Dilip Hiro talks about his latest book on the opening up of the economy.

Every time I meet Dilip Hiro, he seems to be completely focussed on the task ahead, always refusing to be swayed by any talk unrelated to his work. It is no easy task to draw him into a conversation. He, however, made an exception on his recent New Delhi trip and talked animatedly about plays, literature festivals, politics… Of course, the conversation finally veered towards his forthcoming book, Indians in a Globalizing World (HarperCollins). Excerpts:

Gurgaon is the Poster City of modern India with a free economy. Yet barely a couple of kilometres from its glitzy malls, BPL families live with their economic status outlined with a name plate on their houses... Did you discern some social churning at the grassroots level while researching Gurgaon?

Gurgaon is the microcosm of the hyped-up New India. In my chapter on it I have laid bare all social classes — from the slum dwellers of Dundahera to the residents of the luxurious condominiums of Aralias tower block with a panoramic view of the scenic 18-hole golf course of manicured lawns with strolling peacocks, and interspersed with small lakes and water streams.

The general reaction of the poor to the ultra-rich was either “They deserve it”, or “It doesn’t bother me; I am doing better here than in my village”. The sharpest response came from Majnun Khan, who ran a down-at-heel eatery in Nathupur Market, a proletariat’s bazaar. “All those living in luxury apartments, they have become rich through dishonest means,” he said. “They ask you to do something and then they don’t pay you for that.”

An inevitable consequence of the new free economy is the frantic construction activity. How much is the real estate price escalation caused by dubious factors, how much is genuine?

The real estate companies pay most of the agreed price for agricultural land in cash to the rural owners. After building apartments in gated compounds, they sell them for to urban buyers who pay by cheque. Thus constructing residential and commercial accommodation has become the chief means of converting black money into white. Since all land transfers have to be approved by the elected sarpanch of a Gram Panchayat, he demands, and gets, a kickback on such transactions. So getting elected to this seemingly humble office becomes very lucrative.

In my chapter on corruption, I give the example of a panchayat election near Jodhpur. The winner reportedly spent Rs.15 lakh on campaigning, which involved arranging feasts for most of the 16,500 voters for a fortnight and bribing leaders of sub-castes to deliver block votes. The legal ceiling for electoral expenses was Rs. 40,000, and the salary of the sarpanch Rs.36,000 a year.

So here is the irony of all ironies. Periodic elections, the bedrock of democracy, have become the prime cause of mega-corruption that has blighted the largest democracy in the world.

Villagers get a good price for their land. It leads to short-term gains and long term disappointment as the landed get reduced to the landless with no special skills. How do we cope with the aftermath of such actions in the coming years?

The case of Kuri Bhagtasni village near Jodhpur was summed up by a local boy who went on to obtain a Ph.D. from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “Most of those who sold land were illiterate or semi-literate, low-caste peasants. They had never seen so much cash in their lives. Only one in 20 made invested the cash. Others spent it on new gadgets, expensive mobiles, cars… and once the cash was exhausted the former landholder became a labourer on a construction site in Jodhpur for Rs.300 a day.”

All told, inhabitants of Kuri Bhagtasni and nearby villages benefited by the economic transformation of their settlements. But the outside individuals and companies had gained much more. This illustrates the skewed redistribution of the extra wealth created by the New Economic Policy (NEP) in tandem with globalisation of India’s economy. That is the over-arching thesis of my book summed up in the sub-title: Their Skewed Rise.

You talk of villages in the vicinity of cities thriving. However, India is not uniformly shining. Just 10 km or so from Delhi, we have a village called Masuri where you can get a Coca Cola or Pepsi at your doorstep but not tap water... How does one explain this oddity?

There are always exceptions. The comparative prosperity of villages near towns and cities is linked to the need for transforming agricultural land into residential and commercial property to accommodate the rising urban population. In the case of Masuri, it could be that the MLA representing the village belonged to an opposition party. In contrast, if you look at the slum of New Seelampur in Greater Delhi, you see that their MLA Mateen Ahmad (Congress) got the residents legitimate power connections and communal water taps. Overall, though, there is a mismatch between the quality and speed of the services that public and private sectors provide. In the case of the private sector profit is the driving force.

For the modern, urban Indian, Dantewada hardly exists. Or a large part of the country without proper roads, electricity or water. Aren't we being driven by politicians of urban India and policy-makers who have no taste of Bharat?

There is scant understanding among urban Indians of what drives Adivasis to Naxalism. Nor is there popular awareness that nearly nine-tenths of India’s important minerals are in the Adivasi-majority regions. In my chapter on Maoists, I have shown that, in the area under their control, they have created a model of popularly elected government with its own security and intelligence agencies which challenges the foundation of the system currently existing in India.

Finally, I did not see any interaction with leading politicians or business tycoons. Why? Also, in the Source Notes, I noticed several references to your earlier book Inside India Today, published in 1977. Is there any relationship between it and the upcoming book?

Yes. My approach in both cases is the same. Also, my writing style is a judicious mix of field trips and interviews, case studies, and book and newspaper research. In both instances, I have stayed away from interviewing leading politicians and businessmen. Instead I have dealt with the impact their decisions have had on the general public. Hence my focus on interviewing villagers and ordinary urbanites. For my earlier book researched in the 1970s, during my 18-month-long travels I visited 31 villages in 21 states as well as all major cities. I always trace the root of the problem.