In late June, a television reporter named Narayan Pargaien spent three days in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand to cover the region’s devastating monsoon floods, which have killed more than 5,700 people. Like most journalists covering the disaster, Pargaien dutifully described families who had lost everything, including their modest thatch-roofed homes. Unlike most journalists, Pargaien reported from the scene while perched on the shoulders of a flood victim in the middle of a swollen river. As the outrage poured in, Pargaien tried to explain himself. In an interview with the Indian Web site Newslaundry, he said the man who carried him had insisted upon it. “He was grateful to us and wanted to show me some respect,” Pargaien said, “as it was the first time someone of my level had visited his house.”
At a time when the public discourse is all about the falling GDP growth rate and India’s economic troubles, Professors Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze shake you up with their latest book, An Uncertain Glory — India and Its Contradictions. It is not the slowdown that is a worry — indeed, growth will return presently. The bigger concern for India today should be the continuing deep disparities in society that are only widening with every percentage point growth in GDP.
India’s democracy, say the authors, has failed to rise to the challenges the country faces in the economic and social fields; and worse, it has been compromised by the extent and form of social inequality. Whether it is education, health care, female literacy, sanitation, or nutrition, India fares only marginally better than countries in sub-Saharan Africa.