August 02, 2020
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Karma Chameleon

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Karma Chameleon
"You have come from India? Then I will take you to the most expensive diamond store in Durban," suggested the taxi driver. Ten years ago, the conversation would have gone as follows: "You have come from India? Then I will take you to the best cut-price shop in town." We have come a long way since those bad, old days of chronic hunger, cheap drugs, kama sutra, exotic curry, instant nirvana image. There has been a tectonic transformation in the way the international community looks at us in 2006. Outlook’s opinion poll mirrors the changed perception dramatically. Present-day India is seen as a rising, confident superpower challenging China, the United States and France. Its well-publicised strength is manifested in crazy real estate prices, rich middle class, glitzy malls, software domination and L.N. Mittal. We’ve never been so admired. The world is at our feet.

But hang on. There is another India the foreign visitor meets as he departs our improving airports. The journey to the 5-star hotel may have been sanitised, courtesy better roads and the absence of defecating slum-dwellers on the highway. Still, the "other" is very visible at traffic lights, parks, shrines, monuments, railway stations. Here one encounters sub-Saharan poverty cheek by jowl with glittering affluence. How do these two Indias coexist so peacefully, asks the pesky foreigner. Perhaps its belief in karma or kismet? Or just plain helplessness?

To argue thus is to invite trouble from those puffed up with pride (and a little prejudice) about how far and how fast our recently unchained republic has progressed. The poor must learn to be patient. First, they must somehow acquire "merit" and then "compete". This proposition might seem reasonable if the disparities in our society—between the rich and the poor—were acceptable and not so shaming. Superpower India managed only last week to officially ban child labour! No doubt, we are a full-fledged capitalist country and, in such a system, certain levels of poverty are required to oil the wheels of free markets. The difference between India and any other first world country, or even a developing country, is the yawning gap. Only in the Congo and Rwanda is the gap between the haves and have-nots wider.

The world, rightly, sees India as a rising money power, but it also sees India as a country where some people eat grass, sell their children, hawk their kidneys, commit suicide so that their families can get state compensation. Economic superpower? Yes. And no.

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