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Is India's new prosperity a myth?

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, SEPT. 7. Under the provocative headline "Not Shining, but Drowning,'' Britain's most respected Left-wing magazine New Statesman has ridiculed claims about India's "new'' prosperity calling it a "myth'' and an "invention.''

In a special report on India in its latest issue, the magazine — once regarded as compulsory reading by India's intellectual class — attacks the country's "neo-liberal'' economic agenda which, it says, has widened the gap between the vast majority of its poor and a small elite "celebrating their ownership of a mobile phone that combines a TV screen.''

"All the talk about a new high-tech India storming the barricades of the first world is based largely on myth,'' says John Pilger, a leading independent writer and commentator, who wrote the report after a visit to India.

Contrasting the "billboard image'' of "joyful'' young businessmen showing off their new wealth with grim statistics about poverty and malnutrition, Mr. Pilger says that the "Shining India'' slogan was "invented'' by "illusionists'' who have benefited from economic liberalisation.

Deterioration

"As the images of role models with white teeth have gone up, so public services have deteriorated. According to U.N. figures, India today spends less than 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on health, and in the health services ... ranks 171st out of 175 countries, just ahead of Sudan and Myanmar. And yet spending on private health, which only the well-off can afford, is one of the highest in the world,'' he notes.

`Betrayal of poor'

The report describes the story of India's economic liberalisation as one of "almost casual betrayal'' of the millions of the country's poor, and says that explains why the majority of Indians voted against the then BJP-led Government with "such evident anger.''

Criticising the new Congress-led Government for continuing to pursue the same agenda, the report notes that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared that there will be "no rollback,'' and adds: "... .like New Labour, Congress will be as neoliberal as its rivals, if not more so.'' And, referring to the party president, Sonia Gandhi's recent speeches, it says: "Like Indira Gandhi, her mother-in-law, Sonia Gandhi spoke against poverty but rarely against the elitism that controlled it.''

Call centres

Mr. Pilger acknowledges that India's growth rate has "leapt'' above six per cent but says that it is about "capital, not labour; about liberated profits, not people.'' "The new technocratic class is tiny. The famous call-centres ... employ only 100,000 people, or 0.01 per cent of the population. Since 1993, the so-called consumer boom in India has embraced, at most, 15 per cent of the population; and, for the majority of these people, the new prosperity has meant the acquisition of basic modern living amenities, rather than cars and mobile phones,'' he says concluding that what is happening in India today is a form of "extreme capitalism designed in England in the early 19th century.''

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