False Dichotomies


Occupy India?

“We have no need, no need of your amber/Likewise your gold and your jewels – There is no true beauty in things of no use.” Waxwing (Alasdair Roberts – The Amber Gatherers)

“Would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Beamer, a necklace, or freedom?” Hip-Hop (Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free)

The ‘Occupy’ phenomenon hasn’t yet made it to India, despite the country having a rich/poor divide that dwarfs anything in the West, and the fact that the Indian masses clearly have the stomach for long protests, as the success of the Anna Hazare movement demonstrates. Perhaps the historical legacy of caste divisions means that people are more content to tolerate economic inequality in a way that they wouldn’t elsewhere; it’s certainly noteworthy that the most sustained and radical opposition to neo-liberalism in India has come from the proudly godless Maoists. But it’s also important to note that it isn’t entirely obvious where an Indian ‘Occupy’ movement would occupy. The economic centres of Mumbai or Delhi do not occupy the same place in the national consciousness as Wall Street in New York or the Square Mile in London for the simple reason that most Indians wouldn’t be aware of their existence. But a recent article in India Today offers one possibility for an occupy movement – pace The Educators – namely the homes of the country’s ostentatiously wealthy.

The article was billed as a special feature dealing with India’s luxury market in ‘Tier II’ cities. For example, the Maharashtran town of Kolhapur, where I stayed one night on the way from Pune to Goa. There lives the industrialist Shivaji Mohite, who in 2006 constructed a 1.2km go-karting course for his son Dhruv. It was built to international specifications, whatever those might be, and cost Rs 1.5-crore, or just over $300,000. Not to be outdone, in the Assamese town of Guwahati, printing-press baron Diganta Barua is currently constructing an Rs 5-crore indoor cricket ground for his beloved 14-year-old son. That’s just over one million dollars.

The World Wealth Report by Cap Gemini Merrill Lynch states that the number of Indian high net worth individuals, i.e. people with liquid assets of over $1 million, is 153,000, almost double the 2008 count. India’s luxury market is currently valued at $2.45 billion, and poised to double to $5.8 billion in the next five years. India is now in 12th place globally in potential to purchase luxury. Wealthy Indians are chomping at the bit to be recognised. In 2010, a consortium of Aurangabad (also in Maharashtra) industrialists decided that they wanted to place their city on the map. Did they consider chipping together to ensure that the city had a clean water supply, or perhaps to make sure that there was adequate food supply in the surrounding area? No, they placed an order for 150 Mercedes cars. Total value? Rs 65-crore. You can do the maths yourselves this time. And, lest we think that Maharashtran industrialists lack a social conscience, over in Kolhapur we should heed the words of Shivaji Mohite: “I am passionate about cars but I won’t buy a Ferrari. The roads in Kolhapur aren’t good enough.” I can confirm from my one day in Kolhapur that he’s telling the truth.

Noam Chomsky once said that “the lifestyle of the Indian elite is amazing. I’ve never seen such opulence even in America.” You don’t need to be a radical leftist to get his point. Indian ostentation is shocking to the eyes of a foreign observer, particularly if you know the country’s poverty statistics. For example, as many as 46 per cent of malnourished children in the world – of whom 75,000 die every month – live in India. A huge debate is currently raging in the media over what the poverty line should be set at – it’s currently around 32 rupees a day in the cities and 26 rupees a day in the villages. This is absurdly low.

The principal of luxury and lifestyle practice at AT Kearney, Neelish Hundekari, however, has other concerns: “The market is still shallow…Global brands are still not doing enough to customise for India, which is why there’s low penetration.” Shallow, indeed, and apparently said without irony. But as Yashovardhan Saboo, CEO of Ethos, India’s first nation-wide chain of stores selling multi-brand premium and luxury watches, is quick to remind us, it’s not all about the money: “It would be a mistake to assume that every high-end watch purchase is a financial investment. I find it quite acceptable that a watch lover buys a high-end watch for the pleasure it gives him or her, just like an art lover buys a painting for the pleasure of seeing it every day.” I felt a bit guilty about this point, given my passion for books, but then again Beyond Belief by Sir Vidia costs only 150 rupees.

The quotations above – and I’ve only given you a small selection – speak for themselves. They attest to the emptiness of shallow wealth and the devastating selfishness it generally brings in its wake. Nor do India’s wealthy necessarily have a great commitment to charity. As Parvan K. Varma writes in the brilliant The Great Indian Middle Class, “For the burgeoning and upwardly mobile middle class of India, such poverty has ceased to exist. It has ceased to exist because it does not create in most of its members the slightest motivation to do something about it. Its existence is taken for granted. Its symptoms, which would revolt even the most sympathetic foreign observer, do not even register any more. The general approach is to get on with one’s life, to carve out a tiny island of well-being in a sea of deprivation. The utter obsession with individual survival and betterment and the complete absence of a sense of social obligation is not unlike a system of apartheid, rendered even more insidious because the perpetuators no longer even notice the conditions of those they have banished. The concern with personal salvation at the spiritual plane had assumed, at the temporal level, a Frankenstein form: the almost complete inability to see or identify with anything beyond the narrowest definition of self-interest.”

I can understand wealthy Indians’ disdain for the judgements of foreigners. Maybe they think we’d prefer that the country remain mired in poverty forever, and that our contempt for their penchant for luxury is jealousy. But I have no problem with India becoming a superpower, both politically and economically. India’s impressive rate of growth over the last twenty years has brought in its wake staggering and generally positive changes to a people that for generations had floundered under the errors of a state-run economy. But for a rich man from Jalandhar to say, “I don’t think you could possibly do a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous here. It would needlessly expose one to harassment by the Income Tax Department,” in a country where, according to Varma, only the top two per cent of urban India pays taxes (and where the middle class is supposed to be 250-million strong) is more than scandalous, it’s embarrassing. I simply do not understand how he found the chutzpah to say what he did. “If you have money, why not spend it on getting what you have dreamt of?” asks Raju Giju from the Gujarati diamond town of Surat. To which I can only reply: your dreams are vacuous, and they shame your great nation.

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