‘Wax’ing poetic

23 May

“India has a growing middle class estimated at 300 million people.” Emily Wax

300 million is an astounding figure and just a shade below the US population. If indeed India has a “growing” middle class that is 300 million strong, then the US and the rest of the world better take notice. There is just a small problem – the figure is almost entirely meaningless.

The middle class is a phenomenally slippery concept. The term was initially used to refer to the urban bourgeoisie. In its modern avatar, it was meant to refer to people who could afford certain amenities. As amenities have become the norm in the West, calls have been made to redefine the term again. The term itself though has a lot of emotional cache and almost 90% of the people in the US, according to a survey in 1992, thought themselves as middle class. Statistically, we can define “middle class” as the class of income earners that is within one Standard Deviation of the mean. But for a country like India where the mean wage is less than $2/day, the statistical definition as above would be thoroughly bankrupt.

Main Course: Pass me the knife, please

Let’s briefly analyze Wax’s claim about the numbers in Indian middle class. According to World Bank, India’s GDP was $796 billion in 2006. Assuming that all economic activity was produced by the 300 million (about 1/4th of the real population) and the gains spread equally among them, Gross Income Per Person would be $796,000/300 = $2600/year or $7/day. All hail this “middle class”.

It is fashionable to use terms like “middle class” and then attach numbers like 300 million but both the term and the number are grossly inaccurate.

Newspaper Gestalt

Over years, stories on the economic miracle in China and India have become de rigeur in newspapers. The stories are uniformly bankrupt for they fail to get even the basic figures right and put things in proper perspective.

A new foreign correspondent to India, like Wax, is expected to file in his/her share of these formulaic stories along with the expected special report on the heartrending poverty in rural China and India.

There is little hope that we will ever have better coverage or even that different topics will be covered, except the occasional Shilpa Shetty-Gere kiss induced frenzy, given that most foreign press reporters go to other countries with doltish prior hypotheses, look for confirmation, confirm them, and sigh with relief and move on to their next story. The whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that the tour of duties for journalists have shrunk.