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 the boss is, we give them food, clothes and money and pride ourselves on our benevolence. 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 vote bank, 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