NOTHING IS SACRED for Indian economist Surjit S. Bhalla. He enjoys overturning conventional wisdom but then backing his iconoclastic views with hard facts. These views have earned the former World Bank economist and managing director of Oxus Research and Investments in New Delhi a reputation as an enfant terrible. This reputation is reinforced by his latest book, which argues that poverty and inequality have declined on an unprecedented scale in the globalisation era. For those who regularly protest that poverty and global inequality have been worsening, Imagine There's No Country (the title taken from the John Lennon ballad) will come as a shock. In it, Mr Bhalla argues that, in the two decades to 2000, the proportion of poor people in the world fell by 44 per cent to 13 per cent and poor countries grew twice as fast as rich ones: 3.1 per cent against 1.6 per cent annually. He says that every 10 per cent rise in the income of the non-poor has been accompanied by an increase of 18 per cent in the income of the poor. In fact, the developing world as a whole has been catching up with the West. Mr Bhalla debunks popular myths such as the belief that globalisation has resulted in lower overall growth rates for poor countries, increasing world inequality and stagnating poverty levels. In reaching his conclusions, he has researched his subject exhaustively, digesting all the economic literature on global poverty and the figures of various United Nations bodies and throwing out the methodologies normally used to measure poverty. The idea for Imagine There's No Country was triggered by bafflement, Mr Bhalla says. He was looking at data for 1998 according to which 42 per cent of Indians were living below the poverty line. In 1987, the figure had been 37 to 38 per cent. 'But in these 11 years, per capita growth had been 47 per cent. So it obviously meant something was wrong,' he said. Mr Bhalla decided the methods used by the Indian government and the World Bank were wrong. He says that World Bank figures for 1993 depicted India as 30 per cent poorer than Ethiopia and Guyana as three times as rich as China. 'In fact, if you take the World Bank data for India and calculate backwards to 1950, you get mean consumption levels considerably lower than anything recorded in history. In other words, if the World Bank is correct, all Indians would have been dead by 1960.' But why should anyone believe that Mr Bhalla is right and the World Bank and other experts are wrong? Stacked in favour of Mr Bhalla's argument is a lay person's instinctive feel for what makes sense. Mr Bhalla posits that China and India were extremely poor in 1980, poorer than many countries in Africa. They now have more than two billion people between them, or more than half the developing world's population. Both have a experienced record growth in incomes since 1980. People in other Asian countries have also done well. So, if half the world's population has been doing reasonably well, Mr Bhalla argues, there has to be something fishy in the view that global poverty and inequality have increased. Economist Swaminathan S. Aiyar, for one, buys his argument. He also believes that the middle class has been a major beneficiary of rapid economic growth in India and China, growing from an estimated 1 per cent of the populations in each country to about 22 per cent. In absolute terms, this is 450 million people, according to Mr Aiyar. 'It stands to reason,' Mr Aiyar says, 'that as this huge middle class moves up the income ladder, it reduces global inequality.' The World Bank disagrees, arguing that economic growth has not delivered on the poverty front, which is why different nostrums are required. But Mr Bhalla is convinced that all that is required to reduce poverty is economic growth. It is lack of economic growth that accounts for persisting poverty in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa; rapid economic growth in Asia has reduced poverty massively. 'Clearly, growth delivers, so let's find out what delivers growth,' he says. If anyone has reason to grumble, it is the world's middle class, he says. Until the 1970s, middle-class incomes in the US doubled every 24 years. Now they are expected to double every 58 years.