Boycott Snapchat: India is Poor, Just That We Don’t Want to See It

Most Indians view poverty through a distant lens — to be viewed as a ‘problem’ to be solved, but not to be owned. 

'A storm in a teacup.’

If an average Indian were to Snapchat the current controversy around Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel’s alleged comment about India being a ‘poor country’, it would be a baffled selfie with this caption. And a dog filter, maybe.

Assuming Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel called India a ‘poor country’, did he really say something that is way off the mark? While Spiegel’s comment might be inappropriate and in bad taste, the fact that India is a ‘poor country’ and fares rather badly on comparative developmental indicators is not the blasphemous statement it was made out to be.

In fact, it’s largely true.

Take any parameter – per capita income, human development index, levels of malnutrition and illiteracy – we are close to the bottom among countries worldwide.

India ranks 150th worldwide on per capita Gross National Income (World Bank figures) and ranks 67th out of 80 countries on the Global Hunger Index. On the Human Development Index, India ranks 131st, behind Iraq, Namibia and the State of Palestine. These are certainly not the kind of numbers we should be proud of. Then why are we so offended? 

1. How Much Money Does Every Indian Have?

The per capita income in India, calculated as purchasing power parity comes to 6,030 dollars. Effectively, per capita income indicates the average income of an Indian (taken after dividing the gross national income by the total population).

According to World Bank figures, India ranks 150th worldwide, behind Congo, Uzbekistan and Angola. Within South Asia, Sri Lanka fares better than India, with a per capita of 11,500 dollars. By comparison, the income per capita in United States is 57,540 dollars.

Here’s a comparative chart of gross national incomes in South Asia.

Create column charts

(Source: World Bank)

2. Where Are The ‘Poor’ People? Poverty Line in India

According to 2011 figures, 21.9% of people in India live below the poverty line in India. In a comparative analysis within South Asia, India is behind Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Create column charts

(Source: World Bank, Global Poverty Working Group)

3. Life Expectancy in India

(Source: World Bank Data, derived from United Nations Population Division, Census reports and other statistical publications from national statistical offices and United Nations Statistical Division)

4. How Many Adults Are Literate in India?

‘How Dare You Call Me Poor?’

Clearly, the problem isn’t that India has been unfairly labelled as a ‘poor country’.

It is not far-fetched to presume that people calling for #BoycottSnapchat are aware that India is a developing country battling poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy.

Instead, the issue is that most Indians view poverty through a distant lens – to be viewed as a ‘problem’ to be solved, but not to be owned.

Indians on social media berating Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel believe ‘their’ India is not poor; after all, isn’t Starbucks and plush AC offices a part of their life, just like other young people in New York or London? Viewed from this vantage point, it seems ridiculous that they would be called “poor”. And in today’s hyper-nationalist times, this ridicule has been conflated with a national pride. A national pride so fragile that it is easily bruised by an isolated comment, without consideration for context or nuance. 

On the other hand, it is easy to be selectively blind to poverty in India. It is a society which is heavily stratified by class-lines (apart from caste, religion and language), with a spectrum of home grown billionaires, a middle class in flux and grinding poverty.

We should all be agitated.

But our shouldn’t our anger be aimed at eradicating poverty and reducing burgeoning gap between the haves and have-nots? Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel should be criticised for the inappropriateness of his purported remark, and not on any substantive issue. Fair enough?

(Statistics source: World Bank, Human Development Index)