Opinion
We’re eager for a positive narrative about India, but we have to take responsibility for the state of the poor in the country.
Photo by Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons

India is a country of extremes. We pride ourselves as an expanding, rapidly progressing economy where the number of millionaires touched 2.36 lakh last year. But we also house the single largest population of people living below the poverty line.    

According to World Bank figures, 270 million or one in every five Indians is poor. And as the country’s own 2011 Socioeconomic and Caste Census (SECC) showed, 75% people earn less than Rs 5000 a month.  

So, when Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel allegedly said that India was too a poor a country to think about expansion, he wasn’t exactly wrong. But his statement doesn’t quite fit with the positive narrative we’re eager to tell about our country.

Unsurprisingly, the popular reaction to Spiegel’s purported statement (which was later denied by the organisation) was openly hostile.  But before we go jumping on the anti-Spiegel bandwagon, maybe we should turn a mirror on ourselves, and how we think about poor people and what they deserve.

India’s income inequality is shocking: 44% of the national income is owned by the country’s richest while the poorest 40% have only 20%.

This works in the favour of the higher socio-economic classes because so many of the services we couldn’t live without come at the cost of the poor’s compulsion.

There’s the domestic help who suffers various kinds of indignities within the four walls of our homes for a meagre wage. The migrant labourer who leaves home and family behind for the promise of a steady income, only to be treated with hostility as a ‘foreigner’ everywhere else. Or the civic worker, who climbs into cesspools of sewage because there is little other work available for him. 

And yet, there’s an aggressive hostility whenever any of them attempt to claim space for their needs.

For instance, many of us are still not comfortable about letting domestic helps use the toilet or kitchen in the homes that they clean for us. We often justify apathy to the homeless on the pretext that they are a part of the begging ‘mafia’. And how many times have we looked at someone like a bus driver, a street vendor, or a labourer hanging around in a public space with disgust or suspicion?  

You, personally, may have done all of these or none of them. But there’s no denying that these practices and perceptions exist. Underlying them is a failure to acknowledge our privilege and apathy towards those less privileged than us.

Historian and feminist writer Urvashi Butalia, for instance, writes in the New Internationalist Magazine, of how normal we think the entitlement of the privileged classes are. We think nothing of it, she points out for example, when the rich encroach on pavements but raise a hue and cry about the pavement chai stall or vendor that service the working classes of our residential colonies. 

Similarly, we want our parks to be pristine spaces of recreation for the privileged, and think nothing of denying entry to the poor and the homeless for whom they double up as spaces for resting or sleeping at night. 

Sabina Yasmin Rahman, a research scholar studying begging in Delhi and Mumbai, points out another major example of our hostility to the poor in this BLink article – taking on the myth of the “begging mafia”.  Pointing out that, despite numerous attempts to prove the existence of a begging mafia, little empirical evidence has emerged, Sabina indicts institutional apathy and middle class morality for the continuing myth. 

Sabina suggests that the state finds it easier to “hide” the poor by incarcerating them than making a welfare policy that actually uplifts them, though research shows that it’s easier and more cost-effective to break cycles of poverty and crime.

And backing this institutional thinking is a popular morality that finds it easier to allow “civil inaction and victim-blaming to fester, while never having to acknowledge the real problems of structural inequality and systemic bias.” 

Dealing with the country’s poor through the criminal justice system often reinforces our desensitisation and discriminating attitudes towards them. Most of what we read and hear about the poor and the marginalised, for example, are instances of their involvement in crimes.

If not that, then it’s stories of their victimisation in particularly brutal ways. Their daily lives and the ‘usual’ treatment meted out to them disappears in the process.

It is also not uncommon for prejudice to affect an entire community. This is especially true when poverty combines with migration, leaving the poor as strangers in strange parts, where they don’t have the resources to fend for themselves. Take, for instance, the inhuman lynching of Kailash Jyoti Bohra, an Assamese migrant labourer in Kerala, last year.

Kailash had become separated from his fellow migrants and was wandering around Chingavanam in Kottayam when he was caught by a mob of locals. The mob, suspecting him to be a thief, tied him to a tree, beat him black and blue and left him there to die. Passers-by were all but mute spectators as life ebbed out of his body in the scorching heat.

Amidst all this, what we fail to see is that the political system that we love to criticise but are not dependent on, is much more crucial for the poor. And this is so even where the system is defined by qualities of corruption that we elites can sit back and scoff at, while we get the services we need through the private sector.

So, we can sit and complain – from the moral high ground – about how people can bear to sell off their vote for a few freebies. But our own exit from the system through apathy, has meant that we must bear responsibility for all the ways in which the poor become vulnerable to exploitation in politics and in the economy.

It's easy to hate a white man who threatens our narrative of arriving on the global stage. But perhaps it’s time we started the harder work of thinking about how we can bring all Indians to that stage together.

(Edited by Rakesh Mehar)

Views expressed here are personal opinions of the author.