India is changing so rapidly and dramatically that it’s becoming a paradigm of its own, Patrick French told a large crowd at the RAND Corporation. His new book, India: A Portrait, is billed as “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people,” and his answer to the question, “Is India rich or poor?” lived up to that billing, as he mixed portraits of some of the faces of the new India with historical anecdotes and analysis.
According to French, over the past few decades, Westerners have clung to three assumptions about India: that it “was one of the poorest countries in the world and was designed to stay that way”; that it’s one of the world’s spiritual centers, where money isn’t a real priority; and that its politics are defined largely by its relationship to Pakistan. None of these are true any longer, thanks to extraordinary changes that began in the early 1990s, when India–which had closed off its economy from the rest of the world when it gained independence in 1947–began a slate of reforms that opened the country up to the forces of globalization and dramatically changed its economic path.
A few years ago, four of the eight richest people in the world were Indian, according to Forbes. However, the stories that define the country are as much about the people who are struggling, and those who have succeeded in joining the middle class, as they are about the fabulously rich.
C.K. Ranganathan grew up in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the son of a math teacher who graduated with a degree in chemistry but few job prospects. He decided to market shampoo to people who couldn’t afford a whole bottle by selling it in individual sachets. With few options for loans, he put all his money into the business and struggled with distribution until he decided to sell the sachets by the box for cash to junior civil servants. “He stuck with it, it took off, and by the early 1990s he was doing pretty well,” said French. As big corporations came into India, Ranganathan diversified, brought in people who had been trained in business management, and today the company employs just over 1,000 people and has a turnover of $140 million dollars per year.
On the other end of the spectrum are startling stories of poverty and desperation. In a small temple village near Mysore, 100 miles south of Bangalore, a man working as a quarry laborer was virtually a slave. His boss had loaned him money and then given him a bill amounting to the equivalent of a few hundred dollars. With no way to pay his boss back, the laborer tried to escape. This failed, and he was captured and put in metal fetters. For almost two years, he lived in the quarry and worked effectively as a slave until he and other workers in a similar plight were rescued.
“You have the prosperity and you have the supreme poverty side by side,” explained French. “They’re not in different parts of the country. They’re all shaken up together.”
The Indian government is trying to effect change and reform in a number of different ways to help its poorest citizens. They are attempting to scan the iris of every Indian (that’s 2.4 billion eyes) in order to have a failsafe method of identification. (Fingerprinting doesn’t work there because “people who are laboring have had their fingerprints worn down to the point where they’re quite hard to recognize,” French explained.) By knowing who’s who, corrupt bureaucracy and greedy middlemen can be cut out from the typical skimming off the top that accompanies programs like subsidized food.
But it’s an uphill battle. “Increasingly, the political system in India at a national level has tied itself up in knots,” French explained. It has stagnated for three reasons: criminalization, corruption, and nepotism. The last is perhaps the most endemic. An astonishing nine out of 10 members of Parliament under the age of 40 have been elected thanks not to merit but to heredity, and 70 percent of all women in parliament come from political families.
Yet the story of India is not just a rich-poor dichotomy. “A highly dynamic, new Indian middle class” has emerged, explained French. He told the story of a man he met from the state of Maharashtra (where Mumbai is located) who came from an indigenous tribal community that was “the lowest of the low.” A job digging construction pits for what would become one of the region’s first wineries turned into a position as cellarmaster. Fifteen years later, he’s still illiterate–but he knows every last detail of the winemaking and storage process. What’s astounding, in cases like these, are the “very, very sudden shifts.” Leaps are made not across many generations but in the space of a decade.
Although there are still many Indians who have not benefited from the economic liberalization of the past two decades, many of the facts and figures about the country’s poverty are myths. That 77 percent of the population lives on less than 20 rupees (about 40 cents) a day is untrue. So is the claim that more children suffer from malnutrition there than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
“You have to look carefully and see what things are real and what things are being said because of a particular political motivation,” French said.
Ultimately, “in looking at the question of whether India is rich or poor today, you need to think in terms of a new paradigm of what poverty and wealth means in the world today.” We think rich countries are full of rich people–but the populations of China and India are so much greater than that of other countries that it’s impossible for the entire nation to go in a single direction. French calls this phenomenon “Schrodinger’s country”; like Schrodinger’s cat being simultaneously alive and dead, these countries are going to be simultaneously rich and poor.
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Read an excerpt from India: A Portrait here.
Buy the book: Skylight, Amazon, Powell’s
Read expert opinions on whether India’s potential matches its hype here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.