Poverty and mega-wealth in India

By Pascale Palmer
September 3, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a holiday in India. I used to live there and so I might be one of the few foreigners who actually loves arriving in Delhi, stepping out of the airport into the cruel heat, sooty air and architecture of the perpetually half-built.

I find Delhi a pullulating, frightening, magical and wildly unruly place where you might as easily be met by a waiting elephant as a tightrope-walking child at the city’s traffic lights. It is also the most unequal place I have ever been.

That begging child at the traffic lights, nonchalantly contorting through hoops, will usually be one of the children of itinerant workers – come to the city to build this or that, service this or that industry, often on an Rs80-100 per day wage. That’s a little over a pound and will buy you a couple of daals and rices, with a couple of rotis on the side. Not much for mum, dad and children after a hard day of physical work. And while that little girl, of maybe seven or eight, and her younger brother beating out rudimentary time on the tabla sit and dance and balance on the roadside - they are passed by Mercedes, Porches, Maseratis and Ferraris.

In this new New World of the Delhi uber-rich the city now has an ever-growing influx of superbikes and classic cruisers that are being imported despite the country’s roads being capable of tearing tyres and suspensions to shreds – such is the heady irony of being mega-rich in a developing country.

But I don’t have too much sympathy for those on their Harley Low Rider Convertibles bottoming out over potholes down Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, they’ve got enough money to deal with the repairs. What I do worry about is the disconnect between a country that has so much accelerated conspicuous wealth yet isn’t putting the infrastructures in place fast enough to ensure the advantages of this growth touch everyone.

It is true that I travelled on a brand new road between Chennai and Puducherry in South India during my holiday which cut the journey time almost in half for those travelling in cars, but if the roads in the capital leave a little to be desired, imagine getting your bullock cart up a country track during the rains in Rajasthan.

A Delhi friend tells me that during the Commonwealth Games you didn’t see the traffic light beggars anymore – they had been kicked out of the city to live at the margins in their make-shift tents of tarpaulin draped over slats of wood. But slowly, as everything has relaxed again and Delhi is no longer on show, they are coming back. Another friend tells me that there are fewer beggars because India has “solved the poverty issue”, but he doesn’t have any evidence to back this up.

Over the years India’s successive governments have made significant inroads into poverty reduction in their vast country but UN figures from 2010, indicated that more than 37 per cent of India’s population of 1.35 billion still lives below the poverty line with 22 per cent of those in rural areas and 15 per cent urban. In a country that, despite tricksy inflation and concomitant rising interest rate, can boast a GDP growth rate of around 7.7 per cent - this is a shame.

Every man, woman and child in India, just as in any and every other country, should have the right to flourish to their absolute farthest reaches of potential. The aspiration should always be for a nation to be made up of those who have, and those who have. There is something monstrous about watching a ragged little girl walk tightrope and dance for her family’s dinner in front of a string of £100,000 sports cars. This is not because I say those who spend conspicuously do so wrongly, but that the juxtaposition screams the wrongness of economic growth that is not pro-poor, that is not part of the national greater and common good, that is about market and economic systems tipping their hats to greed, to the most affluent, to the most powerful.

India’s entrepreneurs have brought the country much wealth and rightful acclaim, but like every developing and emerging economy, the nation has been built on the hardworking backs of its poorest people. As their country flourishes, they should have the right to do the same.


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD (www.cafod.org.uk).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.