The new caste equation

Poverty is ‘in’, if one were to put it crudely, though it sounds a lot more decent when compared to terms like poverty porn and slum tourism. Politicians are trying to woo the new vote bank, TV panelists are shouting themselves hoarse over it and newspapers are running random surveys on the rich-poor divide.

As a vote bank, the poor form a sizeable chunk and it is ever increasing in size – larger than the caste and community based ones. This is because poverty has no caste or community and exploiters are there in every one with their own agendas. The present time of demonetisation is a case in point. Suddenly those who have kept them poor all along are shedding copious tears at their plight, their eyes firmly on the polls. Needless to say, they are in no hurry to do anything about it, except to bring down the figures by a jugglery of numbers to show the world. As the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, the rich-poor divide is widening at an alarming rate, with little hope of the chasm ever being bridged or even narrowed.

So what is new about all this?

The disturbing pattern that is emerging – that is what is new. One does not have to be a sociologist or social scientist to see it — the mutual distrust and contempt between those at either end of the social spectrum. I read an interesting article on the impact of this divide on the health of both the segments. One line in particular caught my attention because it was in line with what I have been observing.

“For the poor, more inequality means more anger at what they don’t have and more cognitive load from the worry about how to keep up….For the wealthy, it’s more fear about the menace of the have-nots and more effort put into walling themselves off from them…..”

‘Walling themselves’ is an apt phrase because it is all about insulating oneself from the poor. We need their services, make no mistake, but we are careful to keep them in their places because we can’t allow them to lord it over us. God forbid! And so, in our effort to prove who is boss, we pride ourselves on our benevolence, giving them food, clothes and money. In the process, we do in micro form what the government does on a larger scale – give freebies and expect their unflinching drudgery in return. Like the Dalits of yore who were banished to the outskirts of the village, the poor are banished to slum clusters and so long as their dwellings (slums) are out of sight, and not spoiling the landscape, it is fine with us.

According to a survey conducted by the TOI, not just the politicians who want the slums for their votebank, but even the urban middle and upper middle class want them for the cheap labour they provide. The poor themselves are loath to relinquish their miserable dwellings, because of the freebies they get and for the lack of any viable means to pull themselves out of them. Government after successive government promises them better living conditions while regularising these shanties, well aware that they are helping in the proliferation of land mafia, crime and squalor inside them. (Read post here)

I would go as far as to say that social status has spawned a new caste system where the four Ps – Power, Popularity, Political clout and Paisa, measure one’s worth. Needless to say, the poor are at the bottom of this new system. It is not just two castes, either. Depending upon whether you have all the four/three/two/one Ps, your social status is determined. Your address, the size and number of your house/car, the brands you wear, your ‘culture’– all are parameters of this caste system.

It sounds good to say, ‘My driver is a post-graduate,’ but he is still not good enough to get a seat in the drawing room. For after all, isn’t he a mere driver?  Conversely, if the driver happens to own a fleet of cars, he would be accorded the respect that is due to a man of ‘worth,’ no matter if he is unlettered. Gone are the days when education was the measure of one’s social standing. Today even it is joining the four Ps in determining the ‘caste’ of a person, as when one flaunts a degree from a foreign University or one of the elite business schools in the country to claim the ‘upper caste’ berth.

It is not as if the poor love being poor. Despite slum tourism and poverty porn, they hate the miserable existence they are forced to lead and their diminished status in society. The younger generation especially is getting exposed to the glitz and glamour of high living. They want it all in a hurry and are consumed by jealousy and rage at those they think have it all. They illogically hold those who are better off than them responsible for their state, and take the freebies and concessions as their right.

At the other end of the spectrum, the taxpayers (haves) resent the fact that their hard earned money is funding the freebies the poor enjoy, holding them in contempt. Hence they feel justified in exploiting those in the lowest level of the social spectrum and try to indirectly recover some of the money spent on them.

Education can somewhat reduce the harsh lines of this new divide of course, but given the fact that it is a long haul to a respectable life through the acquisition of academic qualifications, the drop-out rates are high.

‘Who stops them from getting an education? Everything is free for them, including midday meals’ So why do they drop out?’ the ‘upper castes’ protest. Oh, they are there everywhere; why, there are even closet upper caste people, whose prejudices surface at unexpected times.

However, those who advance this argument have never seen a government school, leave alone entered one. ‘I would never step into one,’ shudders one woman contemptuously when I put the question to her. ‘Really? Then how do you expect the poor to study there? Because they are poor?’ I couldn’t help asking. ‘Who asked them to have so many children? What do you want? That I should fund their lifestyle?’ she shot back contemptuously.

Look at it from the point of view of the poor children: Who would want to go to a government school that is often run down and seedy, and where the teachers come at their convenience — when the children of the apartment block near their slum go to a posh school? Children in rural India might not go through these pangs as they have nothing better to compare their pathetic schools with.

This is not an indictment of all government schools. There are many states, which have good government schools, which even if they lack state-of-art infrastructure, are still giving tough competition to private schools and are even sought after, as in Chandigarh.

Given the above, the logical thing would have been to increase the number of government schools and provide good infrastructure and facilities to the students. Instead, in a clearly shortsighted and populist move, the government came out with the much hyped RTE (Right to Education) a few years ago, which was doomed to fail before it even took off. Here too the new caste system worked against the poor. Of course parents like the lady mentioned above, wouldn’t want their Sunnys and Buntys rubbing shoulders with kids from the slums, so what if they are keen to learn and are intelligent to boot? But looking at it from the other side, how could the underprivileged children come to terms things like watching their classmates whizzing past in AC school buses — while being dropped to school by their father on his ancient bicycle; school trips abroad and snacks in the swanky school canteens, not to speak of sporting the latest iphones and ipads and more? Or for that matter, interact with a classmate in whose house his mother worked as a maid? For, in addition to other social ills, there is also no dignity of labour in our country.

This new caste system is not going to be done away with, anytime soon since the parameters that determine it are not likely to change in the near future. It makes me even more helpless to see the poor losing the little dignity they possess by accepting the freebies and becoming the puppets in the hands of the holders of the four Ps, while continuing to wallow at the bottom of the ladder.

We are a developing nation at one level with living standards having risen dramatically, but also a country that among the poorest countries at the other level. Is it too hard to look at it objectively and try to correct the imbalance? Prof. Amartya Sen and Jean Derez have exhaustively discussed the issues pertaining to this in this article. (Link) Education is one of the things they are looking at, as being vital in rectifying the imbalance.

In addition to educating them, their rage and anger need to be channeled constructively to prevent them from falling into the hands of unscrupulous criminals and terrorists.  The sobering thought is that, no matter what anyone including you or me says, poverty not just dehumanizes, but also erodes the self-respect of the poor. They are our fellow human beings, not just service-providers and vote banks. Don’t they deserve a decent chance to come out of their poverty?

It is also about time to create new jobs by coming up with industries and services that would give decent livelihood to those living in such conditions. Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour will dramatically increase the standard of living of the poor, while also increasing the GDP of  the country and consequently its stature in world economy.

It is high time that sops that are aimed to keep them poor are stopped and proper measures put in place to help them lead dignified lives. It might cause disgruntlement for a time before they realise that things are improving. After all nothing comes for free and anything free comes with strings attached and at worst, is alms. I am sure that they have many among them who will say as they did in old Hindi films, ‘Hum garib hain magar bhikari nahin’ (We are poor but not beggars). And of course, a miracle happens and our politicians are struck by conscience at the inhuman way they are exploiting them.

Homepage image courtesy:www.outlookindia.com

34 comments

  1. Another thing I feel Zephyr is (and I think you allude to that in your article here) that most middle class Indians don’t understand that this intense poverty is not just “their problem”. We are not islands. What affects one affects another. Extreme poverty holds back the development of our nation as a whole, which means even we (the middle class to rich) are also missing out on numerous opportunities that a developed nation can offer it’s citizens. This is why we must reach out and try to make whatever difference we can, within our means. Philanthropy (not in the form of freebies but in the form of genuine help – helping someone get educated and find a job) is not only noble, it’s good for our communities and it’s good for our economy, and we will ALL reap the benefits of doing good, not just the receivers, but the givers too.

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    1. Ah, I love that explanation of true philanthropy. For most of us, it means charity, which is good as a social obligation, but counterproductive when it comes to empowering. The receivers just get used to receiving all the time and sometimes become demanding too! The problem with our mindset is that we don’t look at the larger picture or look at things with a long term perspective. So we fail to appreciate that unless everyone comes up in life, we will never realise our full potential. Sadly, it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime too soon 😦

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  2. I just read this post of yours. As promised:)
    Yes, it is horrible how our government uses poor people as vote banks. It is to their advantage to keep them in ignorance and to fuel their anger.
    2 things that may alleviate this divide are 1)practical education (skill based, trade based), and 2) the organized and facilitated growth of the manufacturing and service industries (tourism, hospitality, departmental stores, fast food/restaurants, vacations, entertainment). I say “facilitated” because the government must make a conscious effort to structure the growth in a way that it leads to real job creation. But why would our government do this, because they are selfish and corrupt, and don’t care about our long term growth, only the short term benefits they can reap? So, they will continue to focus on staying in power and the associated gimmicks needed.
    So, I’m not really sure how we will ever close this gap and become a truly developed nation with a decent standard of living for everyone (or at least for a substantial majority of the citizens).

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    1. Thanks for reading the post, Priya! We have so many contradictory forces that push and pull good intentions and don’t let it come through. For instance, everyone and their granddad knows that industries, both manufacturing and service — generate employment. But how easy is it to start one? So many roadblocks, so many activists fighting to stop this or that project, so many bribes to be paid and opposition to be fought. By the time it come up if at all, it has become so costly so as to be ineffective. It is easier for the politicians to give out sops and freebies and come to/retain power. And our poor have got so spoilt too that they would rather have freebies than work for their betterment.

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  3. I remember how the jaw of a British friend dropped when I told him that we have a maid, a person who cleans our car, a person who iron our clothes etc etc. I told him that all these are gifts of poverty, something everyone except the poor hate to get rid of. It has its own perks. It is not going anywhere. In fact it is getting worse.

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    1. How beautifully you have put it all, Amit! ‘Gifts of poverty’ is a sad term, isn’t it? It makes me cringe to see the way some of these servants and maids are treated and the unconcealaed hate in their eyes.

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  4. So true. I see more divide now than earlier. Growing up in a township meant that there were no classes as such except those in the senior positions. But over the years have seen the divide between the haves and the have nots. And more so after coming to Bahrain. There are people wjo will go far from you just because you live in a simple home. Their narrow mentality does not allow them to think that people may live simply because they want to. Used to hurt a lot ot earlier but now I understand that those who think like that do not deserve my friendship :P.
    On the other hand Krishna said in the Bhagvad Gita ‘Chatur varna maya shrishta, guna karma vibhagasaha’ meaning that the caste system was not hereditary but was based on the guna and karma. Meaning that a doctor’s son could become a cobbler if he so wished. The prime concern was that each according to his talent earned his livelihood and yet achieved self realization.

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    1. If you are seeing the divide wideni ng what about me? I still remember the good old days when rank did no matter in society — an officer in a bank would rub shoulders with a peon in an office during social functions. The salaries were not so disparate and there were less number of BPL too. We had less, but were happy. And oh, being simple and living humbly was never more difficult than the present times 😀 I fully understand how you must be facing up to it. I have not discussed the caste system in its conventional sense but even that has been distorted out of context by vested interests in the last millennium.

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  5. The world has been and will remain divided between the haves and the Have nots

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    1. That is true, but the antagonism, aggression and contempt for each other is a recent phenomenon. And this is what the social scientists should be worrying and doing something about before it blows up in our faces.

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  6. we have to change our mindsets and bring back values and then education is the only solution..poors are poors for so many reasons and some are contributed by them also…

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    1. Education sadly does not open up our minds, but it will certainly pull the poor out of the pits they are sinking into by giving them some dignity. Of course, the poor are many times responsible for their plight, as Grond has pointed out in his comment.

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  7. Every new post of Zephyr finds itself in my Pocket list before I even read a word. Reason – Simple, I need to be able to read the post with a certain lack of regard towards the time it will take, not always possible immediately. Hence, bookmark.

    Two meme-grown words I’ll introduce here: Circlejerk & Slacktivism. You might have heard of either of them, maybe both.

    Circlejerk is a word with very profane etymologies that has since come to define a group with a positive feedback loop. The group, based upon the feedback of ‘we’re awesome’ to the detriment of objectivity and consciuously avoiding any external or antithetical opinion, creates a belief structure about itself and closes itself from everyone else. What we are seeing – which you have defined to a part – are two major and dangerous circlejerks – the haves and the have-nots. The haves are a strong circlejerk for sure – they refuse to listen to anyone but themselves. The have-nots, perhaps, are in a negative spiral loop – they curse their positions to each other, and get swayed by the ideas that the 4Ps indulge them with. Is that a circlejerk – in terms of being a closed loop, sure.

    Slacktivism has gained prominence since the maddening growth of social media. The need to do something without spending any effort at all except clicking a mouse key. On one hand, the younger generation in the haves has a clear idea of the inequity prevalent in society today, not many are actually doing something to remove it. Yeah, they’ll like a post that says “Stop Child Labour. Send the kids to School Now!!!!!”, but won’t act on it, by sending their chaiwalla’s delivery boy to school and getting him out of his nearly slave-like existence. It’s hypocrisy at its ugliest. So, the guy will like a facebook post, share a feed, RT a tweet – all that will translate only as coins in the media engine’s pocket, with no viewers in the actual demographic they’re addressing, hence creating, in a way, another circlejerk.

    Apologies for reading & commenting nearly 3 days late.

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    1. ….and it takes even more time for me to respond to your comment — first to understand and then respond 🙂 Contrary to your assumption, I have not heard of either term, Harshal, though Slacktivism rings a bell. And do you know what? I love both the terms. They so perfectly describe the two segments of the population.

      We do have a lot of keyboard activists, as I would call them. Even the younger generation, when faced with the prospect of hiring and paying for services, are not so sympathetic or compassionate. That is the thing that worries me. We are degenerating as a society in every way but the worst is when we lose our compassion and humanity. Action comes later, first have compassion in your heart! But even more than individual hypocrisy, it is the governmental apathy that sucks, because no real change can be made without political will. When it suits every one to keep the poor poor, why should they work to remove poverty?

      Never mind the delay, it is great to have your comments 🙂

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  8. Our society has a complex hierarchy – not just social strata and caste, we also discriminate on basis of educational background and spoken English. We cannot contest the fact that ours is an aspirational society that worships success. But its not as if the poor are not able to break the glass ceiling. Thanks to the reservation quota that we so despise, so many children from families with no means are able to get through top Engineering and medical schools.

    Mothers are sending even their daughters to school because they realize the importance of education. I feel it has to start with providing not just free but quality education for all. Like you said doles do not help, empowerment does.

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    1. That is precisely what I had said too — even education is fast becoming a factor in this equation. As for the quota system, it is solely based on caste in the conventional sense, and we all know that the affluent belonging to the reserved castes are the ones benefiting more because of them. If there were a quota for the poor, it should include all castes and communities and be solely on merit. But that wouldn’t work for the politicians, would it? In states where the government schools are reasonably good and the government is taking interest in education, these changes can be seen, not otherwise. I have seen parents insisting on sending their children to school while they slogged to pay for their education. While I have also seen any number of young children being sent to work in even Delhi, by their parents. No, not those who have many kids, but even those who have just two!

      You are absolutely right. We have to provide quality education, not just education, and make it universal and uniform. It will bring about some change in the social structure eventually.

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  9. First and foremost-the government ought to improve the standards of Govt.schools and mid-day meals.Why can’t they do it?They employ qualified teachers who attend to their duties at their sweet will,mid-day meals which are horrendous in terms of hygiene and taste,schools that do not have toilets–the list could go on.Why can’t they just terminate the services of the indolent teachers?There are many others seeking jobs.Perhaps strict discipline will ensure better standards.BUT nothing is ever done.

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    1. I am glad to see that you feel that education can improve the lot of the people, at least to some extent. If nothing, it will at least make the people more confident of themselves and fend for themselves better. Did you read the article I had linked, written by Amartya Sen? When we have such brains in our treasury, why don’t we use them to improve the condition of our people? Today teaching is a job and a government school teacher enjoys privileges one can’t even think of. I know of one maths teacher who teaches +2 classes, who used to take leave before the exams because her own children were studying in another city and she wanted to be with them! The school couldn’t appoint a temporary teacher for such short duration and so the students suffered. There might have been some good students who would have lost marks because of this. And unlike students of private schools, they wouldn’t have been able to afford expensive tutions either. And Indu, who is to impose strictness in teachers? Our politicians who are in the government? What did Nitish Kumar do? After getting kudos because of his schemes to improve schooling, he treated his teachers shabbily, didn’t he?

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  10. I was recently reading someone’s tweets about how her maid servant had been harassed by other employers. Basically, to test the maid servant’s integrity, they left a huge sum of cash and some jewelry out in the open for her to ‘steal’. Obviously, the maid walked out saying that if rich people are so small, than she would rather not aspire to be rich at all. I mean, this is just insulting for them to be put to test in a way like this.

    Poverty has become such a grave part of our culture that it’s reflected in everything – films, TV, news, lifestyle, etc. A man with 4 cars parked in the compound of his house would use only the least expensive one to move about lest the poor might cast an evil eye on the expensive ones. Jewelry is no more for wearing but to be kept in the safe while everyone wears artificial ornaments, well, because, zamaana kharab hai.

    My personal experience tells me that those who are labeled the have-nots are far more hard working, closer to reality (of course) and are more trustworthy. Simple people who truly understand what it is to be content in less unlike us who are always greedy for more.

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    1. Today, the poor are not happy, Swati. That is the whole thing. Even if they have a job and food the desire to give their children at least some of the things other children have, makes them sick with dissatisfaction. A generation or two ago, they might have blamed fate, their karma and carried on. Today, the younger generation questions the society, much like the lower castes did in the past. Hoe often I have cringed at that weary middle aged lady going from door to door peddling sanitary napkins or detergents and thanked God that I was spared that fate. They certainly don’t covet others’ property but we can’t assume that they are happy and content with their lot in life, just as it is not right to assume that the rich are happy. My only concern is the mutual distrust and contempt, which was amply shown by the people mentioned in the tweet. Needless to say, the maid would have nothing but contempt for the employers too.

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  11. I agree with what you say, Zephyr! Just wanted to share the experience of RTE in my sons’ school. Beginning this year, RTE was implemented in my children’s classes. I had spoken to them about children who have less privileges than we have. Yes, teachers are trying their best too. But the bridge is the widest in higher classes. As compared to children who speak fluent English and do have basic amenities and more, these children will feel like misfits and may not be able to cope. But with time and effort, I believe most of them can catch up. I know there is a sort of contempt and a detachment to the very basic problems of survival that the poor face. They live in abysmal conditions with no access to drinking water, sanitation and even food. We can’t do without our maids, but we keep them at arm’s length. Very few among us show empathy to their real issues. Somewhere, rather selfishly, we hope that they continue to stay poor and uneducated so that they are unaware of their rights and unable to get decent jobs and keep serving us till time immemorial. There is a deep-seated feudal mindset in our country.

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    1. In the larger metros, especially in very affluent schools, even the smaller class students are not so understanding or accepting of their less privileged classmates. The fees might be waived, but the other costs are not. Or are they? Even at the time when my boys were in school all those years back, something or the other contribution would be demanded through the year. As you have rightly pointed out, the chasm begins widening with the years and with studies becoming harder, they are less able to cope with that as well as the other pressures. I love your honesty when you acknowledge that we, maybe unconsciously hope they will remain under our power, since we are so dependent on them. I feel embarrassed to discuss inflation in front of my maid, knowing it hits her many times harder than it does us. Even those of us who empathise with them might feel differently if their slums are next door and we have to live within sight of their misery. Individual contributions are not even drops in the ocean, they are more like atoms. What we need is a massive rehaul of the social welfare and education system. Dare we hope to see a change in the near future?

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  12. Very true Zephyr! The problems that poverty gives rise to are manifold. The biggest poverty, though, is in the minds of all people in considering money as the sole measure of success. Money does not advertise its origins and, when Society accords respect only to the wealthy, we end up with people adopting all sorts of shortcuts to ‘get’ there. Corruption, Exploitation, lack of quality – everything arises out of that one basic idea that ONLY money is the measure of success.

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    1. You have said it so succinctly, Suresh. I feel this is also a product of recent times, maybe the last quarter century with salaries shooting up and lifestyles changing drastically. But that still doesn’t excuse the caste mentality that has crept in so insidiously and which, not being a unconstitutional, doesn’t even have hope of being redressed by law. It is indeed sad that as you have pointed out, the rich are the real poor ones.

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  13. jaishvats · · Reply

    Hi Zephyr

    Imparting good education needs dedicated and passionate teachers more than the school facilities or infrastructure. Sadly there is a huge dearth of such people in the country. People become government school teachers only for the perks and pay. In private schools it’s the same story but the management closely monitors them. Having said all of this we do see educated folks not being clear in their ideals , education clearly not having served it’s purpose in such cases. You are right about the 4 ps and the sad state of affairs in the country

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    1. I agree that a degree is not equivalent to education and vice versa. What I meant by education is not some degree or even diploma, but basic education that will make them literate and knowledgeable enough about the world they have to grow up into. Even that little education is enough to make them confident, as I have pointed out in my reply to Rahul. In fact, I have touched upon this subject in another post, but which I have not linked here. you can read it at https://cybernag.in/2012/10/why-illiteracy-is-not-a-big-deal-in-india/ . Also, by infrastructure, I don’t mean fancy classrooms and facilities but the basic stuff. One reason why girls drop out in higher classes is the lack of proper bathrooms, especially in rural areas. As for passionate teachers, we have them only in films or very very rarely.

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  14. You have rightly said that neither the government nor the society want these poor to progress who are fed on freebies and expect their unflinching drudgery in return. The moment the news comes that housemaids are going to form association to demand minimum fixed wages or facilities like compulsory leave, medical facilities etc, the sahibs get panicky!

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    1. As I had pointed out, there is no dignity of labour in our country. We tend to treat those who work for us as servants and don’t feel the need to give them any respect. As for taking leave, I know of maids who prefer not to, because they have to wash the vessels of two days if they take a weekly off! Besides, there is no fixed day that they can take off as each employer has her own requirement. I have heard that there is a union for domestic workers in Mumbai, but I think the enrollment is optional.

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  15. Today the success of a person is gauged by his bank balance and material belongings. People irrespective of their economic status are frustrated not because they do not have something, they are more frustrated because their neighbor or friend has it. Things will change only when we are able to delink success from our material assets.

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    1. Very true, Vignesh. But to be able to do it, we have to first develop the attitude of indifference to how the ‘upper caste’ treats us. Once this happens, the edge will be blunted. But in the case of the poorest of the poor, it is not even about success or material wealth. It is about basic survival and unfortunately it is all because of vote bank politics and the complete disconnect between the rich and the poor. While the latter sees how the former lives, the converse is not true. The only way to bring about empathy is for them to mingle and it used to happen in school classrooms. However, elitist educational institutions have put paid to even that, RTE notwithstanding.

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  16. Wiping off centuries old feudalistic structures in a few years, that too by politicians, is an impossible task.

    It’s simplistic and easy to think that poor are unhappy and rich are happy. But the fact is, each group has its own pressing problems that are totally different but almost equal in intensity. Just because the rich can eat anywhere, buy anything, it doesn’t mean that they won’t get a heart-attack if their investments tumble, shares hit rock-bottom or they happen to make huge losses in business. Just because their basic needs are met, rich are not free and happy. In many cases, they are more bonded to the travails of life than the poor and their problems are much bigger in scale.

    People often are bothered about the well-being of poor people in order to create and propagate an image that their own life is idealistic, at least to themselves. But is it?

    Destination Infinity

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    1. That both rich and poor have problems is something we all know but this post is about the mutual contempt of the two, which is based on their own misconceptions about the other. And about how money is creating a new caste system where there are grades. The fact is that the poor of the country are getting just sops and no concrete plans to bring them out of the poverty, or any social welfare measures, healthcare or basic education.

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  17. Like always a thoughtful post, Zephyr. The only salvation is education which can be a game changer! This is what the politicians fear the most so freebies and promises are doled out to keep them perpetually at bottom wrung. It will perhaps take another century to make us on par with developed countries if the last man was to have an existence worthy of a man

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    1. By education I mean even basic education, not a degree or even a diploma. The difference in the confidence levels, the body language and demeanor changes even with rudimentary education.By not making at least primary education compulsory, or if it is, then not enforcing it, the government is slowly pushing our vibrant country to the dark ages. It is all about the votes, power and consequent corruption. Yes, if we begin now, it will take a century, but are we even thinking about beginning anything?

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