India's Challenge

On Thanksgiving morning I drove to a small convenience store near my home south of Boston and bought a copy of that morning's Boston Globe.  I also bought a small bag of carrots.  Meanwhile, some 440 miles to the South, President Obama had just thrown a lavish White House party honoring Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India.  "Cheers," Mr. Obama said.  Mr. Singh wished us all a happy Thanksgiving.

The Globe and the small bag of carrots cost me $2.49.  In India, a nation which has funded an expensive space program for more than four decades, a nation which proudly describes itself as the world's most populous democracy, nearly half a billion human beings live for at least two days on what I paid for a newspaper and a bag of carrots.   One would hope Mr. Singh is similarly concerned about what his own people might someday have cause to be thankful for.

India proclaims itself a rising economic super-power.   Many economists agree.  In its new incarnation as Mumbai, old Bombay now has an impressive skyline and hosts financial wizards, a movie industry, and international call centers.   In Delhi, meanwhile, small children race after tourists who have come to see the old city's rundown Red Fort.  The children, and there are many, do somersaults and twist their double-jointed limbs to get attention, pleading desperately for a coin or a scrap of food.  Lepers, who used to crowd around visitors, begging, have been moved off center stage, but they are still there, somewhere in this land too much marked by filth and rags.

On a bus trip from New Delhi to Agra, a tour guide talks proudly of the Moghul Empire.  The Moghul Empire has been gone for centuries.  He does not seem to notice, as the bus moves past the squalor and poverty outside.

India has democracy.  It is painfully, embarrassingly, short, however, of charity.  Private philanthropy is minimal.  Government services for the poor and elderly are meager and miserly.

During the days of the Moghuls it might have been de rigeur for the few to live in palaces and the many to live in desperate want.  Not today.  Not for any nation that wants to be taken seriously as a modern democracy.  America still has its super-rich and its disgraceful pockets of abject poverty, but America's leaders struggle to provide relief.  Foundations and wealthy Americans - and many Americans who are not wealthy -- spend billions of dollars on programs to improve education and opportunity.  We have government programs designed to care for the sick and the elderly.  We still have far too many neighbors who are hungry or homeless or ill, but we strive to address those problems, sometimes with more success than at other times, but with an understanding that the suffering of others is not to be simply shrugged off.  In India, one sees too few signs of any such concern.

This is not a reaction to a single tourist visit to a foreign land.  I have been to India repeatedly for decades, both as a member of Congress and as a private citizen.  I understand the enormity of the problem -- a nation with more than a billion people is not easily governed - but I do not understand the persistent absence of progress nor the too-frequent blindness of the haves to the fate of the many have-nots.  Keep in mind that the poor are not isolated in distant and inaccessible places: in New Delhi, one finds Mercedes automobiles and tables heavy with food just yards from pockets of hunger.

I can, of course, imagine some of the likely responses to this, including the completely appropriate refrain that we in America still have quite a long way to go ourselves.  Perhaps, but anybody who believes there is no real difference, quantitative and qualitative, between our shortcomings and those of India, is simply too committed to America-bashing to understand the difference between a hole and an abyss.  India is not an America with more people; it is a democratic nation with many good-hearted people who have a horrendous blind spot.  There is poverty in America.  Joblessness and hunger and homelessness.  But those in that situation are the exception in our country and we attempt, as best we can, both privately and publicly, to erase the blot.  In India, nothing, it seems, changes.   India, where half a billion souls, crowded in urban slums or hunkered over fields farmed in the ways of the past, scrape out a living, two days of survival on an income the equivalent of a newspaper and some carrots.

If this reality, this Indian struggle, does not haunt you, you have not looked into the eyes of a six-year-old child pulling on you and pleading for something, anything, in the hope that she might be able to eat that day.  In America, the pain of such a sight is often sufficient to impel all but the most callous to try to do something, whether through government action or private giving.   In India, the response too often is to reminisce about the Moghul Empire.