Wednesday, November 11, 2009

India's Poor - Part Two

Where is India's middle class?

I'm a TV addict and news junkie. Wherever I go, when I enter my hotel room I immediately turn on the TV and hunt for an English-language station. In Europe I usually find BBC and CNN, which provide very little local flavor.

In India I found a wide range of English-language stations--generally about a third of the channels available, and in most places there were at least fifty channels. Interestingly, the majority of entertainment channels were native-language, I believe primarily Hindi. There were numerous Bollywood-style music channels, and lots of programs that were clearly quiz shows, comedies, and dramas, including a daily continuing drama I found everywhere, about ancient gods and heroes.

The rule seemed to be entertainment in local languages, with local news shows morning and evening, much like American entertainment networks. There were also occasional news channels in local languages. But the English-language channels were all news or education (National Geographic and Discovery-like channels), with very little comedy, drama, or film. Local English-language news was a revelation, often for what it did not show: 90% of the population.

There were numerous stories about India's growing middle class. Yes, they exist, but either not in the numbers the news stories suggest or--more likely--not in the implied percentages. Naturally I could not understand the news stories on the native language news channels, and I have to ask who the audience is for the English-language channels. Tourists? Or the upper and middle classes? I can't answer that.

What I can say is that the picture of typical life in India on television clashed harshly with what we saw. It's entirely possible to avoid the poor by driving a private car everywhere, and we saw gates and fences to keep them out of many places, especially the great monuments where tourists go, although that seemed unnecessary. The doors to the lobbies of our hotels were not locked, but the poor stayed outside--often right outside. In Varanasi, two men huddled around a little fire each night tucked right against the steps into the hotel.

But where are the vaunted middle class citizens of India? First of all, I don't know exactly what they mean by middle class. Is it the old British idea of being able to live on an inheritance or investments without having to work? That definition allowed people to work if they wished, at white-collar jobs, and it also included by courtesy a few people who had to work to survive, such as ministers and teachers of every sort.

In the U.S. the definition of middle class shifts constantly, usually based on income per capita--yet almost every American defines himself or herself as middle class, including both millionaires and people technically below the poverty level. It's all very confusing here, but at the moment the definition appears to be "I've made the money I have myself rather than inheriting it, and I can support my family without resorting to welfare or charity."

In other words, in common parlance Americans tend not to distinguish between middle and working class, because virtually everybody works. It crossed my mind--but I had no one to ask who would understand the question--that possibly middle class in India means something like "We are literate, we earn enough to support our family, our children go to school, and we live in a place with a lock on the door." Possibly the Indian definition includes speaking English. I do not know any of that. It's just that if there are as many middle class people as the news broadcasts claim, some of them must be among the better off of those we First World folk would still classify as poor.

All I can say about the middle class of India is that they apparently aspire to live like the families in Bollywood films. Because we were in India at midwinter, between Christmas and New Year's, we saw far more Indian than foreign tourists at the great monuments...and almost nowhere else.

We saw well-to-do Indians at the airport when we arrived, of course. We glimpsed them in taxis and private cars in Delhi. But we did not see them in large numbers anywhere else we went. Admittedly we were not taken to the new malls and shopping areas that we read about--but neither did we happen to see anything in or on the outskirts of cities that looked like new malls or shopping areas.

According to the guide books, there are malls and expensive shopping areas--but where? In the U.S., Europe, or Japan, any place I've ever been before, you see them all around the outskirts of cities, and also in the middle of town. Where are they hiding the ones in India, that we did not glimpse a single such area on our journeys through cities, or from the trains and buses we took from one city to the next? In Jaipur we did find a shopping mall across the street from the deluxe restaurant where we ate dinner one night. But when we went in we found it shabby and cheap, another example of the way each small enclave of comfort and elegance is surrounded by poverty and dirt.

As I said above, it would be possible to avoid touching the poor, the dirt, the squalor, by being ferried door to door, but I do not know how it could be possible not to see these things.

We visited three expensive shops--the jewelry shop and the rug factory in Jaipur, and the silk factory in Varanasi. None was in an area of luxury shops; each one was isolated in the midst of what Americans would call a slum.

We went to Orchha, a resort. It was a small village and we walked all over it. There, too, we saw middle-class Indian families on vacation to celebrate New Year's. But the hotel didn't have a shop, and in the village there were only open-air trinket/souvenir shops around the temple square.

If there is such a growing middle class in India as the TV news would have us believe, why are there no entrepreneurs in a resort town, set up to sell them quality goods as well as trinkets? What a contrast with the resort of Pokhara in Nepal--a poor country with a communist government, mind you--where the central street was one shop after another selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, crafts, from inexpensive right up through top-dollar goods. Even Chitwan had a main street of shops and restaurants, bike and motorcycle rentals, and resort hotels.

Yes, we saw what we would think of as middle class people in India, but unlike anywhere else I've ever been they were a small minority. I hope the news is correct that the middle class is growing, but you would certainly not know it from what we saw.

Next week: projects to help India's poor.

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