A Letter To Santa From Saket

Time for India to invent a new paradigm

Wealthy Indian shoppers are embracing the true commercial nature of Christmas. AJAY VERMA/REUTERS
Elections 2024
01 January, 2010

TO ENTER THE SELECT CITY WALK shopping mall in Saket, New Delhi, is to experience something like what Dorothy and her traveling companions in the Wizard of Oz do when they leave the black-and-white zone of Kansas for the dazzling Technicolor world of Emerald City.  One has just made a harrowing journey through the dusty woods of Delhi traffic, fending off desperate boys with their stacks of English-language magazines and pirated bestsellers at stoplights.  At the guarded gate, one must submit to the international flight-style security checks. All this before stepping into an exact replica of those fabled temples of fevered devotion to consumerism: the American shopping mall.

When I visited, the mall was decked out for Christmas.  Not Christmas as it is celebrated in the quaint churches of Bandra or Goa or Cochin. But Christmas worshipped at the altar of the tinseled tree of the great god of shopping. Awe-struck families took turns snapping photos of themselves before the soaring plastic branches sweeping over the artificial snow and shiny super-sized parcels below. To my utter amazement, a group of teenage girls, three of them blonde, two plausibly Indian, performed a song-and-dance number to Jingle Bells (…dashing through the snow…). When I passed by later, they were sweetly harmonising the song Bing Crosby made a Christmas classic lo so many years ago: I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know... Cameras flashed all around.   A friend visiting from Mumbai, who happens to live in Bandra, commented: “I had no idea there were so many Christians in South Delhi.”  Her innocence touched me.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made the expression ‘inclusive growth’ a mantra.  He has chided India’s rich for vulgar displays of wealth, and warned that “income and wealth inequalities can lead to social unrest.”  He has further cautioned that, political stability aside, runaway consumption is not environmentally sustainable. Is anybody listening?  And aren’t the government’s pro-growth policies actually encouraging the vulgar display of consumerism and celebrating the heady glee of purchasing power the Prime Minister decries in lofty speeches?

But why blame India?  In 2008, the United Nations State of the World’s Cities report warned, “Growing inequality in US cities could lead to widespread social unrest and increased mortality.” Over the past 40 years, the country that invented the shopping malls now sprouting like crazy all over urban India, has seen the share of wealth enjoyed by the rich grow by leaps and bounds, even as the middle class’ share shrank and stores in many malls went bankrupt.

In the early 1960s, the top one percent of households in the United States held 125 times median household wealth; it now holds 190 times median household wealth. Across Latin America and Asia, one sees the same yawning gap increasing between the rich and the rest.  As the Leonard Cohen song goes: The poor stay poor/ The rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows.

Everybody in India who read the Forbes special issue on ‘India’s Richest’ knows, anyway.  According to Forbes, India’s billionaire count doubled to 52 in 2008, the same year that saw the number of billionaires worldwide shrink due to the global economic crisis.  These 52 extremely rich Indians hold a whopping 25 percent of the country’s total GDP.   The remaining 75 percent is divvied up among, give or take, 1.2 billion other Indians, and hardly equitably or inclusively at that.  The 2009 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report ranked India, the fourth-largest economy in purchasing power parity, at a shameful 134th place.

While affluent South Delhiites are discovering the joys of Christmas splurging, the nation’s poor are literally hungry for the basics.  Nearly half the world’s malnourished children still reside in India, some of them on the pavement within spitting distance of the Select City Walk mall.  I have seen them.  The cost of food is skyrocketing, with basic items doubling, trebling or even quadrupling in price.  The rapid improvement in urban infrastructure in Delhi, in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, has made poverty far less visible in the nation’s capital.  The poor are increasingly out of sight and out of mind, but they have not, for all that, disappeared.

Completely off the mental radar of the mall-hopping urban rich is the life and work of the one Indian who most powerfully advocated for the country to follow a very different path: Mahatma Gandhi.  Granted, he’s a hard sell in a culture of consumerism. Self-restraint, what Gandhi called swaraj, is not as sexy as a tinseled tree surrounded by Pepe Jeans, Adidas, Mango and Tommy Hilfiger.  But as the glaciers melt off the slopes of the Himalayas, the monsoon grows fickle, arable land in one of the most fertile countries on Earth disappears into SEZs and luxury residential towers and the rage of the poor simmers, the glitter of  ‘world-class’ malls may begin to compare poorly with the prescient wisdom of the one who knew “earth has enough for every man’s need but not every man’s greed.”

Gandhi saw it all coming.  He understood a century ago that Western consumerism was a raw deal for humanity, the source of imperial expansion, human exploitation and environmental exhaustion.  He would have been not one whit surprised by the planetary pickle we’re in now.

There are countries where the allure of growth, growth, growth is being questioned. Bhutan, tiny and mountain-bound, has proposed to measure national wellbeing by a Gross Happiness Product.  The prime minister of France, one of the world’s most advanced economies, asked Nobel-prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to come up with a different way to measure national well being than GDP.  They presented their report to him last fall. Finally, Brazil, a large developing country more comparable with India, has also taken steps to come up with a new paradigm for national progress, steps that have worked wonders to boost the country’s economy and narrow the prosperity gap.

The slavish imitation of American consumerism, its brands and its temples of spending cannot be sustained, not even  in the United States. India has what it takes to invent its own paradigm for this confounding 21st Century.  One of the biggest inspirations from which India can draw is the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Granted, it’s too late to bring Gandhi back but it may not be too late to revisit his prescriptions for social justice and environmental sustainability.  I’m dreaming of something between a bazaar and a mela, with a Gandhian emphasis on locally sourced, fair-trade products produced using green technologies and presented in attractive biodegradable packaging.  The trick is how to make that as seductive as a tinseled tree in an air-conditioned mall hawking the same brands as every other mall in the world. Maybe I’ll write a letter to Santa.