I finally visited India recently. It was an opportunity to face the reality of the two India-related obsessions of my youth. One of the obsessions of my teenage years was Indian movies. These were days when these films were in Hindi with no subtitles. It is like the way many Muslims can read the Quran in Arabic but cannot understand the Arabic language. We were not only addicted to Hindi movies, we followed the glittering lives of the Indian movie stars in Stardust!
We developed romantic fantasies about India. It was a common saying among boys: ‘India ko cikin buhun barkono zai mun je’ (Hausa: we will go to India even if we will be packed in a sack of chillies!). Indian films may not be as popular as in our days but they are still there. Any casual listener to the songs on most of the Hausa popular movies will initially think they are Indian songs.
As we got politicized another India entered our world, no less romantic: Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence, Satyagraha, positive action, etc. Bollywood fantasy cohabited with political fantasies through Gandhi.
It was with great expectation that I landed in ‘Incredible India’ as the omnipresent official tourism adverts announce on the billboards. Unfortunately it was not tourism that took me to India, but a meeting between the Africa and Asian teams of the UN Millennium Campaign. Were the choice left to me, Mumbai (still Bombay to many of us, the home of Bollywood) would have been my number one choice for the meeting. Maybe I had betrayed my Bollywood mania too much and so my Asian colleagues decided to take the meeting to New Delhi, the capital city of India.
India is the world’s largest democracy and only second to its neighbour, China, in the population league. Officially the population is estimated at 1 billion even though the exact figures could be a couple of hundred millions more!
Everyone thinks they know Indians because you have seen them everywhere but being in India one realizes that neither the Indian movies nor the Indians in the Diaspora that one is more familiar with really convey the diversities and complexities of this semi-continent in one country. My Indian friends say New Delhi is not such a big city (only about 10 million people) but then in India size is very relative. For instance, Muslims are a minority (officially 10%). But think about it: that is the population of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya put together, or more than the population of Muslims in Nigeria!
By official reckoning the GDP of India now belongs in the global elite of economies numbering only 12 countries in the world that have A TRILLION DOLLAR economy. But how is this wealth spread across the country? The top 5% of the population control almost 40% of this wealth with more than 50% in the hands of top 10% altogether and the bottom 10% owning only 0.2% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 50% owning less than 10% of the wealth. Gandhi’s statement about there being enough in the world to satisfy our need but not enough to satisfy our greed, is even truer of India today. But is anyone who matters listening?
We went to a village just 15 kilometres from New Delhi that gives one the starkest contrast of humans’ existence in India. It is indeed incredible: cows moving as sacred animals holding up traffic; buffaloes used as we use cows – dispensing milk, tuk tuks, tricycles, all kinds of cycles, an assortment of Indian made cars. In short, any movable object or being is used for transport!
In Bardarpur Khaddar, a small village of not more than a couple thousand, predominantly Muslim and Dalit (lower caste of untouchables) you come face to face with how poverty and inequality affects the majority of Indians. A country that has produced its own missiles, is leading in science and technology, ICTs, trading and manufacturing and almost anything else; yet the 400 children in this village have no school, no health facilities and travel to Delhi with extreme difficulty.
At an interaction with the community I asked them if they had elected representatives at the local, state and central levels and they answered ‘yes’. I then challenged them to use their votes to deny political power and legitimacy to leaders who will not respond to their needs. One of the community leaders, with obvious pain and frustration on his face, shook his head and told us that they had tried that and no one noticed. The explanation is that they are an insignificant demographic and political force without power to threaten the powers that be. When people do not have faith in their vote, what do they care if India is the smallest or largest democracy in the world?
As India celebrates its 51st Independence on 15th August its political leaders must address the incongruous situation that affects millions of its population who are structurally trapped in poverty. India will meet the MDGs, but hundreds of millions of Indians like the villagers of Bardarpur Khaddar, will not. Neither Gandhi nor Indian movies can satisfy them, only concrete action by their leaders.
“Forward ever, backward never”… Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)