A damning analysis of Indian injustice and inequality

A sustained counter-narrative of social injustice pours polemical scorn on India’s smug elite

An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions
An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions
Author: Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen
ISBN-13: 978-0141975825
Publisher: Penguin
Guideline Price: Sterling10.99

India is an exceedingly rich nation. India is one of the poorest nations on this earth. The incongruities of life in the sub-continent can appear charming in humorous indie cinema, and feel-good travel books, naïve colonial novels and postcolonial pastiches. But, in the end, there is nothing comforting about such quaint contradictions.

What appears to be rhetorically benign displays its malignancy in human form, in everyday life, deep in the marrowbone, as Yeats might have put it. Read "pervasive and entrenched inequality" in place of "contradiction" and human faces emerge. In this book, underneath the statistical data reinforcing Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen's economic analysis is a capacity to pierce numerical veils, to show instead the human casualties of India's exponential rise in the global marketplace. Its staid language, counterpointed by moments of quiet anger, should vindicate someone like Arundhati Roy who is often labelled alarmist. "The Need for Impatience", the final chapter of Drèze and Sen's book, is in the same league as Roy's urgent vocabulary.

When one grows up in India in relative sufficiency like I did, it is often assumed that one would also develop an ability to un-see life as it was being revealed outside the field of immediate experience. You cannot enjoy India's exceptionally varied culinary culture, for example, if you are worrying about a beggar across the street from your restaurant. Uncertain Glory attempts to provoke such a dormant angular vision. It produces a sustained counter-narrative of social injustice to offset the exceptional successes of the Indian economy over the last three decades, and the vibrancy of India's political democracy since 1947.

There are numerous books on Indian poverty but few aim their polemical scorn at the so-called educated classes in India in the way that Uncertain Glory does. A jubilant middle class, and its self-congratulatory public discourse which focuses on India's economic strengths, is the real culprit in this analysis. The key assertion is that a small section of Indian society is "affluent in a way [that] the bulk of the population of India is not".

The authors say that typical measurements and indicators of economic inequality are insufficient to understand the way India functions. Such measurements often make the Indian case seem misleadingly similar to China or Brazil. The unique social stratification, which is often the cause of the so-called contradictions of India, produces disparities on a scale that is hard to rationalise.

The “income levels of the poor are so low that they cannot afford even very basic necessities” and the “gulf between their lives and those of the more prosperous has an intensity – indeed an outrageousness – that aggregate inequality indicators cannot capture.”

The catalogue of shortcomings, most of which are absolutely fundamental amenities for a productive and dignified life, is staggering, and although not surprising, deeply troubling. In 2011 half of India’s households did not have access to toilets. Headlines were made in July 2012 when half of the country’s population temporarily suffered an electrical power outage. However, out of the six hundred million people affected by this two hundred million were, in reality, not connected to electrical supply in the first place.

The book also chastises the inordinate reliance on expensive private healthcare instead of a sound public system that is accessible to the whole spectrum of Indian society, a decrepit public education system, and deep-rooted gender discrimination (especially in northern and western India) to selectively name a few.

Comparative frameworks are helpful in certain cases and Uncertain Glory is especially incisive in its damning statistical evidence: wages in real terms have been stagnant in India for decades when compared to China. China also fares better in terms of life expectancy, immunisation of children, infant mortality and child nourishment. It is also true, however, that China often executes "more people in just one week than India [has] since independence in 1947".

Drèze and Sen's book is a counter-narrative to Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya's Why Growth Matters , which was also published last year and whose subtitle is an excellent précis of its content: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries .

Drèze and Sen argue – a point that has ample relevance to recession-struck Ireland – that GDP growth is rarely a reliable guide to a country's real wealth. It is a narrative generated by the world market and often carelessly adopted by populations but it is rarely, as this book plainly shows, an indicator of social justice and social functioning. There are, of course, many kinds of wealth but development (and we may add sovereignty to that) can be easily defined: a condition in which human dignity, "basic freedoms" and "human capabilities" are nurtured and expanded.

Rudyard Kipling was once asked about the possibility of "self-government" in India to which he had replied: "They are 4000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there to give it to them and we give it [to] them straight". However, the political infrastructure of India's democracy has been flourishing for more than 60 years despite Kipling's suspicions. There are more readers of newspapers in India than in any other country in the world. Voter turnout in polls is exceptionally healthy. Where the world's largest democracy has been failing is in the area of an equitable distribution of sovereignty, which is intrinsic to a definition of democracy itself.

Sen, a Nobel laureate, is best known for his astute argument that famines cease to occur, almost abruptly, in functioning democracies. But although no famine has been recorded in independent India, there has been an exponential growth in sovereignty-shortage. This is starvation of another kind altogether and has to be made visible to a blinkered elite.

Malcolm Sen teaches in National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He is the co-editor of a special issue of Textual Practice on postcolonial studies in the twenty-first century.