Poverty is both absolute and relative, and also worth viewing through the lens of history too. This wonderful essay on the current state of India by William Dalrymple in The New Statesman points out the historical nature of poverty:
In the longer view of history, India has only recently come to be seen as a poor country. As early as Roman times there was a dramatic drain of western gold to India; during the reign of Nero, the Pandyan kings even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the latter’s balance of payments problems. A thousand years later it was India’s extraordinary wealth that drew in the merchant adventurers of the East India Company. They came to India not as part of some Tudor aid project, but instead as part of a desperate effort to cash in on the riches of the Mughal empire, then one of the two wealthiest polities in the world. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Mughal city of Lahore is revealed to Adam after the Fall as a future wonder of God’s creation: by the 17th century, Lahore had grown richer than Constantinople, and with its two million inhabitants it dwarfed London and Paris combined. It was, in terms of rapid growth, prosperity and opportunities, the Gurgaon of its day.
What eastern Europeans are to modern Brit­ain – economic migrants in search of a better life – the Jacobeans were to Mughal India. It was only after the arrival of the various colonial powers that India came to be perceived as poor. What is happening today is merely India’s slow return to its natural place at the forefront of the world economy. History is on its side.
In the long run, if India can learn to reform its institutions and clean out its political stables, it should not find it difficult to revert to its rightful and natural place as a rich country and a major power. After all, India’s people thrive wherever else they go in the world. India has the talent; and it has the resources. All it lacks is the political will.
Nice to have the long view. Most current commentary on India seems to take a quarterly view of its prospects. Given the depth of history in the place, that seems at best misguided, at worst myopic.