Issue #25, Summer 2012

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.

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.

Yet there are also deeper problems with the nation’s governance and commerce that lie behind the world Boo describes, just as Annawadi hid behind the “beautiful forever” sign. India’s state is at once too weak and too intrusive. The economy remains dominated by a mixture of inefficient public-sector industries and sprawling family-controlled industrial houses. The latter have been the source of much of the graft that pervades India’s politics. A rotten system of mutual interdependence has grown up in which the state relies on the tycoons to develop the economy, while political parties, in the absence of a system of state funding, need kickbacks to fund the workings of the world’s largest democracy. The result has been neither efficient nor equitable.

This system has been challenged somewhat over the last couple of years by public concerns over corruption, but only to the extent that it is now more difficult to be seen openly giving favors to the well-connected, for instance by doling out licenses to develop land or explore for natural resources. This is part of what has gummed up the workings of the state, slowing growth and investment. The phrase “political paralysis” is now often heard here to describe a situation in which anxious bureaucrats and party leaders cover their backs and little gets done.

Historian Ramachandra Guha makes the point that visitors to India have for generations come to the conclusion that the nation is basically unworkable: Its geography is too vast; its population too diverse, and its politics too quarrelsome. Yet for all its imperfections, it has survived—overcoming imperialism, partition, and endemic poverty to create a democracy that, while far from perfect, bears favorable comparison to, for instance, China. The hope is that with further reform, the nation’s economic progress will eventually be more broadly shared; that the undercity and overcity will come together. But at present it remains just a hope. There are plenty of signs that India’s future is just as likely to resemble the crony capitalism and deformed democracy of Russia. This is India’s own Gilded Age, and Katherine Boo has sounded the loudest warning about its failings.


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Issue #25, Summer 2012

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