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She was stooped over the sands with a broom and a nylon sack in tow. Even at that early hour, the sun was bearing down and she had a sweaty towel wrapped around her head to beat the heat.
Watching her closely, it occurred to me that given the stretch of the beach and the amount of debris left by the waters, local fishermen and visiting tourists, her backbreaking labour and broomstick strokes seemed entirely in vain.
I discovered that she was one of 20 similar sweepers employed by the local municipality to keep the beaches in the area clean. She was paid Rs. 50(less than a dollar) a day for a job from which there was no respite – she was expected to work seven days a week – on a beach where there were no garbage bins, at least none in plain sight.
On our arrival at the beach resort the previous day, I’d been disappointed to discover that there were no private coves or beaches in the area, although every hotel was a seafront property. Then came the chat with Mathilda and I wondered what the lack of exclusive beach access and the presence of manual sweepers conveyed about India’s fabled economic story and its sustained global “Incredible India” advertising campaign.
Further along the beach, I witnessed groups of fishermen heaving in their nets, leaving dead fish, mounds of still-throbbing jelly fish and vast amounts of litter for somebody else to clean up after them. This at one of India’s most advertised beaches – it didn’t make sense.
Foreign tourists shared the beach with the locals, who far outnumbered the overseas visitors. The beach was for everybody to share – no exclusive sun-n-sand for the well-heeled and those paying in much-needed foreign currency. The government paid workers to keep the beach clean – not the luxury hotels in the vicinity or even the fisher folk who have lived off the sea for generations.The melding of locals, foreign tourists and fisher folk on the beachfront reminded me of something I had read in Indian newspapers over the weeks I had been in the country. There was a prolonged roiling debate about whether Wal-Mart should be allowed in and on what terms.
Meanwhile, I had seen gleaming new malls in Delhi and Mumbai and even second-tier cities like Kochi, with fashion labels that were high-end even by western standards.
Small shopkeepers also remained in business, though, building loyalty, for example, by offering value-added services like free home delivery for my in-laws in Mumbai. What was going on, I asked myself.
A depressing time
August-September was a depressing period in India: On August 28, the Indian rupee touched a historic low against the US dollar, plumbing Rs. 68.85. While I cashed in, Indians were cursing their politicians for their inability to hold down onion prices – a sure barometer of defeat on the hustings, racking up a high current account deficit, and most devastatingly, being helpless in the face of a “culture of rape” that seemed to sweep across the land.
The government bought billboards heralding a Food Security Bill that guaranteed poorer citizens a minimum level of nutrition, but that seemed to open another fault line between those who found the legislation vacuous and those who saw it as vital lifeline for the under-privileged in India’s hinterland.
A respected commentator, Vinod Mehta, thundered in The Times of India on September 1: “Despite pretensions of being an economic superpower, we live in a shamefully unfair society.”
To compound matters, the Congress that is India’s natural ruling party, appeared headed for defeat in federal elections scheduled next year, led by a “mute PM” who is seen as no match for a reinvigorated Bharatiya Janata Party under a controversial state chief minister, Narendra Modi, widely seen as responsible for the “Godhra massacre” in 2002 when Hindu mobs deliberately went after Muslims in Gujarat.
On the all-important economic front, the Indian tiger that was racing ahead at an annual growth rate of nine per cent two years ago had slowed to a modest five per cent. Things were looking bleak indeed.
A healthy tension
For the casual visitor, perhaps, the impression was inescapable: This is an unwieldy nation of 1.2 billion people coming apart at the seams, riven by endless debate and ineluctable differences. But, that would be too facile.
What I sensed instead was a healthy tension between what outsiders prescribe as the growth trajectory that India should pursue and the hobbling knee-jerk course that Indians as a whole seem to be reconciled to. What I witnessed on the beach in Kovalam was a metaphor for co-existence of both “foreign” and “indigenous” (swadeshi) and the balancing of various interests.
India’s lumbering democracy and coalition politics that have been a feature of the polity ever since the Congress lost its stranglehold on federal politics and regional parties assumed power in several states, has meant flashing amber lights at every turn.
In the 10 years since my last visit to India, for instance, I have seen a dramatic jump in domestic tourism and an unimaginable growth in aviation within the country’s borders – powered by its own travellers. I saw the same trend repeated at the country’s iconic tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal: domestic tourists outnumbered foreigners 100-fold.
India’s father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, is said to have observed that the soul of India will always reside in its villages – not the skyscrapers and apartments that dot its metropolitan cities. As former President Luiz Inácio Lula of Brazil learned not too long ago, belonging to the prestigious BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) club of developing champions holds little meaning unless growth comes to the favelas in and around Rio de Janeiro.
Similarly, heeding the prescriptive advice of foreign economic experts and pandering to international tourists or multinationals is not as important as having your ear close to the ground in the gaons (villages) and zopadpattis (hutments) of India.
That is where Mathilda and most of India lives and breathes. They will be the ones who will determine if India emerges the winner in the long run.