Plenty for Few: India's Economic Miracle Bypasses Poor
Unlike in China, India's economic miracle has failed to benefit the poor. Instead, the rich are getting richer in this notoriously divided land, and government support fails to reach those in need.
"I'm Princess Shahnaz Husain," India's cosmetics diva says with a hoarse voice as she welcomes guests to her palatial villa in New Delhi and kindly invites them to sit down. Her brown-toned hair is teased into a fiery mane, and her striped red robe glitters just as golden as her high-heeled sandals.
Just a few moments earlier, it seemed unimaginable that anybody could stand out against the florid splendor of this Indian living room. Gilded porcelain swans sparkle under glass coffee tables on Persian carpets. A ceramic dog crouches with its puppies in front of the fireplace. The walls gleam with brightly-colored paintings of floral arrangements in massive, ornate golden frames.
Yet, oddly enough, she alone dominates the entire scene: Princess Shahnaz, who rules over more than 400 beauty salons in India and around the world. Her name adorns beauty creams and shampoos made with ayurvedic medicinal plants, and she sells her products through upmarket stores from London to Tokyo -- in packaging embellished with her image from younger days.
Shahnaz won't reveal her age, but for over four decades she and her company have embodied the Indian economic miracle. Although she grew up in affluent circumstances -- her father was a judge and her mother was allegedly a princess in a royal dynasty -- she owes her commercial success to the rise of India's middle class.
Her customers are primarily nouveau riche Indians. Shahnaz recently began to offer them a miracle cream that is supposed to stop the skin from aging. "That will be a hit," she says.
Shahnaz belongs to India's Muslim minority but, like her fellow Indians who are Hindus, she is making provisions for her life after death by performing good deeds that benefit the poor.
When she is chauffeured through the streets of New Delhi in her silver Rolls-Royce, beggars rush up to the vehicle at each intersection. "They are, of course, familiar with my car," she says "and I always have a few rupees on hand for them."
Recently, she says, she helped a man with no legs begging in front of a traffic light. She arranged a job for him in one of her cosmetics production plants. "I found him a job as a watchman at the gate where he can sit," she says.
Shahnaz tells many such stories. For instance, there is the tale of a female road worker with dark spots on her face, who waited in front of her villa every morning until Shahnaz took pity on her. She gave the poor woman a cream for skin spots -- a product that would be prohibitively expensive for the average Indian. What's more, she financed her education in one of her cosmetics schools.
Even now, during the cold time of the year, the rich philanthropist says she has wool blankets placed at the entrance to her villa for the shivering poor. She sounds as if she were moved by her own efforts to help those less fortunate than herself.
She doesn't see poverty as a specifically Indian problem, though. "There are beggars everywhere in the world," she says, "even in London and Paris."
Growing Prosperity, Persistent Poverty
An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that the blatant gap between poor and rich is growing in India almost faster than anywhere else on the globe. Although the world's largest democracy amended its constitution in 1976 to declare that it was a socialist state, the fact of the matter is that the country is failing to give the huddled masses a fair share of the country's economic miracle.
This is one of the main differences between India and China, its rival up-and-coming Asian economic powerhouse: In China, some 13 percent of the population subsists on the equivalent of less than $1.25 (0.97) a day, while one-third of all Indians have to make do with the same amount.
Experts at the University of Oxford have concluded that the level of poverty in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is roughly equivalent to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African country that has been ravaged by years of civil war. To make matters worse, if the comparison is restricted to nutrition, Madhya Pradesh is significantly worse off than the DRC.
Critics such as Atul Kohli, a political scientist who teaches at Princeton University, contend that India's rapid economic growth, which began in the 1980s, has not led to a decline in poverty. Kohli's 2012 book, "Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India," has attracted worldwide attention.
Shankar Singh is one of those who dreams of a better life in vain. The 53-year-old works a few blocks from Shahnaz' residence as a security guard at Panchsheel Park, an enclave for the rich surrounded by walls and gates. He protects the villa of a Sikh businessman.
Shankar's boss has amassed a fortune selling sinks and toilets, but his security guard still lives with his wife and six children in an impoverished hovel right behind the gated community -- beyond the walls, where stray dogs and cows rummage through the refuse of the rich.
This is where the gardeners, cooks, chauffeurs and chambermaids of the nouveau riche live. Their neighborhood may be in one of Delhi's better slums, but they live in constant fear that they will slide back into abject poverty if they get sick or are fired. According to the results of the OECD analysis, informal jobs without any protection against dismissal are more prevalent in India than in virtually any other emerging economy.
Longing for Home
It is early afternoon, and Shankar is resting in his windowless dwelling in preparation for the night shift. He is wearing the same dark baseball cap he wears on duty. A small Hindu altar hangs on the wall. Shankar worships the god Shiva, the "auspicious one," who brings good fortune.
Shankar and his family are still waiting for their luck to change. They do not even have a washbasin. He and his sons wash up in front of the door every morning, while his wife and daughters somehow bathe inside. Water only flows between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., so that's when all the neighbors quickly fill up buckets and pots.
When Shankar moved to Delhi from the province of Uttar Pradesh 32 years ago, he dreamed of a better life. He hasn't been back to his home village for seven years now because he can't afford to travel there. Shankar earns 8,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of 110. He pays 2,000 rupees a month in rent, and lives off the rest.
He can't even honor the Hindu gods with a modest display of fireworks at Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Instead, he gazes in amazement at Panchsheel Park, where well-heeled Indians stage increasingly extravagant firework displays year after year.
Shankar says he longs to see his relatives back in his village. And while he talks about the mustard fields, which are currently blooming with yellow flowers, the reporter strikes upon the idea of accompanying him to his village, at SPIEGEL's expense.
But first Shankar's boss has to be convinced to give him one or two days off. He agrees, but only under one condition: Shankar will only be allowed to travel by train, and in the cheapest class, not by plane. He says that his employee should not be allowed to get used to a life of luxury.
The intention here is to avoid blurring the differences between poor and rich. Shankar's family belongs to the lowest caste of farmers and, to make matters worse, he comes from Nepal, giving him an even lower status in Indian society.
- Part 1: India's Economic Miracle Bypasses Poor
- Part 2: A Journey Back in Time
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