Activist and academic Raj Patel’s profile proudly notes that he has worked for the World Bank and the WTO, and protested against them both around the world. A visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s Centre for African Studies, Patel’s latest offering to the literary world—The Value of Nothing—is a New York Times bestseller. In an interview with Ashish Kumar Sen, Patel says beating the drum of India Rising is all very well but India is ignoring less flattering aspects at its own peril.
What is driving the growing influence of Indian thinkers?
India is a booming economy, and everyone wants a piece of it. It helps to have interpreters of India who are able to portray a sense of what is going on on the ground. There are a lot of Indian thinkers whose words are taken very seriously. Those thinkers are able to write well and that, in a media where the written word counts for a lot, is a selling point. While I’m awed by writers and journalists in India like P. Sainath and Arundhati Roy and invariably enlightened by the thinking of large parts of the economics faculty at JNU, I’m most inspired by the organising and strategies coming from groups like the Campaign for Survival and Dignity.
So it’s fair to say that it’s a consequence of the global interest in India?
Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine India’s prosperity without global interest. The interest in India, particularly from outside, is certainly driven by the search for an understanding of the business context so that people can make money.
“Since class position affects reporting on India, rural affairs news is marginal and global perspectives on India remain confined to IT.” What trends have you noticed in India of late?
I’m interested in seeing the ways in which a particular class is able to report what happens in India. It is not so much Indianness that is shaping the reporting as a certain class position. That is why the reporting on rural affairs in India tends to be fairly marginal and the international perspectives on India tend to be concentrated very much in the domains of IT and manufacturing but not very much in terms of the issues that affect the majority of India. It is a hard argument to make that it’s someone’s Indianness that is prompting a particular interest or a particular vision of what is driving the IT industry. I think class is a more interesting explanatory variable.
Where does the India story go from here?
For some, the India story is one of inevitable and unbridled prosperity in the future. All it will take is just the right combination of FDI, right foreign policy and the right kind of business partnerships and suddenly there will be prosperity raining down on everyone. For me, that may all be well for the 50 million people touched by it. But the story I’m more interested in, and the Indian story that appears in movies like Peepli [Live], affects 600 million people. That is the story I’m more keen to hear about.
To what extent does ignoring that story have a detrimental effect?
It’s already a very serious problem. I think a lot of Indians are mortified to hear that a few Indian states have more poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa. This is not so much a problem that will have consequences in the future as one that already has consequences.
People like Raj Patel seem almost proud that the number of Indians who are very poor is climbing (“I’m more interested in stories of our 600 million”). Newton’s first law is applicable here—in short, it needs a lot of effort to move a large mass and develop momentum. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and commenting, it would be better to lend a hand. As Sam Pitroda says, we now need technology at the bottom of the pyramid. Satish, Pune
I’m not sure what insight Patel is bringing. He makes it sound as if half of India (all of 50 million) lives in gated communities. Why is it that so many middle-class careers hinge on Indian poverty? Isn’t that a curious fact? Was it ever thus? Why are they angry about the high rates of growth in India? M.K. Saini, Delhi
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