Notes from the Undercity
Katherine Boo’s new book documents the resourcefulness of Mumbai’s poor, even as it describes a nation incapable of lifting them up.
The travails of the Husains bring about the book’s second focus: corruption, and thus also politics. That India has a corruption problem is no secret. There are numerous lurid stories of tycoons and politicians trading suitcases of cash for regulatory advantage, most famously the 2008 scam over the allocation of second-generation mobile-telephone licenses, which by some estimates cost the country $39 billion. Far below that lies an epidemic of more humdrum day-to-day bribery, the spark for last year’s nationwide anti-corruption protests. For all that, however, the reality of India’s system of corruption and how it infects its democracy is more mysterious. Yet Boo manages to provide genuine insight, especially in the book’s most intriguing character, Asha, a local matriarch attempting to clamber her way out of the slum through political advancement.
In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the few genuine opportunities that remained.
Asha makes her living in “the fixing business” by mediating the disputes of her neighbors. In return she ensures they turn out to vote for her elected masters, a role to which she ultimately aspires. Asha is especially adept at manipulating the assistance of Western charities. Female empowerment self-help groups are concocted to impress foreign visitors, complete with inspiring crescendos about slum girls going to college. Sham slum schools are established, including one run by her well-meaning daughter, who vexes Asha by providing lessons rather than just taking the money.
In the end, however, Asha is the only figure in Boo’s book to escape the gravity of the slum’s misfortunes. One of her shell NGOs proves useful to a corrupt government official as a conduit through which to siphon money supposedly destined for education projects. She finds herself with enough money to buy her daughter a computer and gives up on her political machinations. As the director of a charity, she achieves her ambition: She becomes, in Boo’s words, a “member of the overcity.”
Yet elsewhere, virtually all the other characters emerge smaller and sadder. Abdul Husain manages to avoid prison on trumped-up murder charges, but loses most of his business, and with it his family’s hopes of escape. Others trudge on; a handful of characters die at their own hands. The slum itself may be bulldozed for redevelopment: In front of it, the large outdoor advertising sign for Italian-style floor tiles with “beautiful forever” repeated across—which gives the book its title—has already been knocked down.
Behind this grim and unredeemed story lies an important academic debate over the success or otherwise of India’s development. On one side stand economists like Jagdish Bhagwati, who argue that for all its difficulties the country is making progress: Tens of millions are being lifted out of poverty and gaining access to education or basic consumer goods. On the other are figures like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who take a less sanguine view, pointing instead to India’s growing inequality and the fact that many basic development indicators are gradually falling behind poorer neighbors like Bangladesh and Nepal.
Despite her unwillingness to delve into politics or to conclude with anything like a set of recommendations, Boo is clearly on Sen’s side. You can’t imagine her having much time for the Thomas Friedman vision of India’s rise. And as she says, caustically, right at the start of the book: “Almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991.”
She concludes by locating those she has observed in a larger picture of poverty and globalization, placing the struggles of Mumbai’s poorest alongside those of Nairobi and Rio, even New York. In doing so, she reveals a rather traditional progressive political perspective, with a yearning for solidarity and mutual support. But in the end, Boo’s warning is specifically Indian. Some here see the extraordinary wealth and corruption that have followed the nation’s two decades of economic openness as a passing phase, not much different from Britain in the eighteenth century and America in the late nineteenth century. On this reading contemporary Mumbai is just a respun Dickensian London, or turn-of-the-century Chicago—a metropolis blighted by weak governance, speedy urbanization, and fast-changing capitalism, but one that will grow out of it in time.
There is some merit to this view, but it is also presumptuous. True, you hear more about corruption in India than in China in part because it is a democracy. The media here are exuberant and relatively free. There exists a range of well-respected and broadly honest institutions, in particular the upper echelons of the judiciary. (The lower courts, as Boo shows, are less reliable.) As a consequence the political system has reacted to public anger over corruption in recent years: Trials rumble on; new anti-graft laws are promised; one minister has been jailed. There is at least a debate about India’s future, even if one mixed in with general resignation over the capacity of its political and business elite to deliver.
Some of the current gloom is also cyclical. Over the last year, India’s economy has slowed sharply. Leaders once talked excitedly of annual growth of 9 or even 10 percent. This now seems fantastical. A mixture of weak political leadership, high interest rates, and plunging industrial investment has seen growth fall to nearer 6 percent. This sounds fine enough to most Western ears, but in a still very poor country with a fast-growing population and precarious public finances, most economists think it isn’t enough.
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