Book Review: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen

Photo Credit: India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

Just over a month ago, in Kinokuniya bookstore located in Singapore’s Orchard Road, I picked up the hardcover release of Amartya Sen’s latest book – An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions – coauthored with Jean Dreze.

Today, I’ve reached the point in my daily few pages of reading where I can write something approaching a review, or at the very least, my thoughts.

The book is a vast tome yet written in an extremely accessible chatty tone  – something very rare in Indian academia which tends to be addicted to the turn of the previous century’s writing and style guides – in fact, and I’ll just get it out the way and say it upfront, Mr Sen really should get his own blog in the way Paul Krugman has or simply join a syndicate like Joseph Stiglitz. But I recognize the transitional era of the hardcover book and the need for such things in the rest of the world. Print is booming, iirc, in India, ever the reader’s market. English books taught you vocabulary and idiomatic language, along with the pre-internet peek at lifestyles and mores from a different culture or geography.

I do not regret having purchased this book although I am not happy to be reading what Dreze and Sen are saying. They have really done their homework and swept out some really cobwebby corners of India’s social and economic responsibilities to her people. Oh voiceless masses, cries one more global Bengali intellectual, who will hear thy cry upon thy mother’s breast to be fed the milk at your first indrawn breath?

India is an embarrassing mess for a country of its size and unnatural resources, its jugaad and babudom, resisting the clearly written look in the mirror that shows the continued atyachaar upon it’s girl children and the harijans in general. Unsaid in so many words but underlined with charts, graphs and lucidly explained data driven disparities, Dreze and Sen show us the social and economic apartheid that the country’s caste system perpetuates and the quarter of the population who are so destitute that the very lack of public goods and services, much less a civic consciousness of social responsiblity, should draw international wrath upon our heads for allowing this daily humanitarian crisis to continue.

It is only the recent opening of the markets in the past 20 years of liberalization of the economy with their attendant promotional cacophony that drown out the ever beating drums of the poor of India and their downtrodden voiceless plight. Somewhere around 2006, I recall reading an article in The Guardian going on about the “third india” here “A Tale of Two Indias“published April 2006, says:

Gandhi’s India, or at least his influence on economics, has all but disappeared in the past decade. From 1947 until 1991, the economy grew at 3.5% a year, the so-called Hindu rate of growth which championed equality and social stability over wealth. After 1991, that all changed. Notions of speed and efficiency were stamped on to a civilisation that traditionally took a slower, more relaxed view of life. Economic growth rose to 6% a year. In the past three years, it has zoomed to 8% a year – meaning that the economy will double in size in a decade. The message now is similar to that of China during the 90s, in the phrase attributed to Deng Xiaoping: “To get rich is glorious.”

Not that the wealth has reached all of the country. India is one land, but the rich and poor exist on apparently different planets. Virtually unreported are some awful daily realities: the rate of malnutrition in children under five is a shamefully high 45%. Less than a third of India’s homes have a toilet and most women have to wait until the dark of evening to venture out to answer the call of nature. The talk of making poverty history sounds hollow in India, a land which is home to a third of the world’s poor and where some 300 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Yet another world is growing up, fuelled by the immense wealth that is being amassed by India’s new monied classes, who shop for brand-name luxury goods, ski in the Alps and send their kids to Harvard. Very soon the country will have 3.8m households with an annual income of 10m rupees (£130,000).

Below them in any rich list is the middle class, estimated to number about 150 million. Their hunger for goods has seen a new money culture – how to make it and how to spend it. India’s masses were, under the more equal state-run economy, denied shopping choices. The country is today undergoing a consumer boom. For some, this is proof enough that, in opening up, India has gained from globalisation – allowing Dior, Bulgari and Rolls-Royce into the country. Consumption in this India is nothing if not conspicuous.

And so on and so forth about the increasing divide between the rich and the poor. I would hazard a guess that what is really the issue is a) how visible the disparity has gotten i.e. the rich are no more shy about flaunting their wealth, a la Gandhi’s coterie of Calcutta industrialists like GD Birla himself et al, and b) how much more visible the global ICT connectivity via PC, broadband and mobile smartphone is making this disparity internationally.

Sen’s global experience in the UK and USA shows in his clearly argued case against private public partnerships or other enterprise led BoP solutions. At one point in the reading one got the distinct feeling that he was debating with the late CK Prahalad on the way the BoP concept was been narrowly interpreted to mean micro user fees. He mentions the very words and points out how it immediately becomes a huge barrier to access for India’s poorer segments of society, a micro fee for preventive healthcare might end up excluding anywhere upto 90% of those it is most meant to serve.

Who will serve them, ask Dreze and Sen, if they are not profitable even in the most basic sense? The state and the public goods that are currently mismanaged, corrupt and inefficient yet can demonstrate their efficacy in spots such as Tamil Nadu or Kerala (all in Southern India). They point out that even Bangladesh next door has better social indicators and gender parity metrics than India.

One has not heard a peep about this book on Twitter, does it mean I’m following the wrong crowd or that the book has not been noticed? This is a message that every able Indian really should take to heart. Why are we such a fucking backward nation in the August of the year 2013?

One Comment

  • "Why are we such a fucking backward nation in the August of the year 2013?"

    Middle class is not mobilized to help the lower most strata of society. Upon a growth of their cost of living, they immediately start looking upwards. This is bred by the limited amount of upward mobility available.

    Meanwhile, the government and leading economists are chasing some Utopian dream of magically lifting the social indicators upwards.

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