Superpower for someKeith O'Brien
- 21 April 2007
Sixty years after independence, India is rapidly transforming itself from an underdeveloped country into a leading world economy. But the problems of poverty that blighted the country when Pope Paul VI wrote his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio still need radical solutions
A visit to India today, for those fortunate enough to be able to make it, will be a visit to a superpower in the making. It is the world's biggest democracy, and its economy grew at an astonishing 9 per cent last year, with no sign of any slowdown. Yet India is also, more than ever, a land of often quite shocking contrasts between the haves and the have-nots. The work to be done among the poor is urgent and can seem overwhelming.
I visited in January with Paul Chitnis, the chief executive of SCIAF (the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund), and was struck by the breadth of activity in which the Catholic Church in India engages, despite constituting only 1.5 per cent of the population. Indeed, this still amounts to a Catholic community of over 17 million people, in a population of more than one billion.
The poverty in India is as bad as any I have seen in Africa or Latin America. In some ways it is worse, because of the fabulous wealth that exists alongside it. The middle class in India is growing rapidly, and this probably accentuates the sense of growing inequality. One night, I observed a middle-class wedding ceremony where the bridegroom, on horseback, was festooned with money by the guests. On another night, I met the parents of a disabled child in the slums of Bangalore living in a room not much bigger than a cupboard.
India is not only the biggest but in some ways the most modern democracy in the world. In the most recent election in 2006, every voter, whether urban elite or living in rural poverty, voted electronically. Yet India's enormous growth and increasing power - it already possesses that most essential accoutrement of a superpower-in-the-making, the nuclear bomb - do not benefit everyone. The caste system, held by many Indians to be a barrier to India's development, remains an ever-present factor in Indian life. Many of the projects I visited, supported by SCIAF, work with lower-caste people, in particular Dalits.
I visited one home that was not really much more than a shack. Inside there was no natural light. If there had been windows or a door, the dwelling would have been described as a house and, consequently, liable to taxation. A woman, widowed for 10 years, lived there with her four grown-up sons, three of whom suffered from epilepsy. The sole wage-earner was deaf from an operation on his ears and brought home a pittance from repairing shoes.
I met a large group of women in Chennai living in horrendous surroundings beside a spaghetti mound of enormous gas pipes. It was an area in which no one else would live and on which they are not allowed to construct anything other than the most ramshackle dwellings. They were fisherfolk whose lives had been turned upside down by the tsunami of 2004.
SCIAF has helped women in Chennai establish trade unions for domestic workers and fisherfolk. We met many of the members of the Domestic Workers' Union in a packed hall. Hundreds of women gathered from all parts of the city, each proudly wearing her name tag. The women spoke about how membership of the union had given them a voice where previously they had none. They lobbied their employers for better working conditions and the union provided a minimal, but essential, form of life insurance.
The different causes and symptoms of poverty were brought home to me during a visit to a number of women's self-help groups in Tamil Nadu. These meetings were harrowing. Many of the women's husbands had turned to drinking a home-made alcoholic brew. In one community, one quarter of the women had lost their menfolk as a result. In a second village, the women spoke of having to find money to pay the dowries for their daughters. One woman said she had to find a motor scooter, television set, household utensils and other items for her daughter's dowry. This led her to borrow money from a local lender - the debt being paid off at approximately 150 per cent interest per year. When I asked how many women were in debt, I was told that this was the wrong question. So I asked how many were not in debt to a moneylender, and not one hand was raised.
In remote rural areas, I met women living with the impact of climate change. They were unable to explain or understand why the rainfall they had known as children had almost ceased to fall. The consequence of this was that they were unable to grow enough food for their families or to access adequate water supplies for their daily needs.
The anniversary of the assassination of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, which was marked during my visit, was an opportunity for people to talk about his legacy and, in particular, his doctrine of non-violence, satyagraha. Visiting speakers like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Sonia Gandhi spoke of the continuing power of his message and of the need to update satyagraha for the twenty-first century.
This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical Populorum Progressio in which Pope Paul VI said that "development is the new name for peace". He recognised that peace is not merely the absence of war but also the existence of justice between nations and people. Gandhi himself said: "Peace will not come out of a clash of arms but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds."
I am struck, after my visit to India, by the convergence of ideas contained in the Church's teaching and Gandhi's. Pope Paul wrote in his encyclical: "The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church, cut to the quick by this cry, asks each and every person to hear his sister and brother's plea and answer it lovingly."
Gandhi famously put a similar thought in this way: "Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to them ... Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."
There is a certain pride at different levels in the fact that India is a nuclear power, but during the celebrations for Republic Day, the Congress Party President, Sonia Gandhi, declared that India was committed to comprehensive nuclear disarmament. She said that India's nuclear weapons programme was necessitated because of strategic compulsion, born out of the failure to persuade the world to abolish nuclear weapons.
As I read these words, I thought of the lack of example we in our own country are giving by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. I think of one of the last notes Mahatma Gandhi left behind before his assassination in 1948: "A free India will throw all her weight in favour of world disarmament and should herself be prepared to give a lead in this."
Gandhi's personal example of courage and non-violence remains as relevant and necessary today as ever, not just in India but throughout the world. And if Gandhi's satyagraha is relevant, so too is Populorum Progressio. Its strength is its prescience in describing the world as it was and as it remains, in such large measure: 850 million people will go to bed hungry tonight; one billion people today lack access to safe drinking water; 10 million children will die this year before their fifth birthday.
If Populorum Progressio were to be rewritten today, I believe it would say broadly the same things and also make reference to the HIV/Aids pandemic which is devastating so much of the developing world. And it would have to mention the continuing oppression of women. In India, as in every developing country I have ever visited, women bear the lion's share of the work carrying water, caring for children and working in the fields.
A new encyclical could not ignore the impact of climate change, with all its uncertainties and questions. In our headlong rush for development over the last 40 years, perhaps the Church has not emphasised enough the integrity of God's Creation. Perhaps a new encyclical would also mention the importance of cultural understanding and interfaith dialogue. I was deeply impressed in India by the ability of people from such wide faith backgrounds to live and work together in harmony.
A new version of Populorum Progressio might also want to rediscover the radical edge and tone of Jesus' teaching. At its heart is a message of selfless love especially for those who are impoverished or marginalised. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to travel to the developing world, but I believe that the Church has a role in helping us to see our world through the eyes of the poorest, to feel the bite of poverty in our own lives, and to help us realise the urgency with which the cry of the poor must be heard.