1990s >> 1997 >> no-1116-august-1997

TV Review: Passage to Poverty

David Dimbleby’s India (BBC2. 12 July) should have been enough to remind anyone with any doubts why this planet needs a social revolution. Dimbleby himself—a pillar of the British establishment— ironically demonstrated how relatively little of real worth has changed in India since the days of the Raj. The social and economic movement that there has been has done little if anything to benefit the vast majority of India’s teeming population.

Dimbleby’s programme started with one or two “success’’ stories brought about by the intrusion of capitalism into India’s backward economic structure. The very fact that these were painted as examples of real progress told the viewer everything one needed to know, both about the programme’s general ideological thrust and the state of the rest of India. “Successful’’ young computer software executives were shown imbibing the dubious advantages of western-style wage-slavery, all for the princely sum of £40 per month. Interestingly, some other would-be wage-slaves showed themselves unconsciously sceptical of the benefits of capitalism, including the schoolgirl who stated when asked about her ambitions: “I want to be an accountant—and apart from that have an enjoyable life.” Well, quite.

Where Dimbleby’s programme was telling, however was in its portrayal of India’s traditionalist/ modernist dichotomy. The tension between the demands of capitalism and the stifling structure of the centuries-old caste system was brought out quite well and not even Dimbleby—skilled broadcaster that he is—could disguise the awful truth that in many respects Indians are experiencing not the best of both worlds but the worst of both.

Infanticide and gangsterism

As the need to compete in the world economy pushes down the meagre income of millions of Indian workers so they find it increasingly difficult to meet the obligations demanded of them by their culture and traditions. In many instances this has led to some quite dreadful consequences. Parents with young girls, for instance, are less able to afford the dowry payments expected from them on their daughter’s marriage and so parents look upon the birth of baby girls as a financial disaster waiting to happen. Almost unbelievably, this has provoked the return of mass infanticide as poverty-stricken young Indians, particularly in the north of the country, feel that the only way they can ensure their own survival is by terminating the lives of their own children. Relatively few can bring themselves to do such a deed, so amazingly, they scrape together a few rupees to pay somebody else to take the children away and do it for them. In this way traditional Indian culture meets the joys of Western free enterprise with a vengeance.

The dangerous mix of traditional authoritarian and patriarchal cultures with the market economy has brutally given rise to other social problems too. Many of these are common to the majority of the “developing” world, but as is so often the case. India probably demonstrates them better than anywhere. As the poison of the market soaks in to infect an already cancerous organism, crime, corruption, gangsterism, violence and massacres are the order of the day across huge swathes of this beautiful country. Such is the level of patronage, ignorance and illiteracy that hundreds of thousands have been known to gather to defend those politicians and criminals (the dividing line is hazy) who have been systematically defrauding and robbing them. In these circumstances it has been left to other members of the capitalist class to take action against those—and there are plenty of them— who have been refusing to play the game according to Hoyle.

In several regions of India slavery still unofficially exists. Millions of children are “economically bonded” to shopkeepers, artisans and factory owners, working for nothing apart from enough food to ensure that they can put a bit of wealth into their masters’ pockets the next day. This—yet another happy victory for traditional values in a modern setting—shows no real sign of abating. Even under India’s old neo-state-capitalist economic arrangements child slavery was still rife: anyone who expects a great improvement since the recent move towards a more free market economy would be foolish indeed.

Given that India is in a number of respects so typical of much of the world it is astounding that people exist who still think that capitalism is the best of all worlds, a progressive social system that is the best on offer. If watching TV programmes about India is not enough perhaps they should visit it and open their eyes. Then they might know what socialists have learnt—that capitalism is now a planetary disaster.

Dave Perrin