Slumdogs vs. Millionaires: Sainath in Toronto

The lecture hall slowly filled up as slides of families of the 200,000 farmers who committed suicide in India between 1997-2005 played on the flat screens on the side of the room. P Sainath, the day’s speaker, was the journalist who brought the farmer suicides to wide attention. He opened his talk by updating information on that story: between 2004-2010, an Indian farmer committed suicide every 30 minutes.

The author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Sainath is in my opinion one of the world’s best journalists. He describes himself as “the greatest reader of government documents, which is how I got a reputation as an expert on Indian fiction.” Speaking at Toronto’s York University on March 10, Sainath began by contrasting the trillions that were found for the economic bailout in 2008 and since with the constant budget cuts to social services and agricultural support, as well as the hundreds of billions in corporate taxes that go uncollected each year in India. The principle: “No deserving corporate shall ever go hungry.”

Sainath estimated that $12 million USD per hour will be received by Indian corporations in tax writeoffs this year, in corporate taxes, customs, and excise exemptions. Sainath got these from the publicly available Indian budget documents under an item called “statement of revenue foregone.” The total writeoff? $109 billion USD this year – not including subsidies, giveaways, lands granted and the special economic zones. That figure, $109 billion, is 80% of the revenue that the government is entitled to.

Starved of the massive source of revenue, the government is raising taxes on petrol and diesel, both of which result in increased food prices at a moment when food inflation is 18% (the government figure) before the budget. A consequence of this inflation is that net per capita food availability on a daily basis has been falling for two decades. In contrast with what eminent nutritionist George W. Bush and the Wall Street Journal said during the food crisis two years ago, that India and China were “gobbling” the food supply (“like 2 billion turkeys”, Sainath said) net per capita food availability (which is (total production – exports + imports – wastage + stocks)/population) has gone from 510g 7-8 years ago to 436g in the latest budget. The average Indian family is consuming 100-110kg less food in a year than before, while the top 10% of Indians are eating better than ever before.

What, then, Sainath asked, are the bottom 40% eating? He spends 270 days a year in rural areas and poor regions answering this question. And the answer is, they are eating less. It isn’t because they are eating more meat or fruit, despite such claims by Indian economists. And redefining the number of calories that Indians need, from 2400 a day to 1800 per day, is also not going to do anything for peasants. The 1800/day figure is the one given by the FAO for light or sedentary labour. “Is the woman carry 35-40kg on her back for 20km doing light and sedentary labour? Is the coal miner riding his bicycle to and from the mine doing light and sedentary labour? Is the person working 12 hours in the field doing light and sedentary labour?”

Sainath then provided a caveat: all of the claims about India’s progress, all of the India Shining successes, are true. They are true for a narrow segment of the population. The fastest growing sector in India is not IT, it’s not software; it’s inequality. India is a “Tiger”, “we should ask why we name successful economies after an animal that is rapidly going extinct.” India has always been unequal, but never before has inequality been so cynically created or so brutally enforced.

According to Forbes and the Times of India, India is the 4th on the planet in dollar billionaires, with 53 of them, after the US, Russia, and Germany. And India’s billionaires are richer than Russia’s or Germany’s. 4 of the 10 richest men are Indians. One of the Ambani brothers, both of whom are on the billionaire list, is building a $2 billion dollar home, building 26 floors, two helipads, and “an unquantifiable amount of resentment”. The entire Daravi slum, the area featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire, could be rehabilitated with that sum. And the path of billionaires in India is different: whereas Russia’s billionaires spend 10 years on the list, after which they go to prison, India’s billionaires, as a democracy, head to Parliament after 10 years.

While climbing the ranking for number of dollar billionaires, India has been falling down the ranking for the UN’s Human Development Index, now to 134th, from 120th before the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s. Sainath made the local connection – years ago when Canada was 1st on the Human Development Index, if the Indigenous communities were analyzed separately, they would have ranked 63rd. India is behind every single Latin American country, behind Gabon, Botswana, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. None of these countries have India’s resources, wealth, growth rates (9% for a decade), nuclear power, software superpower – all handled poverty far better. There are hunger alarms in every single state in India, and some states, like Madhya Pradesh, have hunger rates comparable to any country in sub-Saharan Africa. The overall Indian average for child malnourishment is 46%, while the sub-Saharan African average is 35%.

India’s billionaires outgun Scandinavia, Australia, and Japan. The billionaires control wealth that’s equivalent to 1/3 of India’s GDP, about $341 billion in a $1 trillion economy – in a country where 836 million Indians live on 50 cents a day. The World Bank says that $1.25/day is poor, but India’s definition is 24 cents/day, so that only 260 million Indians live in poverty by this definition. The billionaires are making some $300,000-700,000 per minute.

One good program by the Indian government, one of its few achievements, is the rural employment guarantee, in which peasants can get $1.50 – $2 per day for 9 hours of work in the fields in 45 degrees celsius. “Rotating hunger” is a rural survival strategy. In a 6-8 member family, two members will eat on a given day. They work and earn the $1.50, doing a job like digging 100 cubic feet in colonial-era style public works. People in their 60s and 70s are going to work in the program because it’s the only way to eat.

Last July, India created the world’s cheapest automobile (the Tata nano) while hosting the world’s most expensive red gram (dhal, a kind of pulse which is a staple protein), reaching 100 rupee/kg. When pensions are 200 rupees per month, options like rotating hunger come into play.

Over a period when labor productivity increased by 84%, real wages fell by 22% and CEO salaries went through the ceiling. The face of poverty in India has an agrarian, a feudal, gender and a caste basis: 24% of India is poor but 35% of Dalits are poor and 42% of Adivasis (“this is what you would call here First Nations”) are poor. Agriculture is the hardest hit and 65% of agricultural work is done by women. In 1990 agriculture took up 14.5% of the budget, while in 2006 it took up just 5.9%. Sainath told government officials that they might as well send the air force and bomb them, it would be a quicker death but no less certain.

Farmers in India today control nothing but the land. Pesticide, seed, fertilizer, water, electricity – are all controlled either by governments or corporations. The prices of inputs go up and farmers are forced into debt and encouraged to grow unstable cash crops, leading to increased risk, debt, and ultimately, suicide. In the 1990s they closed the rural banks, shifting credit to urban elites. Today agriculture is in the greatest crisis since the Green Revolution. 8 million have quit farming. Where did they go? “We don’t know. We were too busy covering Paris Hilton.”

How was all this done? Through the mechanisms of neoliberalism. A withdrawal of the state from anything serving the poor – the state remains interventionist and present in serving the rich. A transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The collapse of any restraints on profit and finance. The privatization of everything including the intellect and the soul (“What’s a public intellectual?” Sainath asked. “One who hasn’t been privatized yet.”) And the growth of inequality.

What all this means is that “an unraveling has begun,” and the economic unraveling that started in 2008 – didn’t really start in 2008 and isn’t over yet. But there are thousands of little struggles all over India, against what is happening. “Whatever you call it, neoliberalism, corporations, some of us with a more limited vocabulary just call it capitalism.” But the struggles against it are going to take a very local character. The details will be different in different places, but what is important is to not let it pass in silence.

Sainath concluded by telling a story from Tacitus about a party by the Roman Emperor Nero, a party where the Roman elite came out and enjoyed food and music in an evening lit by people, “criminals”, who Nero had set on fire. “I remember being struck by this story – not because of the cruelty, because the 20th century surpasses Nero, and we surpass Nero every day in this world – but because I asked myself, who were Nero’s guests? How come they remained silent?”

After 8-10 years, Sainath said, I have my answer. You have the answer. Whatever we do, he said, your way or my way, let us not be Nero’s guests.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.