Party that's only for the few

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 February, 2011, 12:00am

Late last year, a super-billionaire moved into the world's first US billion-dollar residence, an oddly shaped 27-storey mix of brick, steel and glass - looking rather like a badly stacked pile of books 173 metres high - that contains a health spa and swimming pool, a ballroom with a single chandelier reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles, a 50-seat cinema, six storeys of car parking plus a maintenance centre, three helipads and a temple. It needs 600 servants to maintain it and from the main residence on the top with their mother of pearl floors, it offers sweeping 360-degree views of the Arabian Sea and the slums of Mumbai far below.

'It is good to breathe fresh air up here, away from the pollution of the street,' gushed one of the guests at the housewarming party, who declared the house the Taj Mahal of the 21st century. The owner is Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man and chairman of Reliance Industries, his wealth battered by the recent downturn, falling to US$27 billion.

Across the country, only 50 kilometres from Agra, home of the original Taj Mahal, is a village of a few hundred people that I have visited regularly over the past 35 years. It still lacks electricity, running water, a school, a post office, anything resembling a shop or a properly paved road, though it does have temples and several wells, strictly designated as to which caste can use which.

Gentle progress has come to the village, so that many houses are shored up with brick, instead of being traditional mud and thatch. A large wooden box, opened up to offer trinkets and sweets, sometimes comes as a travelling shop. Many of the men have gone to work in Agra or even Mumbai.

In between, there is an India of 1.2 billion people that is hard to sum up because any statement is liable to be contradicted just around the corner. India's economic statistics portray a country that is on the move, growing almost as fast as China, at 9 to 10 per cent a year. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, projects growth continuing at 8.5 to 9 per cent, so that by 2035 India will be the third-biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.

By then, India would be the biggest country in the world in population terms. Some Indians cherish a hope that their country may surpass China economically. From 2015, India will be boosted by the 'demographic dividend' with a younger population profile than China, which will be ageing thanks to the policy of allowing parents only a single child.

But India has too many flaws. According to official reports, 37 per cent of Indians live below an austerely defined poverty line. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist, last year appealed to the government to do more to make growth more inclusive: 'It is silly to debate on whether growth is a good thing. Of course it is. But we have to do more to get the fruits of growth inclusively shared.'

On this score, India is still failing. The lack of basic education for the poor, the wretched infrastructure, especially the bad roads from the villages that mean that up to half of the produce perishes before it gets to market, hold back opportunities for all.

Education is a key that unlocks many opportunities, and Indians who have got a good education have shown talent and initiative that has helped stimulate some world-beating companies and created a middle class of 300 million to 400 million people, bigger than any other country except China. But, as the official statistics show, the poor masses have been left to pick up crumbs.

Some economists differentiate the Chinese and Indian economic miracles by saying that China's is authoritarian and state-led, export-oriented growth, whereas India's is the product of democratic, private-enterprise capitalism. There is truth in this, especially the success of China and the failure of India in building the infrastructure that is the essential underpinning for rapid economic growth.

But a series of recent scandals has shown that India's private companies are in collusion with politicians in spawning corruption that may be taking 2 per cent a year off potential growth. Perversely, India's very democracy and the rise of caste-based politics in the Hindu heartland have increased the numbers of people with sticky fingers determined to get their share of prosperity, at whatever cost to the economy as a whole.

The expensive mess of the New Delhi Commonwealth Games last year, the costs of which exploded from an estimate of US$352 million to US$13 billion, proved a scandal too far for the government, which had to take action. Another expensive scandal was the award of telecoms licences in 2008 at knockdown prices, which may have deprived the government of US$39billion in revenue. The public outcry has been so great that police called in some of the big tycoons for questioning.

Economic reforms and dismantling of the so-called permit raj did not go far enough and, in many business sectors, India's lauded dynamic private enterprise is a small and exclusive club whose members know their way around the political salons. The Asian Development Bank reported in 2009 that 50 billionaires in India control 20 per cent of GDP and 80 per cent of stock market capitalisation.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is personally shiningly honest, but things have evidently reached a pervasive state because Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's long-ruling family and general secretary of the ruling Congress Party, this year demanded stringent action against corruption. The leading question remains whether he can fight his way through the den of thieves to rescue India's shining reputation.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group