Sunday, November 16, 2008

Poverty: Take 1

There has been much discussion of poverty in India at our house lately, thanks to George's insightful comment and our recent reading of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. (If you haven't already, please read that book! Adiga is incredible and elegant as he describes, in no uncertain terms, just exactly how horrific life is for the poor in India. The implications for those of us lucky enough to have been born the color we are, in the places we were, and into the relative wealth almost all Americans enjoy are quite serious because ultimately I believe it is our insatiable materialistic culture that is responsible for the poverty of the developing world.)

Chris and I have both been doing our own writing and thinking on the topic and I imagine he'll hold forth here soon. I've started and failed at so many attempts that I'm just going to dive in here and start with George's first question - how do the middle and upper classes deal with poverty in India?

From what I've seen, they don't. Granted, my white skin and the wealth everyone assumes accompanies it skews every interaction I witness, but I have seen just about zero charity-giving interactions between wealthier Indians and the poor. The beggars we see are only in tourist areas and they exclusively approach foreigners. (Japanese and Korean tourists seem to get an especially high amount of attention.) On occasion a sadhu will walk through our neighborhood and that is the only occasion on which I've ever seen an Indian person give another person charity. Today two Muslim men walked down our solidly Hindu street asking for donations and were ignored by everyone, except my husband (we are nothing if not ecumenical). I've been told that people give alms to beggars at temples but beyond that I don't know of anything approaching institutionalized charitable giving the way we know it in the west. George's assumption that poor Indians get more social services for their rupee is somewhat true, but its all dependent on a very corrupt government and its taxation scheme. What exactly those social services are comprised of is important to look at, but that's a discussion that will have to wait for another post.

My supposition is that poverty is much closer for the average middle class Indian than it is for middle class people in the US and as a result there is a deep unwillingness to really confront it. Fear? Denial? Who knows... Full time employment is very hard to find and the better jobs often require the new hires to pay huge fees in order to take the position. Our friend Nisha has been offered some sort of lecturer post at a university here but must first pay 5 Lahks - 500,000 rupees. Some job! She and her husband both have PhDs from one of the most prestigious universities in India, but neither has a full time position. They are only able to afford a 2 room apartment - one room is the (small) kitchen and the other is just marginally bigger than a king size bed and serves every other purpose. They share a bathroom with at least 3 other households.

For people farther down the socio-economic ladder things are much more dire and the grip on a comfortable life is even more tenuous than it is for our friends. The sorts of jobs that the working poor have are almost universally without a contract and any sort of benefits or protections for the worker. With a huge labor pool that keeps on growing employers can and do pay tiny wages and push their workers as far as possible. It was not unusual for our driver to work 7 days a week, 14 or more hours a day as a taxi driver before we hired him. If something should happen to his ability to drive the distance between his life as it is now and total destitution is frighteningly small.

So there seems to be an unwavering focus on the next step up, to the exclusion of those below. To divert any energy or money would potentially endanger one's own well-being and there is simply very little margin for error here.

Overlaying the bare economic facts is the residue of the caste system. (I should note here that my knowledge of caste in India is woefully inadequate. The subject is quite complex and contentious, but worth delving into. Even the Wikipedia page is a miasma, but I encourage you to look all the same.) Too many times I have heard wealthier Indians refer to their employees as "low people" or to beggars, street people, or other very poor people as "dirty". This is offered as some sort of explanation of why those people are as poor as they are, do the work that they have to do, or live the way that they have to live. For example, I have been told that the woman who cleans toilets on the street (but not ours! My one small corner of domestic maintenance is ironically least suitable for a woman of my social standing.) is "contaminated" by the work that she does and there for must not be allowed into any one's home. (The homes all have seem to have a door right near the bathroom so that the "sweeper" (the polite way to say poop-touch-er)will not walk through any other part of the house on her way to the toilet.) Circularly, then, it was explained to me that she must be a sweeper because that is what her family does and therefore she is from a "contaminated" family. So there's a sense of inevitability about it all. The sweepers give birth to sweepers and because the babies are born to sweepers they are destined to be nothing else. Even amongst our employees there is a hierarchy and the women who wash our clothes and clean the house are at the bottom. Again, at each step on the social ladder there is disdain for those below and a dogged determination to look only upward.

Reading this over I see my cynicism and have to admit that the grinding poverty that I see everyday is taking a toll. I don't mean to say that all Indians are selfish and self-promoting to the exclusion of all others, but honestly I see and hear so little to the contrary when it comes to the problem of poverty. It is maddening to try to really grasp the magnitude of the problem and then puzzle out even one small fragment of the solution, and that frustration is amplified in the face of so many people's indifference, if not outright disdain.

The ugly truth is that the middle and upper classes here live parasitically off of the poor. It is very comfortable and pleasant to be taken care of in the way that the upper classes are cared for in this country. But it is only because there are people who must do things like pull a rickshaw for a few dollars a day or clean a toilet for $.20 that the middle and upper classes can live as they do. And it is extremely unpleasant to actually have to admit that you live like royalty at the expense of many many other people. In the US we are shielded from this - we don't see the children making our clothes in sweatshops, we don't see the factory farms or the chemical plants that are responsible for the bounty in our supermarkets, or the ruined people and landscapes that produce all that we consume. Here, those people and places are everywhere. You can't avoid seeing them and passing them every single day. But in India, just as in the US I see exactly the same denial and excuse-making. Somehow it is more repulsive to me when it happens here, in such close proximity to the people the wealthy prey upon, but it is exactly the same phenomena when we buy conventionally farmed produce or sweatshop goods and tell ourselves that its really alright. We just have the luxury of distance to make our denial and excuse so much more convincing.

So, rant over, I guess the short answer is this: The upper and middle classes in India don't seem all that different from those in the US when it comes to dealing with poverty on an immediate, acute level - denial and excuse-making is the norm. The only real difference I see is the social custom of giving to charitable causes and the necessary infrastructure to support that impulse in the US.

I don't mean to condem my neighbors and friends here, nor do I at all mean to say that my dear readers, my family and friends are a pack of do-nothings gleefully living off of the poor - I know you're not. But I've had the blinders ripped off rather painfully here and I have a very difficult time keeping up the act any more. My only hope is that everyone who has read this far (all 2 of you!) will give at least a passing thought to some of the consumption choices you make today and evaluate the real costs of how we're living.

1 comment:

Susannah said...

Dear Maggie,

Thank you so much. I read this the same day I read about the G-20 meeting (they have 90% of the world's GDP, so what does that say about the other countries?)

As my semester ends, I've decided to ask the students about absolute and relative poverty, and your observations will be very helpful. Few Americans ever see what you are seeing, so it is difficult to put "the Eurozone recession" in perspective.

Today we awakened to an unusual event here--a power failure!--by the time I got back from a walk, guess what?--power restored. That's life here, and in much of the rest of the G-20 countries, but there is a world of grinding poverty we rarely see. I'll be wanting to continue to see it through your eyes.

That's it for now, but don't be surprised to see further comments later.

Much Love,