By Mira Kamdar
The groom was Lalit Tanwar, son of a leading New Delhi-based Congress Party politician, Kanwar Singh Tanwar. The bride was Yogita Jaunapuria, daughter of Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria, a former member of the Legislative Assembly. The Indian news media estimated that between 18,000 and 30,000 guests attended the March 2011 wedding, including a Who’s Who of India’s Bollywood stars, leading industrialists, and some senior politicians—up to and including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The groom’s arrival in a new BMW was beamed on giant television screens to the assembled thousands. In addition to their daughter’s hand in marriage, the bride’s family also bestowed on her husband a new Bell 429 helicopter, which sells for upwards of $5 million. The full price tag for the nuptials was estimated variously at between $22 million and $55 million.
It was, according to the groom’s father, “a simple wedding.”
This brazen display of throw-away wealth—from the long list of country cuisines offered to guests, to the gifts of sterling silver coins, cash and clothing—provoked howls of outrage in a country where 40 percent of the world’s malnourished children reside and where runaway inflation has sent food prices soaring. K.V. Thomas, India’s minister of food, recently announced the formation of a panel to consider whether to limit by law the number of people who can be invited to weddings and the number of dishes they can be served. The Congress Party-led government, whose members gleefully indulged in the Tanwar wedding revelry, made fresh calls for more sober public behavior from its members.
In 2006, with India’s economy going into overdrive, Prime Minister Singh made a similar appeal to the country’s newly wealthy, calling on them to tone down conspicuous consumption. His plea was understandably met with derision. After all, then and now, Singh has been known for trumpeting the emergence of India as a consumer society. Under his government’s tenure, the construction of shopping malls and multiplex movie theatres has thundered forward at a breakneck pace. Advertising has boomed in a country that enjoys one of the highest levels of television penetration in the world. Via satellite, hundreds of channels offer a full range of reality and game shows, soap operas and crime series, 24/7 news shows, and market ticker updates in real time—all broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers.
In an economy that will enjoy a growth rate of more than 8 percent in 2011, the spending frenzy is on. India is a country obsessed with social status. Flaunting expensive cars, houses, and clothing has become a way for people to assert their giddy ascendance. The majority of Indians remain poor by any measure, and the wealth gap has grown, not shrunk, in the wake of rapid economic growth. All the more reason, it seems, for those who can to show off what they’ve got—and to do so with abandon.
Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to India, nor is it particularly new. In recent decades, emerging economies the world over have produced wealthy elites whose lifestyles stand in stark contrast to the poverty of those beneath them in the socioeconomic hierarchy. What is different today, however, is that countries like India and China are now home to burgeoning middle classes, eager for a taste of the “good life”—and with the means to purchase a piece of it for themselves. The income gap between haves and have-nots may be growing. But the aspiration gap between the “have-lots” and the “have-somes” is shrinking.
The emergence of Western-style consumer culture in places like India comes just as environmentalists and sustainability advocates, many based in the West, are calling for the adoption of less consumption-driven lifestyles and economies. To judge from the enthusiasm with which many Indians have embraced consumerism, it’s going to be a tough sell.
NOT QUITE CRICKET
Every Indian who now can spend conspicuously, it seems, does—those who can’t be damned. While hundreds of thousands of distressed farmers commit suicide, those who find themselves on the fringes of India’s rapidly expanding cities and who are lucky enough to catch a windfall by selling their land to property developers rush to imitate the billionaire lifestyle. Once-in-a-lifetime fortunes are blown in orgies of spending on Range Rovers, televisions and, predictably, lavish weddings. The New York Times reported in 2010 that low-caste farmers near rapidly expanding Delhi, people who have never traveled by air—indeed, whose entire families have never traveled by air—are plunking down thousands of dollars to deliver their sons to their brides in, yes, helicopters.
Perhaps no one better personifies this cultural moment in India than Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, the biggest private-sector company in the country. Built at a cost of $2 billion, Ambani’s recently completed 27-floor personal residence in Mumbai is, according to Forbes magazine, the world’s most expensive. The 400,000 square-foot home provides shelter for a family of six, which includes Ambani’s mother, wife, and three children in addition to his humble self. It is run by a full-time staff of 600. Several floors house Ambani’s automobile collection. There are three helicopter landing pads.
Like most of India’s richest families these days, the Ambanis own their own cricket team, the Mumbai Indians, led by superstar batsman Sachin Tendulkar. These teams play in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Unlike traditional cricket matches, which can drag on literally for days, IPL contests are shorter, and thus television-friendly—a key innovation. They have become extremely popular, and advertisers bid ferociously for air time.
In this way, cricket lines the pockets and raises the profiles of the very wealthy, while simultaneously fueling the aspirational consumerism of middle class fans. Throughout the games, commercials—frequently built around the star-power of the athletes—peddle everything from cars to soft drinks. One third of India’s 1.2 billion people live without access to any electricity at all, and those who do have access are accustomed to chronic brownouts and blackouts. But cricket games are held in brightly lit stadiums, with television cameras providing coverage to spectators cosseted at home in front of their televisions, air conditioners running at full blast. Thanks to an election promise honored by the local government, nearly every home in the city of Chennai now boasts a color television set. The residents appear to be putting them to good use. Last year, the Times of India reported that the Tamil Nadu Electricity board struggled to meet demand when power consumption jumped by 200 megawatts in Chennai after IPL matches began to be broadcast.
In a country where 800 million people still live on less than a dollar a day, perhaps the clearest and crassest sign of the new materialism is the trend to honor brides, grooms, and politicians celebrating their birthdays with garlands made from folded banknotes. Last year, Mayawati Kumari, a politician of the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste, was honored by her supporters with an enormous garland constructed from thousands of 1,000-rupee notes (the rough equivalent of a $20 dollar bill). India’s tax authorities launched an investigation into the source of the funds used to fabricate the garland, said to be worth $1.2 million. In a supreme irony, each of those banknotes, like all paper currency in India, bore the image of Mahatma Gandhi, whose personal possessions amounted to a few hand- loomed pieces of cloth, a pair of sandals, a walking stick, and a pair of spectacles.
But Gandhi’s voluntary poverty, a moral and political strategy unattractive to most of the country’s elite, also holds little appeal as a lifestyle choice for India’s downtrodden. Mayawati Kumari’s cult of material excess has to be understood in the context of India’s rigid caste system. As chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Kumari is unashamed of the personal fortune she has managed to amass as a servant of the people. Her fellow Dalits traditionally have been social pariahs, segregated from the rest of society and relegated to the lowest tasks. Kumari claims her success is an achievement of which everyone of her caste can be proud, and her electoral popularity vindicates her. Kumari has ordered that thousands of statues of herself and other Dalit leaders be erected across her state, and she has built a lavish shrine to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Columbia University-educated leader of India’s Dalits, who sneered at Gandhi’s dhoti-clad nakedness.
Ambedkar always dressed nattily in a Western suit. On posters, portraits, and statues found all over India, he is shown wearing a blue suit and thick black spectacles. These are signs of his educational attainment and of his hard-won status as a member of the country’s elite. The residents of Dalit villages in rural India where his brightly painted statue presides may themselves live in simple shacks without electricity and may have no other clothing but what is on their backs. Yet they take immense pride in what one of their own achieved, and the material trappings of his success are part of his appeal.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
In 2002, the Indian historian and environmental writer Ramachandra Guha published a paper titled “How Much Should a Person Consume?” It was inspired by an essay, “How Much Should a Country Consume?” published by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958, the same year his book, The Affluent Society, lamented “private affluence and public squalor”—a description that applies as much to India today as it did to mid-20th century America.
Guha contrasts rates of consumption, and their corollary, rates of pollution, in India and in the West, particularly the United States. As an environmental threat, a large population, he observes, is in no sense comparable to over-consumption. Americans famously consume quantities of natural resources far out of proportion to their share of global population. They also produce quantities of greenhouse gases to match their outsized consumption: 19 metric tons of carbon dioxide per American per year, versus 6 metric tons per Frenchman and 1.4 metric tons per Indian.
We all know that the planet cannot bear 1.2 billion Indians, not to mention 1.3 billion Chinese, adopting an American rate of consumption. But there is no braking the aspirations of billions of Indians and Chinese to live a life not only of greater comfort, but of greater pleasure. An air-conditioned BMW is no doubt a more comfortable mode of transportation than a full-to-bursting creaky bus or a bicycle on crowded, ill-paved streets. Voluntary simplicity can only appeal to those who have enough to choose to live with less. For those who live in a one-room shack without electricity because they have no other choice, a simple lifestyle is a life of deprivation. And members of first-generation middle classes in the developing world, finally experiencing the benefits of mass modern consumerism, are unlikely to want to go back to a more modest, austere way of life.
Students of popular culture and marketing executives understand the powerful role that media plays in inciting consumption. There is no denying the pleasure, however fleeting or ultimately unsatisfactory it may be, of consuming artifacts—whether edible, wearable, or otherwise displayable—that confirm one’s belonging to something greater than oneself, especially if one cannot yet do so, or is doing so for the first time. A particular spell is cast on someone who, for the first time, is able to take in a cricket match that millions of others are watching at the same time (including a favorite film or music star sitting in the VIP section), or to wear a pair of stylish jeans that would set one apart as fashionable, even—or especially—in a faraway place called New York. When this consumption conveys the achievement of a lifestyle that is the one chosen by the most powerful, the most beautiful, the richest and the most famous, it is nearly impossible to resist.
The greatest planetary challenge before us, as Guha points out, is how to reduce consumption among those who over-consume while increasing it among those who are forced to under-consume. It’s not sufficient to simply hope that individuals become willing (in the case of the rich) or able (in the case of the poor) to modify their personal choices. Genuine sustainability will require major changes to current national and international policy frameworks that facilitate reckless consumption and accumulation. There are a number of critical priorities we must set to accomplish this global transformation. The first is to restore the common interests of shared resources and spaces. At the same time, democratic processes must be made transparent and accountable to those who are being asked to sacrifice what little they have their land, the minerals under it, or the water that runs through it, all of which are currently being tapped to feed an economic model that is unsustainable and inequitable. As essential as they are, such steps appear highly unlikely.
More intractable still is how to dissociate consumption from pleasure or mass spectacle from the thrilling affirmation of individual display. After a half-century of gorging, some Americans may be ready to reduce their consumption voluntarily, or are being forced to do so by economic circumstance. Hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese who are only now tasting these pleasures, even if only as spectators, are not yet prepared to make such sacrifices. In the developing world, sales of automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioners, packaged food and drink, and, of course, televisions, are skyrocketing. Until a tipping point is reached in the West and citizens revolt en masse against our own consumer-driven economies, an event whose arrival is distant at best, it is hypocritical to expect people in emerging economies to behave any differently.
Mira Kamdar, a member of the World Policy Journal editorial board, is a contributing editor to The Caravan magazine and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).
[Photo-illustration: David Blackwell]