Name of the Book: The Caged Phoenix: Can India Fly?
Author: Dipankar Gupta
Publisher: Viking by Penguin Books India, New Delhi
Place of Publication: Penguin Books India, New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2009
Reviewed by: J.N. Manokaran
Professor Dipankar Gupta has given a good assessment and evaluation of contemporary India. His incisive analysis brings forth underlying principles and forces that operate in India that is generally not apparent to untrained minds. India is considered as emerging super power in the world with impressive growth statistics. The book provides vital information about India, its growth, struggles and is like a phoenix that is caged and unable to fly off as expected.
In Independent India, politicians have become a class by themselves and are not concerned about delivery of services to people. Ordinary voter can choose only political boss, who are not statesman or visionary unlike nationalistic stalwarts of Independence movement. The standards in India have nosedived and ambitious Indians are compelled to realize their potentials in foreign nations. Those who shine in strange countries do not shine in India. India in pursuit to become super power glorifies the growth statistics and ignores human development. Cheap labour makes Indian commodities and services competitive in International market. Education, health, energy and transport do not reach a majority of the population. Growth-rate in India is accompanied by poverty, by ethnic tensions, and by identity politics.
Wealth can grow in sustained manner only after the poor are out of their poverty in a democracy. But this fact is ignored. Even within India, rich depend on cheap to stay on the top of the heap. ‘The perception that India excels in IT due to Hindu traditions is not true. Indians are viewed as one-sided brainiacs and not quite normal people. They are still seen as creatures of the past.’ There is spectacular growth in few favoured industries and a large chunk of our economy is still underdeveloped.
One Western tourist said: ‘people from country and Europe find Varanasi attractive for it confirms our superiority over you.’ ‘Indians spontaneously create filth wherever they go though they are fastidiously clean; the best mathematician among them are also astrologers; they see God in stones and trees; they fast at the drop of a hat but make a great to-do about castes they can eat with and accept water from.’
Nearly every other person in rural India lives below the poverty line. ‘IT and financial experts wriggled out of antique cracks, leaving the rest of society roughly where it was.’ The myth of purchasing power is not there. ‘India does not have the purchasing power within to grow autarkically, unaffected by the ups and downs around it.’ Also, the growth has not been translated into employment. The purchasing power of the ordinary Indian is far too low it constitutes a robust internal market.
ITES sector employs only 3 million and even if we add 4 indirect employment for each ITES employee, ti amounts only to 12 million off 1 billion. ITES is just exporting white collar coolie job. There is a huge increase in unregistered small units termed as informal sector. Here the employees are provided daily wages, temporary, without other benefits and not influenced by trade unions. These informal units are India’s contemporary sweatshops from which some of the largest international brands source goods. These informal sectors have brought down the number of main workers but increased the number of marginal workers and their contribution to the economy. These informal sectors are not influenced by trade unions, so exploitation of labourers is possible.
The author uses the term ‘merchant producers’ in contrast to traditional merchants. The merchant producers in India today profit from the sphere of production while traditional merchants by price markups on the finished goods. People move from one poverty to another – from being impoverished in the villages to being underpaid in the cities. Migrants workers are preferred because: Many times local workers do not have the required skills; the local people refuse to do certain types of jobs and as they are punctual, prompt and less domestic responsibilities. Indian exonomy depending on export is a risky business.
In India the State bears only 17.3 per cent of the health care expenses. There are double the number of urban hospitals than rural hospitals. For India’s poor the diagnosis of a serious illness is like a death sentence. Government provides funny solutions: 6000 pairs of rubber gloves to ragpickers in Delhi. One rag picker said that this is provided so that he does not get sick but continue working. The Maharashtra Government suggests meditation for farmers who are prone to commit suicide. The ruling elite heart is not poverty removal but to keep the poor alive.
Emptying of villages emotionally, economically and in numbers is happening fast. There is sharp rise in holding less than 2 hectares and decrease in number of holdings below this age. Farmers are becoming smaller and poorer in quick time. There has been a steady shift from tenant cultivation to self-cultivation. The pride of agriculturist has diminished. Good monsoon brought floods, bad monsoon brought drought. Bumper crop saw the prices crash in the market. “The village is shrinking as sociological reality, though it still exists as a space.” The joint family is disappearing. While the owner-cultivators are politically protected, their futures are left unplanned. Farmers lack basic amenities like transportation, cold storage, modern silos and sound marketing network. Most of the loans are for marriages or medical emergencies. “The Villager is as bloodless as the rural economy is lifeless.”
The Mandal Commission Recommendation of was perfectly timed to coincide with the urban aspirations of cultivating castes, such as the Yadavs, Gujjars and Jats, by providing them with reservation in government jobs and education institutions. The author favours reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but not for Backward Castes. Mandal fudged the term caste in place of class. According to the author implementation as Mandal Commission Recommendation is unwise and affect the economy and development of citizenry for decades to come.
The economy in villages has changed as majority are not farmers. The agricultural labourers who were landless are taking up other forms of employment. Old taboos agains holding certain kinds of jobs are disappearing the caste system does not operate the way it did in tradition, though there is a strong assertion of caste pride and caste identity. Rural migrants end up in sweatshops that have poor working condition and the workers do not have any scope of promotion or progress. As many men migrate to city for jobs, many household are managed by women in their absence. This is not gender revolution but just gender gap. Networks that links villages is by the first person who moves first to city for job. Most migrants work in small scale, unorganized and reregistered units.
“Caste kills initiative because it ordains a status hierarchy based on birth.” None of the caste accepts that they are lowly born. They are proud of their origins, of their customs and beliefs. They have stories of origin that give them higher status in the structure. So, each caste is pride of its own identity. Caste is not the determining factor in Indian elections and gives the following three reasons: There is no caste is large enough to form a political majority in any constituency; Most voters are professional casteists and Caste calculations fail to determine result as there is always internal strife and they do not vote as bloc. Dalit politics defy Hinduism by using conversion to Buddhism or having origin stories that they were Ksatriyas before Aryans came to India. Caste identity is self over others and not in relationship with others. “A post-caste society is not just about capturing power but about creating common horizons.”
“The manner in which Sikhs were attacked in 1984, South Indians in Mumbai in 1966 clearly demonstrates that politics can make enemy of a closest friend.” If beef eating is insurmountable barrier for Hindus in relation with Muslims, then why they do not have problem in inviting home the Europeans and Americans? Without a protective agency there is no possibility of riots, even though the hostility could be very deep. Partition riots did not happen, it was engineered. “The rioters were assured of safe passage back and forth and a good time in the killing fields. Rioters are bullies who happily ‘kill for a cause’ but would never die for one.”
“Politicians play on this predisposition and make it appear as if they are just responding to popular feelings. Unfortunately, intellectuals and journalists play into the hands of these power-wielders primarily because they spend too much time with them.” India can fly if Indians could overcome their primordial passions of caste, kin, clan and religion.
“Democratic politics only shows those candidates to survive who can stand, and indeed add, to the heat of politics. This heat is generated through the combined combustible energies released by money and violence.” To be in politics is viable only when the candidate has huge funds and the power to unleash violence and protect oneself from it. Violence has become basic qualification to enter politics. “Money does not suffice to make the political mare go; in addition one needs a whip in hand. This is particularly true of newly emerging democracies, where the electoral spirit is willing but democratic institutions are weak.” In Indian it is not brilliance, foresight, erudition, or heart, but rather the experience of living with violence, facing it and using it, that separates political families from the rest. “Politics is not for the faint-hearted or the honest do-gooder and that is why we almost never get the leaders we deserve.” Violence has marginalized law-abiding citizens who vote for one patron, now for another.
“Indian political parties strive to represent as many interests as possible, some real, some false and some imaginary.” The real issues for those who have social assets, wealth, power or intellectual capital. The false – all false promises of schools, hospitals etc. for the people. The imaginary – interfaith conflicts.
“One major feature of the Western world is State investment in the delivery of public goods such as health, education, housing and energy.” NGOs, Community and private initiatives cannot replace the Government as advised by International leaders. “These development attract any poseur who wishes to profit (even if not in the conventional commercial sense) from conflation of civil society with the exercise of a form of philanthropy.” The elite families have found alternative vocations in NGOs. The NGOs are seen as self-anointed oracles, if not Messiahs, for the deprived masses. NGO efficacy is very local and cannot replace State. The author feels that the Government should be in forefront in putting in place infrastructure for social welfare of the people.
Modern scholars and planners take romantic view about culture. “Rather than attack tradition for the damage it has caused humanity over centuries, the attempt here is to reinvent it as a benign and rarefied phenomenon, completely disapproving of what is happening on the ground in it’s name.” Micro- credit could reduce poverty but cannot replace development. For new NGOs, Democracy is not demanding rights… but winning access to education and health through networking according to these people.
India is dirtiest, even worse than other underdeveloped countries. “According to caste principle, all routine substances that come out one’s body like perspiration, excreta, and menstrual blood are polluting even to oneself. By the same token hair is also polluting. The traditional roles of barber, washerman and scavenger were directly and precisely intended to absorb specific pollutants so that the members of the upper castes could remain ‘calm’.” “A soiled handkerchief in the pocket is dirt, not garbage outside one’s door. It is perfectly fine to skirt around such filth and not be offended at their sight. Once such substances are out of the home they are quite in place and hence no longer dirt. ”
Hindus are obsessed with three things in other people perspective: First, They adore godmen who are showmen. They are like psycho analyst godmen collect fees for the services. Second, The cow is treated with cruelty that even calves are not allowed to have milk. A puppet is designed and kept near the cow so that it thinks its calf is near. Third, Hindus are vegetarian is an accidental myth. Three quarters of India comprises of meat-eaters and only a minority is vegetarians.
“If affluent can live a life of leisure it is because there are so many poor people to look after them.” Even a low paid clerk can afford to keep a malnourished boy as domestic kitchen help. “The Indian rich, whether in ITES sector or in the informal industries, are prospering primarily because they are exporting cheap labour, and not quality products. In the case of ITES sector, it is cheap sub-baccalaureate-level intellectual labour (with few stars thrown in), and in the many processing and manufacturing units it is primarily cheap manual and semi-skilled labour, barely with a redeeming feature.”
“Just as the trickle-down theory has problems in spreading the benefits of enterprise, a theory that glorifies the poor does little to raise working class standards.”
India has experienced lot of positive changes in the lost sixty years, has made progress but they are not enough. A majority of India is still poor and have no access to education and health services. India could fly, when it adopts a sustainable development model that includes all citizens.