Old injustices in new India

Posted: January 08, 2013

By William Pesek

India's much-hyped modernity isn't looking so modern in the wake of the horrific gang rape and murder of a New Delhi woman. All the gleaming skyscrapers, software campuses, and Bollywood gloss in the world can't hide shameful aspects of old India. If India is to thrive, 2013 must be the year of justice.

The immediate focus is on the six men accused of torturing a medical student so sadistically that they destroyed her internal organs. Issues of women's rights, safety, and respect have seldom been the stuff of headlines in the world's biggest democracy.

But the rape cast a spotlight on something well-known to India watchers, though given little heed globally: how badly India often treats its women and how it tolerates sexual harassment. Misogynistic comments from a variety of officials, suggesting the victim may have encouraged the attack by her dress and mannerisms, don't help.

Antipathy toward women begins in the womb. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortion, driven by a societal preference for boys, make it a challenge for girls even to enter the world. And a recent UNICEF report found that 57 percent of Indian males ages 15 to 19 think wife-beating is acceptable.

India has had its share of female leaders. In everyday life, though, women are subordinate. Often, they are seen as human only if a man validates them.

Take the chilling tale of a Punjabi teenager raped a month before the New Delhi attack. She was humiliated by police, who tried to pressure her into marrying one of her rapists. Last month, she committed suicide by drinking poison. That might not have happened if punishment for rapists were certain, severe, and rapid, and if there weren't bias against victims.

India is no doubt grating at the media scrutiny from overseas, but some good may come from it. Thanks to complacency, India could soon be the first BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economy to lose its investment-grade credit rating. And it desperately needs more domestic investment to propel growth above the current 5.3 percent pace.

Outsiders encourage developing nations and cities to increase their attractiveness to investors, bankers, and foreign talent. Attention normally focuses on roads and power grids, housing, education, pollution, and legal certainty. In India's case, add rape to that list.

The other big justice issue for 2013 is economics. One of the giants of India's economic revolution, Ratan Tata, is stepping down as head of Tata Sons after two decades at the helm. He built the business into a $100 billion global conglomerate in ways that demonstrate why some bet India will be a more successful economy than China in 20 years. Yet Tata's departure coincides with the end of another era: the easy years of globalization and the growth it brought.

Gone are the days when India could get by on pockets of success in software and industry. Rising stars such as Indonesia and the Philippines are waiting behind China to grab market share. Policy drift in New Delhi and little progress in ending corruption get much of the blame. India wants to boost growth to 8 or 9 percent, but what's the point if graft concentrates its benefits among the elite?

The act of unspeakable violence in New Delhi has sparked protests. But their tenor has broadened, at times taking on the Arab Spring-like quality of the protests led in 2011 by anticorruption activist Anna Hazare. It is telling that so many young, urban men are among the aggrieved. That is a nod to the important role that gender equality plays in eradicating poverty. But these demonstrations are also shaking the conscience of middle-class Indians who sense their leaders have lost their way.

The government's tone-deaf response initially fueled the outrage. Rather than engage the masses, authorities clashed with them and appeared more interested in cordoning off the city's political center. Not a great report card for the India envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. He can be reached at wpesek@bloomberg.net.

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