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Disaster at the bottom of the pyramid


Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

It was that silly season in the United States again. The dog days of summer left panting, and Fall arrived in its many-hued glory, as did ministers and mandarins from all over the world - particularly the subcontinent - who somehow manage to squeeze in business before the onset of winter, hard as that must be. Many come for the UN session, others on bilateral visits, and still others find unique ways and avenues to make it official. It's another matter that some of them also slip in a quick trip to a medical facility or brief visit to their lonely wards striving away in some university. The $500 daily allowance that you, taxpayers, forkout, goes some distance, even with a little detour.

But in that one mandatory public appearance in New York or Washington, usually before a think tank or chamber of commerce, hapless fourth estate hacks and the usual suspects from industry and academia are subjected to the annual drivel that now deserves to be called for what it is - an increasingly tiresome bluff. It is the great Indian growth story, a tale so stale and shopworn that it deserves, along with Sourav Ganguly and Baichung Bhutia, to be retired permanently. It was good while it lasted, but face it folks, it - and they - were never going to be world-beaters.

Don't get me wrong. As a veteran cheerleader of Hamara Bharat Mahaan, your correspondent has been part of the rah-rah squad that has talked up the India growth story to audiences abroad for nearly two decades now. True, there is much to be toasted and celebrated. The eight per cent annual uptick is not a piece of fiction, and anyone who questions it should have his head examined - and also his own assets. However none of this should mask the truth that we are a poor, struggling country, and no amount of statistics, let alone lies and damned lies, can hide the story of our spotty, muddled, uneven growth.

However, somewhere along the way, someone set the tone for Indian presentation in the US on the matter, firmly believing that bragging and bombast will do what calm, honest appraisal cannot. The end result is that every Indian mantri and babu coming to the US launches into such panegyrics about India and its growth that it leaves many who have heard this story year after year a little weary and washed up. After all, how many times can you bombinate about the number of cellphone connections and automobiles sold? But our worthies are ready to consign US and Europe, and indeed all of western civilisation, to the dustbin of history.

Mercifully, help is at hand. A recent spate of headlines has sought to introduce a few reality checks to counter the puffed-up presentation that our snake oil salesmen are peddling abroad. Among the more sobering reminders in recent times of our parlous state is that India ranks below Rwanda and Sudan in terms of food security and more than half our countrymen still defecate out in the open. Maybe that's our way to becoming an organic food superpower?

Seriously, if you left it to our spinmeisters, they'll find a myriad ways to turn any statistic around - the same way they rubbish the "canard" that we are home to more malnutritioned people than all of sub-Saharan Africa. Oh, 500 million people don't use footwear? That's an opportunity for footwear companies! But the Rs 32 question remains: What use eight per cent growth if it hadn't made a dent in some of the most basic metrics?

India's abject status in the world is brought home to me most starkly not when I travel in the US or Europe or in the developed world, but when I am trawling the bushes in Africa or hiking the jungles and mountains in South America. These are supposed to be our Third World compatriots - although the slickers who govern us would have us believe we've outgrown them. But trust me, most of these countries are much ahead of India when it comes to basic living standards and health and social metrics.

Of course, they are not great, flourishing democracies. Their institutions are weak;they don't have rowdy parliaments where lawmakers walk out every other day or lofty supreme court benches passing ineffective laws. But their people have a full stomach of food, decent access to health and education and navigable roads and streams.

Yes, you read that right. And I'm writing all this sitting in an equatorial village in the heart of the Amazon basin, sitting under a mosquito net. But the village has all the basics - potable drinking water, clean toilets and sanitation, ample food, decent healthcare - and even a slow but dodgy wireless internet connection.

For too long we have been smitten with the sound of our own souped-up success stories. Let's just set statistics and vanity aside, come out of our delusional comfort zone, and admit it. No matter what the statistics say, when you look at the people and how they live, we've been left behind - not only by the US and Europe, not just by China and Brazil, but even by Ivory Coast and Ecuador.

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