Western perception of India’s burgeoning success story masks reality of social divide

“When I first went to India, 25 years ago”, writes Charles Moore of the Spectator, “I was embarrassed by cycle rickshaws. I felt uneasy being transported by thin people much poorer than myself.” Now though, Moore finds himself impressed by the modern India: “Such is India’s economic success that I suspect many of the boys who struggled to pedal me up a hill are now garage proprietors grown fat.”

In some ways Moore is right; India has had enormous economic success recently and is currently enjoying huge amounts of foreign investment as its stock market continues an upward climb.

Think Mumbai and Bangalore, think IT and textiles, think call-centres and Goan beach resorts, and India becomes a “success story”, the “next superpower” or “a booming economy”. But the reality could not be more different.

The financial capital of the sub-continent, Mumbai, is a case in point. It is the centre of the Bollywood film industry; a glitzy, commercialised hub of the new India.

But flying in to Mumbai, the vast slums on the city’s outskirts, where an estimated eight million live in desperate poverty, are impossible to ignore. Despite the obvious wealth and prosperity of Mumbai’s centre, the slums remain unaffected and are, in fact, still growing.

The problem of social division or, in other words, the vast gulf between India’s rich and poor, is one that India does not seem to be confronting. That 800m Indians live on less than 20 rupees (25p) a day is an indisputable fact.

The World Bank has recently spoken of the “silent emergency” of child malnutrition in India and maintains that 29% of Indians live below the poverty line.

In Madyha Pradesh, a central Indian state, 60% of infants are thought to be malnourished. And, as this goes on, the Bombay Sensex (India’s stock index) has gone from 5,000 to nearly 18,000 points in just under 10 years, creating a high-caste generation of millionaires. Meanwhile, Mumbai’s slums receive around 300 migrant families every day, most of them moving in from impoverished rural areas.

Health, education and infrastructure are still massively underdeveloped in the country, and the figures in the government’s budget are not particularly promising: the annual defence budget is 960bn rupees (£12bn) while health and education receive 150.2bn rupees (£1.9bn) and 330bn rupees (£4bn).

But it is sometimes easy to forget this in the city itself. One Indian family interviewed in South Delhi, made rich by the Indian IT industry, gives an insight into the wealth barrier that exists there.

They shop, eat, exercise and work in luxury, but rarely come into contact with anyone outside their social class unless they talk to a waiter in one of Delhi’s five star hotels. They fly to Goa for their holidays and rarely venture into rural areas, apart from a short summer break in the hills. Capitalism, it seems, has done it for them. But, like Nehru’s socialism, it has failed so many Indians.

The reality of India, then, as opposed to the hyped-up version seen in much of the Western media, is one of shocking contrast. If India is to stand a chance in the race with China to be the next global superpower then this is one divide it must address.

It is a popular theory that, in India, a rising tide will eventually lift all the boats – that the wealth being accumulated by the country’s middle classes will eventually trickle its way down to the poorest of the poor. But there seems to be little evidence that is happening at all.

In a moment of surprising frankness one of India’s ministers for social reform, Mani Shankar Aiyar, commented that “while the rich are getting obscenely richer, the poor are getting only mildly less poor.”

Until this changes, Charles Moore’s poor rickshaw drivers will still be in the same job. By the looks of things, it’s possible that their children and grandchildren could very easily end up there too.


  1. India is well in its way for the 21st century, a 2nd tryst with the destiny, build not only on IT & software, also the rise of China forced the western powers look at India longingly, a version of the white knight to deliver the west from the jaws of the dragon.

    The obstacle india face is itself – the cruel indifference and the amazing callousness of the middle class and interlectuals towards the poor. Given the Indian social reality, India needs socialism in addition to capitalism. — social compassion, social justice, social security — Unless all these concepts are permantly and firmly ingrained in the hearts and minds of the Indian middle class, India will only be a wanabe, forever.

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  2. Hi,

    Being an Indian, residing in Mumbai, I could not agree with you and Peter more. The rich are so caught up in getting richer, that they have completely erased the poor from their thinking. One reason for this could be that they suddenly have the resources to fulfill all the aspirations they have been harbouring for a long time, and want to make maximum hay while the sun lasts. But unless this changes, and changes soon, I am worried that there will be a social calamity.

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  3. Thank you for your comments.

    Socialism seems to have failed India so far, Peter and I certainly cannot see India challenging China at all in the next 20 years economically. You are right though, there is not much (social) compassion in India at the moment.

    The Daily Telegraph correspondent for South Asia recently told me that India is similar to Victorian England in terms of social divide -I think he is probably right.

    Sanjay, I like your proverbial analogy. Sadly though, most Indians are most definitely in the shade.

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  4. I can not agree more. Social divide is so high in India that I can not believe India is indeed progressing. I think most of the social problems in India are self created by political system India has adopted. India truely needs reform way its elect their politicians. Also Constitution need to change to make all people equal and then provide government help on the basis of income instead of caste, religion etc. Today several deserving group or people does not get government help while some fat cat gets it because he/she belongs to certain caste or religion causing government help going to people who really does not need help to begin with.

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