Message from India: Please Stop Calling Us Poor

India is the world's most ancient civilisation and the world's third biggest and fastest growing economy. There are many problems and much poverty but it is sick and tired of being patronised by the West.

India is a country of paradoxes. On one hand millions of young ambitious people wanting to make something out of their lives write their own destinies, on the other hand there are millions of others who choose spirituality in leaving themselves to whatever their fate has set for them.

The same paradox exists in our perceptions too. On one hand there is undoubtedly the world’s largest population living below the poverty line with average incomes being very low, and the country being frequently lumped into a poor category. But on the other hand there is this fabulously rich aura of India being the golden bird that drew the attentions of the Europeans seeking her magical riches and spices. The contradiction here is incidentally at the root of the discontent and hostility Indians have over the colonial era. India went from being an unbelievably rich land to being pillaged under the colonial era – or at least so goes the narrative.

The image of India’s poverty attracts a lot of attention and money. According to the World Bank, India received a total of $2.4 billion in foreign aid in 2013. While this money certainly contributes towards alleviation of poverty and helping those on the lower strata of the society, there are a few problems, which actually backfire on the noble intentions with which these donations are made.

India is finding it’s way to actualize its national ambitions to become a $10 trillion economy by 2034.

Professor William Easterly is an economist who studies economic development, and the bulk of his work bluntly disputes the myth that foreign aid works. He asserts that “economic development happens, not through aid, but through the homegrown efforts of entrepreneurs and social and political reformers.” And is it really difficult to understand why that might be the case?

Consider the old adage: it is better to teach a hungry man how to fish, than to give him a fish. For helping those living among poverty we have to enable them to be able to achieve the necessary conditions for making their lives better. If we keep feeding them, and taking care of them in perpetuity, what would become of them, if the aid flows were to be disrupted? Jim Rogers, one of the greatest investors of our time, wrote in his book “Adventure Capitalism” of how he saw in his travels to Africa long lines of people in Ethiopia, waiting for the arrival of the free grains which kind hearted people from American Churches had donated. He lamented over how an entire generation of people in the rural areas had grown up not knowing how to farm, while pristine farmlands in Ethiopia lay unharvested.

India, China, and various countries of Africa have all received vast sums of donations in the last five decades, but this has hardly affected poverty levels. In fact, the biggest reduction in poverty numbers came only when these countries adopted genuine economic development using the distributive capacities of the markets. Sure, there are legitimate criticisms about using markets, but the benefits of them in tackling human development issues such as hunger, poverty and malnutrition significantly outweigh the cons. Also consider the fact that prior to the development of liberalism as thought of by John Stuart Mill, there was no impetus that another country, much less other people from the same country, had any moral obligation to “help” other people. And yet in varying time periods people in what now are perceived to be “poor countries”, sat on vast amounts of resources.

Apart from economic reasons as to why foreign aid is counterproductive, there are equally important political reasons for it. Perhaps the most damaging aspect about colonialism in India was that it struck a wide blow on to the collective psyche of the Indian identity. It was not because “foreigners” had conquered India (“foreigners” ruling over India goes at least a few thousand years), it was because of the projection of the idea that Indians were people that the imperialists had to “civilise”. In doing so they damaged, belittled and mocked the sense of being an Indian, and as a result shred the humanity of their identity. John Stuart Mill, who came up with the strange, convoluted idea of “benevolent despotism” was heavily influenced by his father, James Mill who had authored a book called “History of British India”, an elaborate study of the Subcontinent which was used by the East India Company officers and subsequently the British Foreign Office in teaching newly posted officials in India about the land and its history.

However, the History of British India contained within it nothing but a highly self-serving vision of what India ought to be, instead of what it was. Mill, for example casually brushed aside the contexts and nuances which punctuate the evolution of societies and shape broader sociological frameworks, and instead lazily announced that India’s past possessed “three phases, Hindu, Muslim and British.” He criticised in his book those British officials who thought the indigenous people “to be a people of high civilisation, while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilisation.”

Unfortunately, such patronisation formed the bedrock in which many senior officials came to view not just India, but numerous other parts of the world.

And I can’t help but see the similarities between the view then, and the view about “poor countries” or “third world countries” now. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that today’s view is the successor of the views of the past.

India is not a poor country. It certainly has a large share of people who live below poverty lines, but should this be the sole determinant of how India be ought to be looked at by the rest of the world?

Well Indians will say a forceful no, but the reality is that India is viewed from the narrow constructs which have their foundations from the heydays of colonialism, which further accentuates the problems, because colonialism is looked at with great hostility. It is what explains why Indians were furious at the way many Western publications and newspapers questioned India’s foray into space by launching a Mars mission. Journalists questioned whether it was justified that a country with significant levels of poverty should spend money on such projects. Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee in turn angrily retorted that British aid was “peanuts” compared to the economy, and the government even moved ahead to block any more aid from UK. 

This reaction is not true just for India. Just a few weeks ago, Bolivian Minister for Land and Rural Development angrily refused Bill Gates’ donation of 100,000 chicken, saying “He does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce.”

But what he said afterwards – “I think it’s rude coming from a magnate that does not know Bolivia’s reality” – is something which more people and countries, particularly those in the developed world, should consider before inciting irritated response from native people.

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