currently do not exist. Since Independence in 1947, billions of rupees have been spent for poverty alleviation and uplift of rural masses and yet it has not made any dent on rural poverty. The Central Minister for Panchayats (rural local bodies) recently gave out that while in 1994 as much as Rs 76 billion ($1.55 billion app. at current prices) was spent on rural development, anti-poverty schemes and social security, the outlay for the purpose in the last 15 years has gone up by 16 times and yet there is very little to show for results. All the money, seemingly, disappeared into a bottomless pit – enriching the rural political and bureaucratic elite, keeping the village folk destitute. The minister lamented that the expenditure “is not translating into human wealth” and blamed the bureaucracy for the failure. However, everyone, including the self-serving and scheming politician and the apathetic middle-class, must share the blame for glossing over the unremitting fraud that went on.

Pervasive corruption coupled with a still rapidly rising population are neutralising the governmental efforts in poverty-reduction. While there is scant legal or moral check on political and bureaucratic corruption, the National Population Policy does not recommend effective action for population control. According to 2004 estimates the population is still growing at the rate of 1.44% and the total fertility rate, at 2.85%, is way above the replacement level. No wonder, around 250 million people (a figure contested by many) live below the “poverty line” determined by the government on the basis of consumption of calories – 2400 calories being the basic minimum. Despite large investments on poverty alleviation the country, therefore, would seem to be “spot-jogging”, somehow managing to remain where it was during the past few years.

What is, perhaps, more disconcerting is that the current unseemly and sizable Indian “dark underbelly” is set to bloat. “India: The Urban Poverty Report 2009”, brought out with the assistance of the UNDP, predicts 50% of the country’s population, as against 27.8% in 2001, will be urban-based by 2030. Most of them will be rural migrants, mostly finding shelter nowhere else but in urban slums. Already, the illegal migrants, predominantly from Bangladesh numbering about 30 million, have raised numerous shanty-towns in metros, secondary and tertiary towns. And, the immigration continues unabated. Besides, India is going to be the likely haven for many poor environmental refugees from the neighbouring countries when global warming takes its toll submerging the precariously placed coastal areas and islands.

The slums are, therefore, likely to see exponential growth in the next few decades unless effective steps to forestall the process are taken. Some steps, basically illustrative, could be clamping down on the population growth and fertility rates by whatever democratic means possible, uplift of rural economy by revamping its communicational, educational and healthcare infrastructure, simultaneously creating in it openings for self-employment and job-opportunities, improving the urban infrastructure so as to be able to effectively handle migrations – progressive urbanisation being virtually unstoppable, preventing illegal immigrations, effective governance by states and the Centre and above all, eradicating corruption.

The governments alone cannot do it. Everyone has to chip in – the private sector, the non-governmental organisations and the people of all classes. Only then, perhaps, the country would be able to get rid of that obnoxious “dark underbelly” the exposure of which seems to shame it before the world.