On That Indian Economic Miracle

Veggies!It’s obvious by what I’ve written in the past (here and here as well.) that I don’t think highly of India’s economic prowess, writ large and I don’t believe any of the hype when it comes to India’s economic miracle. But Quax makes a point about Kerala that deserves further comment.

Quax discusses matrifocal ethnicity in Southern India, namely the state of Kerala. And he’s right: Kerala is different from the rest of India. I’m not sure what makes Kerala different: the prevalence of Christianity, the relative freedom of women in the state, years of Communist rule, and the forward looking and commercial character of Muslims there? Perhaps it’s a combination of all four. Needless to say, Kerala was the cleanest, least intimidating and most upwardly mobile of Indian states, even more so than the miracle city of Bangalore. And I found the Muslims in Calicut to be the most forward looking of any Muslims I’ve ever encountered, outside of pockets in Turkey and those in North Tehran.

Their daughters were educated, free to pursue a love match–not an arranged marriage and not relegated to a very real purdah extant in many places in India. It’s the sort of place where a young Indian woman can have lunch with a strange foreign man and no one raises an eyebrow. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the fact that the area around Calicut has been integral to the global economy for two thousand years–ships have plied the monsoons from East Africa to the Malabar Coast since very early Roman times, bringing pepper an other spices to the West in exchange for gold, or how much of it is due to the tolerance between Hindus, Christians and Muslims. There is much more history to this area than meets the eye.

The Communist party has also run the state off and on since the fifties. Literacy rates are the highest in India. And basic health services deliverables are the highest in India, as well. When the state assumes the risk of healthcare and provides a very good basic education people are free to pursue other productive endeavors instead of grinding away in subsistence poverty and farming. The Dalits in the state, as well, have it better than anywhere in India. This makes a huge difference in upward mobility.

But even Kerala is beset by all the huge problems that India has. The infrastructure is crumbling. The rail system is overwhelmed, although thetrains in Kerala were the best in India outside of the Delhi-Agra tourist trains. And the pollution wasn’t nearly as pervasive as the rest of India. Overpopulation is a serious issue and so is gendercide. And as impressive as the quality of life is for women in the state is, it’s still a man’s state, run by men, for men. All that being said, were I ever to return to India–which is doubtful–the only place I would visit is Kerala.

Yes, I was a tourist in India. I’ve never claimed to be anything other than that. But the eyes don’t lie. What I saw was a very poor, under-devoloped and socially backwards country–moreso than even Cambodia and in many places as backwards as Africa. What makes it worse is this: it’s a horribly underdeveloped country with a very well-educated elite. An elite that sits atop a millenia old social structure. An elite that literally lives off the backs of those below it. And it’s the elite that buys the very minimal goods and services that India imports. One of the reasons India weathered the most recent economic crisis is that it’s imports are negligible. It relies on an internal market that deals in goods and services at a level of quality from the 50s, if not earlier in some cases.

If that’s a choice the Indians want to make, I’m all for it. I’m all about tEh noninterference. There is a queer element of genius to India’s social structure–institutionalizing as deviance any form of societal innovation. But let’s not build up a fantasy around the country. India has some emergent technology. But it’s at the elite level. There are few things that resemble a mall in India, something we Westerners take for granted. And the malls have security guards that prevent lower classes from entering. Seriously, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. That’s not economic freedom for the masses.

India has a problem-set of gargantuan proportions and is one of the most militarized countries I’ve ever seen–all the Gandhiesque posturing notwithstanding. That’s just reality.

If the rest of India could learn from Kerala it would be a vastly more impressive country than it now is. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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