India fears return to “Hindu rate of growth” – RTÉ World Report


A recent fall-off in economic growth threatens poverty reduction prospects for hundreds of millions of poor Indians.

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KOLKATA/CALCUTTA — It’s an overnight train ride from Chattisagarh to India’s third biggest city Kolkata, a journey 17 year old Lakshmi Kumari makes once a year with her parents.

They are among the estimated one and a quarter million poor Indians who work on Kolkata’s brick kilns, back-breaking seasonal work in 35-40 degrees heat.

Learning near the kilns (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Asia’s third biggest economy after China and Japan, India’s two decades of around 8% annual growth has lifted tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country’s middle class now numbers around 300 million, and some Indians are making their mark on the world economy.

Last year 55 Indians made the Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires, up from 23 in 2006. In 2008, Tata Motors bought Jaguar and Land Rover, a deal striking for its reverse-colonial symbolism, as an Indian company acquired 2 quintessentially-British brands.

These success stories are having an impact on public thinking. A 2010 survey showed that nearly nine out of ten Indians say their country will eventually be one of the most powerful nations in the world.

But growth has tapered off to just over 5% in the last quarter, and Jim O’Neill, who coined the BRIC acronym  – for Brazil, Russia India and China, the world’s growth economies of the last decade – says that India has failed to live up to expectations and that the government, a squabbling coalition that suffered some embarrassing losses in recent regional elections, needs to get stuck into some drastic reforms.

At risk is India’s hopes to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with at least 6% growth needed each year say economists. And if India’s economy stalls, or reverts to the much-derided ‘Hindu rate of growth’ – a mocking swipe at India’s sclerotic pre-reform, pre-1991 economy – it means less hope for people like Lakshmi Kumari, among the almost 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 dollars a day, according to World Bank figures.

Canal running through Kolkata slum (Simon Roughneen)

“We sometimes work as farm labourers near home,” she says Lakshmi, “but we have no steady work there.” She is sitting inside a dark and humid classroom beside the kiln fields, trying to pick up where she left off 6 years ago when she finished primary school. “My parents could not afford to send me anymore,” she adds, “so I follow them here every year.”

Working with the Narayantala Mass Communication Society, a West Bengal NGO, and local authorities, GOAL supports basic literacy and numeracy for children and adults at the kilns. It helps some 3500 children and 8500 adults at the kilns to tot up their work on the kilns and ensure they get paid accordingly.

“This learning has helped me keep track of what work I do at the kiln, so I know I get paid the right amount,” says Lakshmi.

It is hard work, as temperatures in Kolkata can reach 40 degrees celsius, sometimes more. Lakshmi laughs, then sighs, when asked about what it is like to work in such conditions for 6 months a year.

“10 bricks earns 1 rupee,” she says.”I can move around 1000 bricks in 2 hours usually, depending on the distance.” In other words, if she works for 10 hours a day carrying bricks, she takes in less than 2 euros.

Now it is June, and as the monsoon season approaches, the kilns are closing up for a few months. “We will go home in 2 or 3 days,” says Lakshmi, “but we will be back here in November.”

Understandably not thrilled at the thought of next year’s hard graft at the kilns, she does say, however, that “I am looking forward to the classes again.”

– For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Kolkata

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