The Economic Phoenix & the Slums: Does the Indian Economy Reflect the Wealth of its People?.

By Posted in - Travel Resources on November 13th, 2012

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Emily Buchanan including an interview with fellow travel blogger Flora from Flora The Explorer. Be sure to check out her full bio at the end of the article. 

Indian kids

Photo by smbristol via Flickr.

“Aid is the past and trade is the future.”

On Friday, the BBC reported that the UK is phasing out Indian aid between now and 2015, indicating a significant move towards Indian financial independence. Thanks to one of the fastest growing economies in the world and a huge increase in the population of its middle classes, India is, according to its foreign minister Salman Khurshid, well on the way to becoming a global super power. “Aid is the past and trade is the future,” he said, referring to India’s import and export industries, which, respectively, are the 10th and 9th largest trading routes in the world.

So what does this mean for India and, most importantly, for its people? And how has the country warranted this aid withdrawal? Some have cited India’s multi-million pound space programme whilst others have questioned its acquisition of nuclear weapons and, although British intentions appear noble, the decision has excavated a whole host of socio-economic and post-colonial issues.

However, figures from the international development secretary of the UK show that some 60 million people have emerged from a life of poverty thanks to reformist government spending on health and education. A recent Development Goals Report stated that as many as 320 million people in India and China are expected to overcome ‘extreme’ poverty in the next four years and, going by the rate of recovery at the moment, Indian poverty is set to drop to 22% by 2015, a year after all aid will cease.

And yet, the figures are contradictory. The latest UNICEF data shows that, globally, one in three malnourished children are born and live in India, whilst 42% of the nation’s under-fives are underweight (and a massive 58% of children display signs of stunted growth). Furthermore, 25% of the country’s population earn less than the government-stated minimum of 32 rupees per day (approximately $0.60).

Rohini Mukherjee, of the Naadi foundation, said that India is “doing worse than sub-Saharan Africa.” But which image of India are we left with? The economic phoenix or the poverty-ridden slum?

Indian lady

Photo by smbristol via Flickr.

Slum Tourism

Pictures of the polluted Ganga River and the infamous Dharavi slum have been well publicised across the world’s media and thanks, in part, to Danny Boyle’s 2008 box-office smash Slumdog Millionaire, the abhorrent inequalities facing the people of India are louder than ever.

Indeed, who can forget images of children neck-deep in trash and sewage or of a slum hunched next to the affluence of the business district? As a compassionate human being, it’s disturbing to see desperation blanched across the face of a beggar, let alone witness it first-hand. Nonetheless, India is a thriving tourist destination and a regular stopping point for RTW backpackers. If you compare flight prices to other places in Asia, it’s plain to see why India has become so popular with travellers, not to mention the competitive exchange rates. With 54 rupees to the dollar (87 to the pound!), rent in a city centre apartment could cost as little as $146 (£91) a month.

The question is: how do travellers deal with the deprivation they are exposed to and why is this still such a prevailing issue in an apparently prosperous economy?

Flora Baker, travel writer and editor-in-chief at Flora the Explorer, spent four months in India this year. “I found the poverty one of the biggest issues to cope with,” she says. “I was traveling during one of the hottest periods of the year – temperatures in some cities reaching 40+ degrees – and people were clearly dying on the streets.”

That kind of abject poverty is extremely difficult to imagine and yet Flora was exposed to it on a daily basis. “Basically, if you’re an emotional person it feels like every poor child you encounter could easily benefit from money or food, but you have to hold back and consider whether giving them something is just adding to the problem.” After all, it’s not uncommon for children to be sold to gangs and then forced to beg, meaning they don’t benefit at all from the money they’re given.

But why is such appalling human suffering still a way of life in India?

The caste system is a leading cause of social disparity and this stratification of the people (according to their inherited socio-economic conditions) has forced a wedge between the obscenely rich and the exceedingly poor. However, things become sticky when the legacies of colonialism and British Empire are bought into question because although the caste system is formally associated with orthodox Hinduism, various contemporary scholars have argued that the social order was a creation of the British colonial regime.

Evidently, the British Empire has left septic wounds across India and whilst their redemptive aid programme has attempted to heal the inequalities their history created, a space programme and nuclear weapons do not signal recovery. When citizens are dying on the streets in the 21st century, it’s time to question where that aid is going.

Indeed, many are wondering whether the country’s claim to progressive development is only true of the wealth of its economy, and not of its starving society as a whole.

To read more about Flora’s adventures in India, check out her blog – Flora The Explorer. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook!  

What do you think about the withdrawal of aid from India and have you experienced poverty in your travels? Please share your experiences in the comments.  

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(1) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Alex Jones -

    November 14, 2012 at 10:03 am

    There are two rather distinct questions here. Will the removal of UK aid worsen poverty in India? And how should travellers respond to poverty when they come across it?

    To the first question the answer is probably: in the short term, yes. But it’s actually the Indian government, rather than the UK government, that is culpable here. It has the funds to alleviate at least some of the country’s poverty. UK aid to India is also pretty unpopular in both countries. Many Indians feel insulted, and many Brits feel resentment at paying it. So this is a problem that India itself needs to address.

    As to the second question, that’s a personal one for travellers to deal with. We’ve all been there. There are no easy answers.