India makes up the larger part of Southasia by landmass and population, and so if India were shining one could make the argument that so would Southasia. But this would only make sense if India’s brilliant glow were spread over its one billion-plus population, in which case the economic and social revival in its thousand manifestations would also extend across the Subcontinent and outlying regions.
The gentlemen who rule from New Delhi at the moment would like us to believe in the run-up to the general elections of April-May that India is indeed resplendent, sending off rays of light, sparkling like the diadem catching a shaft of the bright early summer sun. The reality is that India shimmers only for the upper middle classes, the few score million, enjoying the post-modern, post-protectionist consumerist boom. The point that the Indian sun shines for but a few does not demand a debate, although we are aghast at Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress Party’s inability get the point across. Mrs Gandhi has not been able to challenge the hype and get the message across that over 400 million Indians are underemployed, underproductive, underfed, underclad, undersheltered and undereducated. The academics are crying themselves hoarse, but this is political terrain.
The rest of the Southasian elite would gladly go along with the feelgood vibes emanating from the Jamuna banks, given that their societies are even less egalitarian than India’s. And the interests of the Anglophone urban superelites are actually tied together as part of the charmed Southasian circle that is at ease with each other in gymkhanas from Dhaka to Quetta. So when New Delhi claims that India sizzles, the well-to-do in Karachi and Kathmandu are dazzled. And everyone fervently believes in the trickle down which will at some point of time touch the masses. Those who remind of starvation deaths, suicide-prone farmers, labourers pawning blood and kidney, mothers selling children to slave labour, are merely trying to spoil the fun.
These economic upper classes ride the crest of unrepresentative polities, whether democracy or dictatorship. And they meet each other at airport departure lounges all the time, exclaiming at ‘what a small world it is’. In reality, it is not that the world is undersized, but that the Anglophones of Southasia are a very small group. Among them, there is no more than two degrees of separation — between the NGO chieftan of Islamabad and the senior bureaucrat in Dhaka and the executive of the Indian multinational in Bombay. Going by this criterion, Southasia is actually already one country.
Those who live secure lives in Baridara or Bonani (Dhaka), Qutub Enclave (Haryana), Sector V (Islamabad) or Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo), in faux Greco-Roman towers coming up all over with polished marble-floor lobbies and airconditioning to keep out the evening chill, can really feel the rays of shining India touching their face. But then reality strikes looking down just about anywhere, for there are shanties in the shadow of the high-rise without running water, whose occupants defecate in the open nullah over there. Just out side the grand Greco-Roman gates, the dusty road has no footpath and the cobbler has his shop on the street. The child labourer (tribal? dalit? Gorkha?) scurries about serving the customers at the chaiwallah’s stall.
Much is made of the Great Indian Middle Class, without ever defining what where lies the ‘middle’, are we talking rural or urban, how wide a band are we including within the spectrum, and are we not all wanting to call ourselves middle because we really know that we are upper. The real middle class properly defined as filling the center of the demographic spectrum, surprise, does not speak English and makes up the bulk of the urban and small-town populace, far from rejoicing today suffers in the miasma of unfulfilled expectations. Unlike for the absolute poor, whose hopes from society are at nil and survival the mantra, the frustrations for the millions of the true middle class come with the chagrin of seeing others ‘make it’. That is where the violent revolutions of future Southasia are made.
If there was one group that could have brought Southasia together, it would have been the Anglophones, because they essentially are of the same nation. When India and Pakistan go to war as they do, the generals on both sides speak to BBC Television with the identical English accent. Yet, other than the members of the India Pakistan People’s Forum crying in the wilderness, Anglophone Southasia prefers to remain above the muck of politics, speaking liberal language without doing anything concrete on the ground either to bring about peace or a more egalitarian society.
The India Shining campaign is aimed at this Anglophone India which basks, not Vernacular India. The original ad campaign was conceptualised in English and developed in English by the agency Grey Worldwide India, whose creative director defends the commercials on almost every English talk-show beamed via satellite. Only lately and lamely has the GOI been trying to convert the line into other languages, Bharat Udaya….
The rest of Southasia’s Anglophones also like the India Shining campaign, because you can always ride the coattails of the Indian upper classes. That much trickle down and across, then is.
Bagdogra is the town next to Siliguri in the ‘chicken’s neck’ that separates the Indian Northeast form the mainland. It is part of the historically depressed region of northern India, which extends in one sweep from lower Assam through the Duars, West Bengal, across the expanse of Bihar and over to Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Everything about the chicken’s neck reeks of under-development, but not Bagdogra Airport, which is all sparkle and chrome, catering to the classes who have discovered flight.
Just a few miles away from the aerodrome, is the important railway junction of New Jalpaiguri which remains saddled with its colonial era sheds and platforms, but with post-colonial squalor that is the lot of the railway traveller. With the deep pockets of Southasia migrating to air travel, the railways as the most cost-effective and egalitarian of transportation systems, are losing out.
Once on the train out of New Jalpaiguri, this one happens to be the Kanchenjunga Express bound for Guwahati, a visit to the toilet vestibule indicates once again the continuing and expanding class divide. The lavatory pan of Indian Railways hasn’t changed in a century, and the excreta drops directly into the tracks and sleepers whizzing past below.
The entire grand network of the Indian Railways, the largest in the world at 81,511 kilometres, is one massive latrine network where train travellers (First Class, Airconditioned First and Second, Second Class) dump their ‘night-soil’. Toilets were first introduced into the Indian Railways upper classes in 1891 and 1907 in the lower classes. Since then, into 2004, those who live along the tracks, rural and urban, have continued to suffer the indignity of being at the receiving end.
Until the movers and shakers of India (and Southasia) are sensitive enough to ensure that their railways begin to have on-board collection and disposal of sewage slurry, India (and Southasia) will never get the glow that is being claimed.