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The rise to power of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been built on a paradigm of development and anti-corruption that has enabled him to develop sustained electoral support among the Indian middle classes and rehabilitate his image as a statesman on the international stage. But the neoliberal model of development that Modi represents is one that comes at great cost in terms of economic inequality and basic civil rights.
A case-in-point is the infamous demonetisation of 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes last November that rendered 86 per cent of the currency notes in circulation invalid and all but wiped out the unorganised sector. Markets closed, ATMs ran dry of cash for days, cash withdrawals were regulated with an iron hand and millions of people lined up in queues to deposit useless bank notes comprising their lives’ savings.
More than 100 deaths were reported in three months. People died of heatstroke in the queues, and they died of anxiety – they committed suicide in fear that their hard-earned money was now illegal tender. Hospitals refused treatment to critical patients, even children, since their families could not deposit money in cash.
Paeans were sung in praise of this ‘surgical strike’ against black money. But it became increasingly clear, considering that only 17 per cent of the Indian population own smartphones and only 22 per cent have access to the internet, that only impoverished civilians had fallen victim to that strike.
At the time of this bid to render the Indian economy ‘cashless’ overnight, there were 24.5 million credit cards and 661.8 million debit cards in a population of 1.37 billion. Most Indians do not have access to either. Most small businesses do not have card readers.
It is difficult to determine the rationale behind the move, since 97 per cent of the demonetised cash did come back to the Reserve Bank of India coffers, squashing claims that hoards of black money were lying in rich households, ready for the taking. The concept that black money is actually hard cash, and not electronic, virtual currency or assets, cost millions of poor Indians their livelihoods, with certain sectors debilitated permanently and the middle class losing jobs.
Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen called it a ‘despotic move’, while Prabhat Patnaik, a noted economics scholar, called it ‘witless’ and ‘anti-people’. Steve Forbes described the move as ‘sickening and immoral’. He said: ‘What India has done is commit a massive theft of people’s property without even the pretence of due process – a shocking move for a democratically elected government.’
What, then, in the Indian context, may be defined as development vis-à-vis the world’s largest democracy? Presently celebrated through schemes such as Skill India, Make in India, Smart Cities, and Digital India, this government evidently lays claim to the narrative of digital empowerment and social inclusion. But how much of this narrative is real?
This war cry of development was the signature tune of Modi’s previous incarnation as chief minister of Gujarat, where his administration was hailed for its initiation of several successful industrial projects. However, this image of Modi as the militant modernist, capable of taking the tough decisions and the tougher actions required to drag a state like Gujarat into the 21st century, has long been built on a strategy of violence against the region’s most vulnerable communities.
It is worth noting also that, contrary to its image as a now flourishing state, Gujarat has in fact ‘developed’ poorly with regard to indices of health, poverty and education. As of September 2016, Gujarat ranked 14th on the list of states arranged in ascending order of population percentages below the poverty line, far below Goa, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh or even Jammu and Kashmir. Its performance with regard to illiteracy is almost the same, ranked 12th, below states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
On the other hand, Modi’s government’s persecution of minorities is widely documented, most notably for its complicity with the Godhra riots of 2002 when many thousands were displaced and persecuted and hundreds murdered. The American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, has remarked of this event that it ‘was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law’. The riots resulted in at least 2,000, mostly Muslim, deaths. Court cases have been pending for over a decade and half, and as newer verdicts are passed in favour of the state government, a new cry of anger and disbelief rises from minorities.
Ever since Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was voted into government in India, the Gujarat model of development has burgeoned into a fully-fledged leviathan – coiling itself around protesting Muslims in Kashmir, around the dissent of Dalit scholars in Delhi and around the struggle of displaced adivasi (tribal groups) in the resource-rich heartlands of the country.
In January, the National Human Rights Commission found 16 tribal women to be prima facie victims of rape and sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, a hotbed of armed Maoist insurgency. The struggles of adivasi in Bastar to resist corporate land grabs recently culminated in the extra-judicial killing of 17 people, including two 15 year-olds. Reprisals are ongoing.
The exhibitionist force of the government in squashing minorities and silencing the dissent of the underprivileged is just the beginning of the unravelling of the development discourse. In its recent report An economy for the 99 per cent, Oxfam outlined rising income inequality, with India’s richest 1 per cent holding a huge 58 per cent of the country’s total wealth — higher than the comparable global figure of about 50 per cent. Just 57 billionaires in India now have the same wealth ($216 billion) as the bottom 70 per cent of the population.
Referring to the Global Wage Report 2016-17 of the International Labour Organisation, Oxfam’s study also points out that India suffers from a huge gender pay gap and has one the worst levels of gender-based wage disparity in the world. Moreover, data from the India Human Development Survey provides great clarity on the nature of employment among different caste groups, with upper castes holding most white-collar jobs and Dalits being unable to open food businesses because of social stigma and ‘untouchability’. More than 165 million people in India face caste-based discrimination, exploitation and violence, under a system that has been termed ‘hidden apartheid’ in a report by the International Human Rights Council.
Development, therefore, is a discourse mostly coming apart at the seams at these Foucauldian fringes of the grand narrative that is India. The Indian state, powered by a right-wing autocratic style of leadership, is well on its way to alienating its most underprivileged, oppressed and poor – the citizens in actual need of ‘development’. Ironically, India’s development project seems to have less and less space for its minorities, its ethno-religious and racial ‘others’ and its youth, which has taken to pelting stones and hurling slogans instead of wielding books.
Its attack on intellectual institutions and student movements sounds like the dreaded death-knell of democracy in a nation that is home to one-sixth of humanity. Its population is mostly impoverished and under the pall of modern slavery, with 27.8 per cent described as suffering from ‘severe multidimensional poverty’ and 21.2 per cent as ‘below the poverty line’, according to the UN’s Human Development Report 2016.
‘Development’ such as this is the beginning of the end of a democracy.
Gargi Bhattacharya is a PhD scholar at Jawaharial Nehru University