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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 34, August 14, 2010

Poverty Tourism: A New Growth Industry or Pilgrimage for Power!

Sunday 22 August 2010, by Kamal Nayan Kabra


By now it is clear that the real-life experience has removed the ground from under the feet of neo-liberalism. On the one hand the whole world is witness to the fiasco of neo-liberalism at the global level. The stock markets and the corporate bottom-lines are heading towards the same old pre-recession levels while the masses are languishing. Based on massive public money based bailout packages of the financial sector (a process of socialisation of the losses of speculative capital grown too big to be allowed to fall apart but given the licence to make super-normal profits and pocket them in the name of CEO perks and bonuses) that continues to grow without any links with the real sectors (not to speak of the real needs and aspirations of the people at large), the state-supported processes of market economies the world over are intensifying unemployment, deepening the fiscal crisis and jeopardising the future of mankind by its blind pursuit of consumerism. The premature self-congratulations over economic revival based on some pick-up in the growth rates of GDP but without any tangible relief for the retrenched workers have already sounded alarm-bells over the imminent arrival of a bigger crash as everything that went wrong in the past survives with greater ferocity—the cycle of manias, panics and crashes.

Similarly, nearer home, India remains stuck at the 134th rank in the global Human Development Index, inflation is rampant and social exclusion is gathering speed claiming a rising number of people as their victims. Over and above the endemic mass poverty of the people, the process of their further impoverishment as a concomitant of the private corporate sector-led growth is supported by the government giving the corporates fiscal support in various ways (through tax expenditure) amounting to over Rs 5 lakh crores. This is something like over 45 per cent of the total size of the Union Government’s Budget. Compared to this, the paltry sum of Rs 40 thousand crores allocated for the MGREGA tells a story of perverse priorities and psuedo-inclusive growth. Then the continuing inflation for decades has pushed up this year the rural consumer price inflation by about 14 per cent. The denuded purchasing power of the rupee for the last twenty years of neo-liberal policies has transferred about 75 paise of every rupee spent by the rural people to the pockets of the businesspeople whether they are producers or traders. Overlooking these developments the public face of the ruling elite is to oversell the tiny bits of money spent on the programmes for the poor; when converted into per capita terms for the number of intended benficiaries, these thousands of crores of rupees pale into insignificance. Given these programmes the day when poverty becomes history and everyone is assured at least a bare minimum of means of survival looks light years away. Let us, to cut a long story short, make one obvious point: no right to food can be translated into ground level reality unless a minimum of assured real income flows and the regularity of its flow is ensured.

ALL this is a pointed reminder of the vacuity of the hope to soar on the wings of free markets, powered, of course, by a pliant government steeped in crony connections that vitiate even an international event such as the Common- wealth Games. The fact that there was hardly any questioning of such an extravaganza in a country where the bare minimum essential infrastructure for the masses is languishing for over six decades is in itself a sad commentary on the state of the debates and mobilisation over matters of long-term public concern. One can only bow one’s head in shame over the lack of conscience, concern and countervailing action that support such preposterous policies and the regimes that implement them, even though they do so in the name of the country’s journey towards the status of a global power! Nothing could be a more faulted reading of the co-option of India by the G-8 to their exclusive club as a sign of her arrival on the global stage as a reckonable power or participant than the lullaby that it is the growth performance of India, among that of the other emerging economies, that would help rescue the global economy (read the economies of G-8) from the throes of the continuing slowdown. Little wonder that some of the ardent advocates and prestigious practitioners of the neo-liberal brand of economics still find the characterisation of such economics as a dismal science apt.

This brand of dyed-in-the-wool bottom-line directed businesspersons have their political counterparts who, as political entrepreneurs, invest their resources in the pursuit of power. Both are assumed to be as benevolent as were assumed to be the bakers and brewers of Adam Smith: satisfying social needs while pursing their self-interest, pure and simple. In the former case, the name of the game is to entice the consumers’ money, and in the latter, it is the wooing of the votes. Since both are loathe to provide use-values, both resort to gimmicks that cater to created wants and empty rhetoric such as the national prestige to be attained by hosting the Commonwealth Games (the Games in which at least one gold medal is already in our bag—the gold medal of breaking the world record in corruption in such events of international significance), and one is left wondering: are such things effective image-making exercises? As in business no wares can retain the market forever, new brands, new products and new services become the necessity of successful business, it appears that the recent practice of relating to the poor, not by changing the policies that bruise their interests and ignore their needs but by spending some precious time with them, going to the extent of staying overnight with them in their hutments as their guests is a poor substitute for concrete action. One wonders how far can it go even as a public relations exercise. True, the pliant media would make much of it but can it go any further than the hype created by a good film on a Friday evening on the television?

Such spectacles are proving out to be high drama, especially in the States where the dealers and sub-dealers of the family business of Indian politics are ordered to follow in the footsteps of the boss. So you see, the slum streets lined with foam mattresses, pedestal fans, halwais cooking food for the VIP visitors or some of them doing their own cooking. Of course, a good meal in these days of double-digit consumer price inflation does leave a good feeling of satisfied appetite. Surely a lot of interest and curiosity (maybe some rounds of empathy as well, as they come, they see and they disappear until the next order of the boss) is likely to follow in the immediate run before the novelty of the royal visitors wears out. In any case the whole experiment may well be placed in the context of the neo-liberal business paradigm as the parallel is really far-going.

GIVEN the above, who dare say Indian politics and economics are not moving in tandem with each other? The well-established policy level synergy between the corporate sector and state processes and personnel is well known and seen in the form of open lobbying through various policy-level interactions witnessed in seminars and conferences. This is in addition to enriching private business interests, adored as wealth generators, the prime concern of the economic and other public policies. Now as an unintended outcome, a new and growing political process appears likely to make available to the business community—an entirely new and rewarding line of activity—to organise poverty tours by the political class right from the central to the grassroots level. The evolving political processes seem likely to make some brand new opportunities available to the business sector or wings of the political class who would have to move into actual operational fields of business organising tours and night stays in the slums and villages.

Tourism, as one of the leading growth industries, seems poised to get a fillip from the political class creating a distinct possibility of making poverty tourism a political-industrial innovation from which the private industry can directly benefit. This instance of public-private partnership (PPP) in innovations creating new business opportunities is costless in terms of direct R and D outlays by either and with huge externalities. Remember, no patent has been taken for the innovation and in fact the others are teased for not undertaking such yatras. The latter can, in fact, justify the name of pilgrimage (for whose boons one does not have to wait for afterlife) for these jaunts to the rural and slum areas with all the bandobast that the political class would need for spending some time, especially a night, in the household of the Dalits and the poor. Imagine the entire poor family, with women and children sharing the same floor in the same room with the political people, the self-appointed netas or the netas ensuring that ‘proper’ arrangements are made in advance of their visit! It is not the Sudamas visiting their class mates, it is the Lord himself making it to the huts and jhuggis! There seems to be on the horizon a real possibility of a new type of innovative tourism, poverty tourism, making its debut, creating some new and exciting prospects for both business and political class. Before we come to the innovation waiting in the wings, a little diversion regarding various kinds of tourism in liberalised India may well be in order. It is these new brands that make tourism a prosperous growth industry.

Among the recent growth industries in India, tourism, both domestic and international, surely has made its presence felt. One simple indicator would suffice: as against Rs 703 crores in 1990-91 on foreign travel, Indians are spending an impressive sum of Rs 37,173 crores, all in foreign exchange. Similarly the foreigners too are responding enthusiastically to incredible India. Now the foreign exchange earnings from tourism come to a tidy sum of Rs 45,524 crores, garnering more than most of our heavily subsidised and pampered export industries. Domestic travel, hotels and restaurants, along with other travel accessories, are doing a roaring business. Even the primitive pandas are a well-to-do lot today. Surely it is the magic of incredible India. The religious congregations attract the faithfuls in millions and on dozens of occasions. Multifarious contribution of such a heavy tourist and pilgrim influx is simply music to the Indian Government wedded devoutly to growth and globalisation at least from the early 1990s. It is not only our great heritage and uniquely alluring natural endowments but also the incredible way in which the Indian people have responded variously (and even curiously and irksomely) to the tourist influx as also the emergence of India as the new and exciting site for a globalised and still more globalising new site that is making droves of tourists head for India.

New varieties, forms and purposes of tourism, such as medical tourism, sex tourism, have been added to the list of special purpose tourism such as consultancy and development kibitzing tourism, business and technical advisory travels that have been flourishing since the early days of independence. This, what used to be called development tourism, has received a new lease of life ever since the civil society organisations started evincing interest in and some commitment towards the less unfortunate brethren, mostly in the rural areas and urban slums. Quite a related tourism is that involving the civil society NGO sector, where one counts for nothing if frequenting the donor and advisory countries for consultations do not make one a globe-trotter. Given the penchant that we have for pontification, conference and seminar tourism has also been an active ingredient of our open welcoming stance towards people from across the globe, matched of course by similar lure to be with the people for whom you played the host. For the most prominent outcome of such conferences is the agreement about the venue and dates for the next conference.

IN any case, with millions of Indians working abroad, growing FDI and exports, business tourism (where luckily for the company account traveller the expenses are tax deductible and hence involve a hidden public subsidy in the form of taxes foregone or what the Budget documents classify as tax expenditure) is certainly one of the most prominent contributions of uncaging the Indian tiger (as the neo-liberal enthusiasts prefer to describe the change the debt-trap was able to make India ‘voluntarily adopt’. How this tourism gets mixed with the announced and unannounced trips to various tax havens patronised by the Indian black economy operators, mafia dons, political big-wigs whose collections are too unsafe to be hoarded within the country (who would certainly read as Who’s Who of Indian business, politics, celebrities and not-so-celebrated but nonetheless prominent masters of India’s sprawling underworld who have so dramatically cosyed up with the netas of the country). With a great deal of premium on foreign degrees and tough competition that denies entry to most of the scions of the moneybags, it seems an attractive proposition to put aside some little money for replacing capitation fees by expenses to buy a foreign degree (of course with the risk of getting bashed up by the racial thugs in the so-called lands of quality learning and in the bargain give her or him an exposure to the global economy and the prestige of a foreign degree). After all these qualifications the foreign educated young persons are able to obtain attractive returns both in the job and marriage markets, in addition to learning the initial few steps of doing business abroad.

Well, one may not be able to exhaust all the different varieties of tourism indulged in by the jet-set Indians but the point, it is hoped, should come out ringing that a travel bug has bitten the Indian well-to-do. On account of the growing tribe of young corporate executives, with packages running into six or seven digit sums, who are either bachelors or double earner families with no kids, week-end escapades are also a grist to the tourism mill. Even if one leaves out of account the perverse tourist interests (for stashing dirty money abroad in the vaults of the banks guaranteeing anonymity, to tourist centres located around a concentration of casinos, not to speak of paedophiles and other sex-hungry perverts who frequent some places of ill-repute), the fact of a super luxurious lifestyle can hardly be complete without mushrooming tourist centres.

Given the salience of tourism in a country that has discarded for good the retrograde injunction against foreign travel and in keeping with the time-tested tradition of pilgrimage to all the far-flung, remote corners of the country as one of the litmus tests of a meaningful spiritual existence, it is little wonder that a great variety of tourist interests continue to emerge and gain popularity. After all, innovations are the most important factor explaining growth. That is how India Inc. and the privileged contribute to growth, of course for enjoying its bounties. Did not Schumpeter say that innovations include new products, new markets and new ways of doing business! Similar is the relevance of innovations for further growth, value addition and diversification of tourism. Ever new places of tourist interest are being developed and newer facilities and conveniences are being offered; newer forms and purposes of tours are being placed on the menu, of course with a lot many value addition services and devices.

What seems to be going unnoticed in the real world are some straws in the wind indicating the real solid prospect of there emerging a brand new species of tourism. Let’s tentatively call it poverty tourism. Let it be clarified at the outset. Poverty tourism is not a new fangled scheme of giving the poor the possibilities even on a selective, discretionary basis, as is the case with so many ‘benefits’ offered to them—everything on a discretionary basis—by the mai baaps and nothing as a guaranteed right as a full-fledged, empowered citizen, to undertake frequent and expense paid tours of various places of interest for recreation, enlightenment or any other purpose, except, of course, as indentured labour when some big ‘development’ projects have to be undertaken in places that may have a tourist angle. Well, poverty tourism may not be an entirely new phenomenon involving the poor as what is either ongoing or a new-fangled affair that can be completed without the poor being involved in one form or another. After all, does not every form of tourism have some implications for the poor? The idea about poverty tourism that seems to be making its debut, at least in some vague form, may be explored for whatever it is worth. It is not that the poor are turned into tourists occasionally at least. The emerging idea seems to be to make the poor a tourist destination and not just in pictures, posters and films, such as Do Bigha Zamin, Slumdog or the classics of Satyajit Ray but something one spends a night with!

ON a broader view, poverty has been for long a boon to the non-poor in many different ways. Right from offering unending opportunities for doing philanthropy, good for both the present life and the life beyond of the philanthroper, even in the sphere of strict economic activities it would take volumes to detail the contribution the poor are made to make in thousand and one ways to the prosperity and prestige of the small minority of the non-poor and super rich. Then, poverty is a sound, fast growing and prestigious academic business, both in the countries where poverty is concentrated in some of the most extreme and virulent forms and show little prospects of subsiding irrespective of the Millennium Development Goals, UN Development Decades, Five Year Plans, promises of making poverty history, the glorious experience of the USSR and various other big and sundry revolutions across time, space and ideologies. In one simple proposition one may well sum up the entire contribution of the poor masses throughout history: without there being a massive army of the poor and its growing size, deepening depths and lows, it is difficult to imagine how there could have been such a gigantic growth of wealth in the hands of a few. At least the history of the world to this day has shown no mechanism for increasing wealth without the sweat, blood and tears of the people who are rendered poor, be they slaves, serfs, toiling millions spread across time and space with a common unifying trait: it is the poor who work and others prosper.

True, the world has the benefit of many principles, ideas, programmes, moral mantras and so on for redoing the social architecture of human societies; but the deeply entrenched interests of a few privileged and powerful to do good to the poor and earn the glory of being the benefactors of the poor outsmarts them all. After all, those who want to wipe the tears from every eye cannot meet their agenda or mission unless they are able to ensure a steady supply of the eyes full of tears. Hence the success of these anti-poverty crusaders who keep their mission alive while giving the slogan of making poverty history by their inclusive growth. On the other hand, the world has seen many utopias or sound principles that can turn the wheel of history to eliminate the distinction between the rich and poor and make everyone a common participant in the current civilisation and past heritage. But the preconditions for organising the forces and processes for such big leaps are sadly not even adequately articulated. The agenda of social research, thinking, grassroot action and macro-societal mobilisation has to reset its priorities and tasks. But unfortunately they have not been able to catch up with these do-gooders who arrive at novelties such as poverty tourism to forge new links with the poor.

Hence it is understandable why and how, as things stand now, we are far from such a process of social transformation that eliminates the avoidable divisions and distinctions and makes a genuine attempt towards beginning some inclusion-causing, discrimination and deprivation-ending processes that can enable the poor themselves to undertake the tasks they deem right and desirable and exercise their formal freedoms in somewhat substantive ways. But that line of reasoning would take us away from the theme of poverty tourism that seems to be silently and somewhat imperceptibly making its faint knocks on our doors. As things are in these days of ascendent neo-liberal philosophy when each one is for oneself and let the devil take the hindmost, even proper empathy for the rest of us, actually ‘othered’ by the dominant lifestyles and values is a rare commodity, more of posture than a matter of effective and operational policies. But being strong on postures gives immense satisfaction and prestige to those capable of organising such help, especially if one happens to be in the business of one-upmanship vis-a-vis the rest who are either occupying or competing for more political space. These are the days of the rhetoric of the common man and inclusive growth, of course, as is consistent with the freedom of enterprise of the wealth generators. But the message that is sought to be put across is, though not new, and indeed came out in bold relief with the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (ironically the poverty has intensified and multiplied many fold since then) that simply the pro-poor policies and programmes, whatever their real content, are not enough. In fact, effective real policies for the purpose have always been in short supply. Hence you have to relate to them directly and personally.

HOW do you do that? The poor are in villages, in cities, in and around the five-star luxuries, both public and private, where our business classes and the political class live and serve the people. They have so cocooned themselves that except as crowds at the mass rallies and election meetings (often arranged and organised by the managers who are given contracts with well defined quotas for collecting the crowds) they have lost touch with the lives of the common citizen. Even their doctored data and the bland aggregates give hardly a glimpse of the conditions in which the poor live and subsist. On top of the pubic funds (whether from the government coffers or party account or on account of the hidden secret collections made or extracted from the business classes and promotion and good, wet postings-seeking bureaucrats) financed ivory tower existence, the elaborate security rings around the threatened leaders make the ‘quality’ time spent with the ordinary lives of the ordinary people a matter of some romantic, exhilarating and, of course, richly rewarding experience. The fact that all this happens under a lot of publicity and media glare perhaps adds to the thrill and image-making exercise.

It is a long time since any social cost-benefit analysis of such uses of public funds and public time and energies of the leaders has been undertaken by anyone. In fact, cost-benefit analysis from a social perspective is missing even from the basic plan and policy decisions under the market and globalisation dispensation ruling the roost these days. Such encounters with poverty, not chance ones but systematically organised ones, like a trip to a distant and well-known tourist spot must be immensely educative and energising, giving some ideas about how to go about bringing some light into these dark, dingy corners called huts and houses where the majority of the poor have to eke out a living. Such overnight stays may well enable the ones born with a silver spoon in their mouth to know how poverty pinches, troubles and torments. Seeing and experiencing a small slice of it may well bring to their minds the stark contrast with their own lives and it may dawn on the tourist trying to experience first hand the woes of the poor why is it that the poor of the country vote them to enjoy and savour. If one were endowed with either the sociological imagination of the variety Wright Mill talked about or the empathy of the kind Gandhi had, one would realise the opportunity cost of the travel, security and other ordinary expenses the public exchequer incurs to enable the leaders to serve the people. Austerity is no small or big personal virtue in a country such as India; it is a matter of deep social commitment and utter economic necessity if poverty is understood and treated in manner that is more than one of the several elements of political management for manufacturing and marketing leaders.
Thus one can see that in our competitive politics, poverty tourism has fairly reasonable chances of making a beginning. After all, why is it that one person is asked: why are these trips made when nobody asks the other thousands of worthies, some of them have forgotten their origins and their vote-banks in terms of live direct and personal contact with them, why is it that they never like to relate to their constituents, an overwhelming majority of whom are poor, except for the superficial contact during the whirlwind tours they are forced to make during the phase of election campaign? Now that the gauntlet has been thrown, it is likely to be picked up by some. Even though their own personal wealth, initial at the time of filing nominations and more particularly for those contesting second and subsequent times (for a worthy from Rajasathan his wealth had a surge of about 17 times during the last five years he was in the Lok Sabha, making politics one of the most lucrative occupations) is generally immensely incomparable with the paltry possessions of her or his constituents, the demonstration effect of someone getting rich dividends these trips to poor households may start a spiral and many villages and the poor households may have the fortune of hosting these leaders and becoming third page celebrities the way Kalavati has become. So it seems an accidental innovation in tourism, a real serendipity, has emerged in the form of poverty tourism.

HOW would poverty tourism shape up and how far would it go and with what results? These are yet to be seen but given the paucity of workable new ideas in our politics, the chances of this kind of tourism picking up do not seem to be too dim. Its spread effects and backwash effects too need an examination but it is difficult to visualise any direct and personal loss to the person picked up for such a visit! Hence at least such tourism passes the test of Pareto optimality. Yes as a class or a member of a local small community, and on a long term basis there may not be anything worthwhile to come out of these tours for the persons so visited but then why should the others carry the battle for the poor when they are so easily taken in by such symbolic gestures and well-orchestrated postures? What one has also to appreciate is that these tours are a kind of substitute for the silent and personal level study tours that can possibly help suggest at least some broad contours of interventions in certain specific policies and programmes and help organise grassroots mobilisation against the predatory forces. That can be some solid outcome coming out of the experience gained by a pale substitute for what the sociologists call participant observation. But for such visits for finding out what is to be done and how so that even of the present flower-pot programmes for the poor over 80 per cent is not allowed to be siphoned off by the bureaucracy-politico-contractor combine, one has to shun the fanfare of concurrent media attention. Such visits and studies were conducted in the past by many leaders and with certain identifiable outcomes in terms of policies and a surge of genuine empathy. Possibly the current practice of there emerging poverty tourism is akin to the kind of Bharat padayatra (pun in the word pad may well be recognised) that failed to pick up as a widespread practice among the aspiring members of the political class.

Let us come back to political tourism in the current phase of Indian politics. Is it tourism or pilgrimage? Is it undertaken for atoning for the past sins of commission and the present sins of omission regarding effective, people-empowering, anti-poverty policies that have operated all these years but with little or any positive outcome at the general level in the sense of making any dent in the extent and depth of poverty? Can these tours pay political Punya Prasad? Would such tourism give rise to a new kind of political practice of competitive reaching out?

Curious are the ways of business and so are the ways of politics. One has to innovate with some real, solid stuff that can end the hegemony of the present breed of the political class; until then more and more of innovations like poverty tourism and later its other lineal descendents. The poor have to survive in order to provide so many noble and novel preoccupations and opportunities for becoming good guys and hence the intrinsic value of poverty tourism. Did not Cicero say, if you cannot give people the food they need, at least give them circus? Well, with a politician spending time with a village family and having supper with it, even though the guest may be well-meaning and really trying to forge bonds of solidarity and shared destiny, the whole village would have great excitement and fun no tented circus can ever provide, delivered right inside your home. And would not people continue talking about it till the cows come home? It may well become a reference point as people would recall the year when such and such big neta came to their village and had supper with them. Is it not a kind of situation where the page-three people make a personal appearance in their huts! A real good democratic practice and solid business, both politically and economically. All the elements of a good and lasting innovation indeed.

If it yields some political dividend, making people forget past neglect and continued discrimination and vote accordingly, such political tourism would be a virtual pilgrimage and the pilgrim’s progress would end up with the Maha Prasadam.

A prominent economist, Dr Kabra is a former Professor (now retired), Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi.

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