India: Looking beyond the contrasts
It’s fashionable, when writing about India, to frame the piece around India being a “land of contrasts” – the SUV driving past the buffalo cart, the child labourer polishing the windows of the software company, the glamour of Bollywood and the squalour of the slums.
It’s easy too, because it’s all around you. And all true. But it won’t do. It won’t do aesthetically because it’s just too damn old these days. And it won’t do ethically because it takes us nowhere: “Many are poor and many are rich; this is depressing but makes great photographs.” Not good enough.
It is also incomplete. Yes the poverty – and the wealth – are still dehumanising, but more and more people in India are taking action to challenge this and promote a more inclusive society.
India’s poor are not, as sometimes portrayed in the media, suffering in silence. They are campaigning, and sometimes winning – as when they successfully pushed the government to start the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which guarantees 100 days minimum wage labour on demand for all rural families.
The scheme is imperfect, and not always fully implemented, but it is real progress, and campaigning continues to strengthen it further.
And India’s growing middle classes are not just shopping. Increasing numbers of the better-off are getting involved in trying to build a more inclusive society too.
Not only are they giving money – Save the Children India gets 7,000 new donors every month; they are joining campaigns too – like our Every One campaign for government action to end unnecessary child deaths, which won the support of over 100,000 people (many of them middle class) in the first month alone.
A campaign letter calling on the finance minister to dramatically increase government health spending had, amongst the signatories, representatives from the Confederation of Indian Industry and the director of a phone company, alongside longstanding activists such as the dynamic and fearless Harsh Mander.
Young people from some of India’s top business schools are getting involved in the campaign, and Facebook and text messaging are helping to bring in more.
It is important not to overstate these shifts, and not to understate the problems. There is still profound and brutal inequality – two million Indian children die every year from easily preventable causes.
And many better-off people in India – like many better-off people people in every country – still shut their eyes to what is all around them.
Others try to heap the blame for the country’s ills on marginalised ethnic and religious minorities, who are thus victimised twice over.
Progress is not inevitable. But growing numbers of young Indians are saying that true development requires not just growth but equity too, that patriotism means looking out for the whole nation, and that the current gulf between rich and poor is harmful, unsustainable, and unjustifiable, and changeable.
This growing group of “extraordinary, ordinary people”, some very vocally, others somewhat quietly, are showing that India can be so much more than a “land of contrasts”.
And the strategy of Indian campaigners in mobilising both the “haves” and the “have nots” to advance progressive change is, despite setbacks and challenges, bringing real achievements and gaining more and more momentum.
Perhaps, perhaps, now is the time. And for those of us tired of the same old story, that would certainly be a contrast.
Every One campaign India