India Rising?

By Emily Wight

On the same day as Reuters reported that India’s economic growth fell from 9.2% to 5.3% in the first three months of 2012, Oliver Balch came to the Frontline Club to talk about his new book, India Rising.

Balch was joined by Dr Ruth Kattumuri, Co-Director of the India Observatory and Asia Research centre at LSE, Abhik Sen from The Economist Group and Robert Wallis from the Panos photo agency. The panel was moderated by Shahzeb Jillani, South Asia Editor at BBC World Service News.

Because of the news, one prominent discussion point was the title of the book, and its reality in a slumping economy. Balch claimed that in 2010, when he was researching the book, India’s outlook was more optimistic – particularly when compared to his first visit in the 1990s. He said:

“The title is optimistic but the book is realistic. Even if India I think collapses, which I don’t think it will, but perhaps if the economic slowdown we’re seeing today continues, there’s been a mindshift in the country where young people see a different future for themselves. They are optimistic about the future and that expresses itself in lots of different social, cultural and political ways. I think that’s the most exciting thing about India.”

Dr Ruth Kattumuri was also positive, particularly about India’s attitudes towards corruption. 10 years ago, she said, convincing people that corruption was wrong was extremely difficult: “People didn’t have the concept that corruption was a bad thing. The concept was: everybody does it so we do it.”

But both Sen and Wallis were far less positive. Sen emphasised that for every individual success story to come out of India, there are thousands of situations that remain desperate. He presented the West’s obsession with entrepreneurship on the sub-continent as farcical, claiming:

“You have to be an entrepreneur of sorts to get a gas connection – you have to be innovative and inventive to make sure that you’ll have food on your table.”

Wallis then spoke of his work documenting the state of Jharkhand, part of the mining belt across India where tribal people are being displaced at the hands of multi-national corporations. He said:

“It’s a land-grab going on by corporate India primarily to get that land for mining for special economic zones, for hydroelectric projects and the result is you’re getting an increasing wealth gap between rural and urban India.”

Most of these people rely on farming the land for their livelihood. But because they also have a strong ancestral connection to the land, it shapes their identity and without it they are lost.

Wallis presented a multimedia piece he had created detailing the plight of the tribal people in Jharkhand. The discussion made it clear that despite some appearances, not all of India is rising.