Rich India needs to lose weight, and find a heart

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2011, 12:00am


An unsettling image on India's roads is an obese woman sitting on a cycle rickshaw, while pedalling away in front of her is an ectomorph, all ribs, clavicles and sunken cheeks. It illustrates, vividly, India's notorious extremes.

The past fortnight has seen another example of this contrast. The country's main planning body, the Planning Commission, has said that 25 rupees (HK$4) a day is 'adequate' for a villager to spend on food, education and health. The commission gave the figure to the Supreme Court, which has ordered the commission to revise its poverty definitions to reflect today's prices.

In the cities, the commission says that a daily income of 32 rupees is adequate. It boggles the mind to think how the men in suits in the commission could fling such an insult at the poor. As one critic pointed out, the commission's breakdown shows the allowance for health spending is less than one rupee a day, barely enough to buy an aspirin.

At the moment, thanks to raging inflation, 1kg of tomatoes in New Delhi costs 20 rupees. Add the cost of cooking gas, oil, onions and potatoes, and you can't even get a basic vegetable dish for 32 rupees.

The only possible explanation is that the government wants to reduce the number of people living below the poverty line, thus allowing it to spend even less on welfare benefits.

The sleight of hand also helps India's image. It will look good in global forums where its leaders can swagger around boasting of their 'emerging superpower status' if there are fewer poor folk tarnishing the shiny new India being projected.

A week earlier, one of the estimated 60 million morbidly obese people in India went in for bariatric surgery. Nitin Gadkari, president of the main opposition party, weighed 130kg when he went in for surgery at a Mumbai centre where other fat Indians have had a gastric bypass.

While India's 8 per cent annual growth rates are doing nothing to alleviate impoverishment, they are proving effective in expanding the waistlines of the rich. A Mumbai surgeon said 100 gastric bypasses are performed in the city every month.

The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in India is a cliche. But this latest manifestation - the rich having stomachs trimmed for US$11,000 while the poor can't afford to buy onions (a staple in India) for 25 rupees per kilogram - is particularly grotesque.

Every country has extremes, but the difference with India is not just the size of the gulf; it's the lack of compassion and feeling for those who have to strain every muscle pulling those pot-bellied passengers on their cycle rickshaws, only to be able to feed their family slops for dinner.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India