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As we weave through early-morning Delhi traffic on his motorbike, Ravi Gulati gets into a riff about status symbols in India, how from Armani jeans to Audis they are almost all Western, and how his car, a cheap and practical Maruti van that seats eight but won’t win any beauty contests, is a source of derision every time he pulls up at a five-star hotel for some lavish weeklong wedding (although he tries to avoid these occasions) that has cost more than is imaginable to a poor Indian.
Gulati, a mild-mannered man in his early 40s, was on the fast track to fortune, an MBA student at a top school, the Indian Institute of Management, when a course he took on Indian agriculture taught by a professor who had walked, like Gandhi, from village to village got him thinking that his country had lost the plot and that an elite gobbling up new condos for $3 million or more had grown blind to the fact that trickle-down was a downright myth. A booming India of rising middle-class fortunes had parted company with a bigger one still mired in distress, and without any real debate India, like much of the world, had embraced Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” as a prevailing idea.
Nowhere is inequality—what President Obama this month called “the defining challenge of our time”—more in your face than in India. Brand-filled shopping malls spread. So do shanties. A rich man builds a 27-storey house for his family in a nation of 1.2 billion people where more than a quarter of them—or roughly the US population—lives on less than two bucks a day. Outdoor defecation is still widespread. Yet when
Gulati, a social activist engaged in teaching poor Delhi kids through a non-governmental organisation called Manzil, tries to interest his peers in the subject of inequality, he tends to find the conversation goes nowhere, drowned by talk of some juicy real-estate deal for farmland south of Delhi, the latest Bollywood hot item numbers, or the Silicon-Valley success story of yet another Indian immigrant.
“We are giving aid to America.