“Tell me, this man, the American President who is here, will his visit help us in India?” asked Srinivas, a driver in a private taxi service in Mumbai.
Srinivas once worked in a paint factory. He had a steady job. In 2003, the factory closed. He was laid off. The compensation offered was unacceptable. For the last seven years, he and 105 others have been fighting in court for their dues. In the meantime, he drives a taxi, at half the salary he earned in the paint factory. What did the recent visit of President Barack Obama mean to people like him?
Srinivas asked this question on the first day of the American President's visit to India. Would he have felt satisfied by the third day when Mr. Obama confirmed that India has “arrived” and is now a “global power”? Or would he still have asked the same question?
In the afterglow of that affirmation by the world's most powerful man, it is easy for us in India to build around us a world of delusion. An Incredible India. Where there is impressive economic growth. Where there is a burgeoning middle class representing a market that rich countries like America are running after to kick start their own faltering economies. Where we are being sought out and invited to join the top table of powerful nations in the world.
Wonderful as that sounds, there is another India we have to remember, and it is not so incredible. Indeed, even as Air Force One took off from Indian soil carrying President Obama and his wife to Indonesia and other countries, the ugly face of Corrupt India was visible on the floor of the very Parliament where he had spoken the night before. The sheen of Incredible India is considerably dulled in the face of such open corruption. And those who pay the real price for these deals that are now being exposed are the millions rendered invisible by all this talk of India, the Powerful and India, the Incredible.
It is interesting that Michelle Obama, who charmed people with her informality and her genuine way of connecting with people of all ages, made a special point of meeting girls as well as children from disadvantaged homes. Although the headlines caught her dancing with children, in fact she has a more serious interest. As The Washington Post reported, “But the first lady arrived in India with a message that goes beyond dancing. She has made education and women's empowerment the focus of her domestic agenda. The message is particularly powerful in India, where many rural women struggle to be educated and where there are enormous obstacles even for a baby girl to be born.” Yet the Indian media was so fixated on whether the US President would use the “P” word, Pakistan, and condemn it for acts of terror, that we barely noticed that Michelle Obama was making a more relevant statement that applies to the other India, one that did not fit into the main agenda of terror and trade.
The other India is known to the world even if we prefer not to acknowledge it. A day before Air Force One landed in Mumbai, the United Nations Development Programme's 2010 Human Development Report revealed how despite a high economic growth rate, India's position in human development terms remained virtually the same over the last five years, improving only marginally. India is ranked a low 119 out of 148 countries.
An important factor pulling it down is its low Gender Inequality Index. And within that, it was the high rate of maternal mortality that contributed the most to its inability to improve. In other words, the real reason for India's low rank in the human development index is because too many women continue to die while giving birth.
But coming back to the Obama visit, within a day of his arrival, after a meeting with some of the most powerful businessmen from both countries, he announced the $10 billion in business deals that would create over 50,000 jobs in the US. This was clearly catering to his constituency at home which has turned ultra-critical of every move he makes. This is what he said:
“From medical equipment and helicopters to turbines and mining equipment, American companies stand ready to support India's growing economy, the needs of your people, and your ability to defend this nation. And today's deals will lead to more than 50,000 jobs in the United States — 50,000 jobs. Everything from high-tech jobs in Southern California to manufacturing jobs in Ohio.”
But what about jobs for Indians, for men like Srinivas? Will American investment in India create jobs here? Srinivas could not understand why an American President should come to India promoting American business. When he lost his job, a local politician told him that this was the outcome of globalisation. So how will more global capital coming into India help people like him, he wanted to know.
In fact, if you scroll down the list of the business deals, there is precious little in it that represents additional employment opportunities for Indian workers. On the other hand, one of the areas where the US is pushing hard for India to open up to foreign direct investment is the retail business to facilitate the entry of some of its large retail giants like Walmart. Will this not kill the small businesses in the informal sector that survive on tiny margins but make the difference between survival and starvation for millions of Indians? Should we not be asking these questions?
In a few days, the Obama visit will be off the front pages. In fact, it already is. But the problems of poverty, of our pathetic gender inequality index, of our unemployment, of our iniquitous growth remain. During those three hectic days, when the media reported every word, murmur and move of the US President and his wife, these stories found no place on the table. Yet, India will not “arrive” until these stories are told, until these problems are addressed, with or without the help of other nations.
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