December 11, 2005

Bangalore and Paris

An article that is to be published soon… In a magazine in India.

Since moving to England, a story that is covered in great detail in this part of the world are the riots in France. What started as a couple of sporadic incidents in the poor suburbs of some Paris, moved last night to the heart of Lyon. The riots are apparently conducted by ´disillusioned young men´, mainly of coloured backgrounds who are generally unemployed or find it difficult in that country. Last night was the seventeenth night in a row where mobs have set fire to cars mainly around Paris and Lyon. It has been publicly admitted as a response to the lack of employment opportunities in that country especially for those of Arabic and African origin. While it does appear that the riots of Paris are far away for a country where economic growth is cruising along at over 6% per annum, the riots hold important lessons for India as it aims to deliver growth with equality.

Economically, India is one of great disparities. The economic boom of the last fifteen years has brought tremendous prosperity to a large number of middle class people, whose income has increased dramatically. However, this growth along with policies that India has followed has ensured in the marginalisation of a large number of people. Farmer suicides in the not too distant parts in both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (both flagships of economic restructuring) are reminders of the same. Economic data of Bangalore city itself highlight how the incomes of the bottom 20% of Bangalore´s population has more or less remained stagnant for the last ten years, while salaries of those in the top 20% have soared.

The response to this increasing disparity has been a call for greater equalisation of opportunity in cities like Bangalore. Ranging from reservations in the private sector as per the constitutional provisions as well as extending it to the locals (Kannadigas). Both these policies have been vehemently opposed on various grounds (and this article on the merits and demerits of the reservation policy). However, emerging out of this are a minority who are economically dominant especially in cities like Bangalore which are known for being very ´cosmopolitan´. This population is seen as a non-Kannadiga, non-Backward class population who have (rightly or wrongly) taken away jobs from the local people.

For these people, economic and social mobility has severely limited. Surveys of any slum settlement in Bangalore (and I suspect is the same all over India) reflect a disproportionately large number of Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims. For these communities, despite the anecdotal evidence of a handful of people who have done well, it is almost impossible to believe that they can be a part of this IT revolution which has brought so much prosperity to the those whose houses they clean and cars they wash.

The increasing level of economic inequality is a hot stew, simmering up just waiting for the right time for the cauldron to explode. Some of the early warning symptoms have already been sounded. But many have disregarded the noises.

Currently, there is an ongoing public spat (where everyone seems to have an opinion) between Mr. H D Deve Gowd and Mr. Narayana Murthy. Here is one one hand a farmer politician who has questioned the policies and the integrity of a middle class icon. One derives his support from a rural, backward class base whose main access to power is through the ballot box. The other from an urban middle class who are generally seen as politically apathetic, but economically powerful. One who has been oppositional to a large number of infrastructure projects (like the Bangalore metro and the Bangalore- Mysore Infrastructure corridor). The other who has facilitated many projects including the Bangalore International Airport as well as the proposed elevated expressway to Electronics City. Both are as different as chalk from cheese.

In the public mud-slinging that has taken place, some sections of the media even ran a ´Save Bangalore´ campaign in which many felt that the city needed more Narayana Murthy´s and less Deve Gowda´s. That there is a need to recognise the achievements of one as it put Bangalore on the world map while the other… (well… lets not mention it).

This is not a commentary about the deplorable public feud that has taken place. But the public feud is an indicator of what is wrong with the development process that we seem to have followed. On one hand, you do have some people getting richer. But on the other, a larger and larger number of people in the suburbs of the cities of India are getting displaced and marginalised further. The economic benefits will reach them is what they say. However, when will it is the question that is asked? It will trickle down. I cant wait is the response as I see people getting richer around me while I see the government taking away my only livelihood which was my land.

Is this a distant possibility? Ask the Parisians whos cars have been burned. Or the Tamilians who were targetted during the Cauvery riots as they were seen as the richer community. Or the same community (Madrasis) in Mumbai over thirty years ago for displacing locals from more powerful jobs. Or even the ´Bangladeshi´ in large sections of the North East (especially Assam). Or the backward caste who´s house has been burned by the continuing caste wars in Bihar for control over resources among other things.

In the eagerness to malign one party or the other, we have missed an early warning signal for the growing economic inequality across the country and the precious little that we are doing to address the issues. Basic education remains a dream for many and after Kerala and the North East, not a single district (let alone State) has achieved 100% literacy (that was held up by a census). Healthcare is available only to those with large amounts of money with the growing privatisation of the healthcare system and its inability to deliver benefits to the poor. And social mobility is still crucially limited by the caste system. Anecdotally, think of the last time that you went for a social gathering and you saw more than a handful of SC/ ST/ OBCs (except if it was a political meeting).

And in this process of liberalisation, we seem to be constantly in the search for quick fixes without addressing the roots of inequality across the country. What´s worse, we seem to be actively promoting this inequality through policy. Through providing for subsidies and incentives that allows for the creation of an economic underclass. As a leading businessman on TV once said that we need labour laws that attract foreign institutional investors, domestic companies, local investors, foreign governments and multi-national corporations so that we can be competitive. The irony was, there was no mention of labour laws for labour itself!

If we consistently ignore the early warning signs like the reservations for locals, reservations in the private sector and the tiff on land acquisition, we run the risk of turning up the heat on this bubbling cauldron. And like Paris there is a real risk that it could erupt into a violent class confrontation across the country. At that time, it could be too late for us to fix many of the issues that need to be addressed today. Be warned!

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