Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pity party

I was sitting in Gurcharan Das's living room, watching with fascination as he and Dunu Roy, of the NGO Hazard Centre, were battling it out. Is India really rising, or is just a small fraction of it? Both had good points of view. Das said that since liberalization the country has moved leaps and bounds, while Roy said that not much as changed for those outside the system.

People often talk about the urban-rural divide. More distressing, sometimes, is the divide between the urban rich and the urban poor. Someone once said, in India, the rich must live necessarily with the poor. It's true. Don't kid yourselves, this rich-poor divide is everywhere -- not just the cities.

A few weeks ago I did a small story for the Indian Express about the unhappy state of Delhi's ragpickers. We are trying to set up an online video section (its still a work in progress so don't be appalled at the poor quality, please) so the story remain buried, but it was a really interesting example of how our system works -- or fails to. The ragpickers -- your kabadi vala -- are not officially part of the governments waste collection system, which is to say they are not government employees. They aren't exactly organised private players either; just very poor people with no other job options. When there is talk of privatisation of waste disposable, it always centers around a new company bring brought in, instead of them. Props to Vimlendu for pointing all this out to me. Anyway, so I went to the Ministry of Environment and also to Social Welfare Ministry to ask the Delhi state ministers why nothing was done for them. The answers were typical of the red tape that exists. As the Ministry of Environment is not in charge of waste collection, they could only help by providing gloves; not employment. Yes, the ragpickers are not paid for their services, but make money off the garbage they manage to recycle. Same with their welfare; the problem is known, but they are quite far away from the loving arms of the state.

But that is a story about the poverty that exists in the extreme outer circle of our cities. Poverty that could be helped by different government bodies sitting together and coming up with a coherent strategy. A thought echoed all over the country, in different ways. For example, take the village of Picharagarh outside Hyderabad. The farmers could not stop complaining about the NREG scheme. Why? Because they said, not only does it pay more than what they could pay for farm-hands (Rs 120 vs Rs 100) but the NREG schemes only required a few hours of work, unlike farming that went on all day. So the younger lot rather take the easy route. The farmers were totally confused about what to do, and one of them told me it might be more viable for him to give up farming. Others suggested that the NREG not limit itself to infrastructure development, but also farming. "But won't that mean that the government pays for your labour?" I asked them, and they said that they were ready to pay their workers if the government could work out a system with them. Food for thought. Or else we go hungry!

Ask anyone what the biggest concern in India is, and it is governance. It isn't terror attacks -- not for most people -- and corruption is passe. It is governance. Both political and of the bureaucracy.

How systems work, and how they allow themselves to ignore festering problems. I have spent some time in Dharavi on different shoots now, and it has come to represent, in my mind, one of the biggest problems this country has. We claim that we want to become a "rich" country; a superpower. Yet, very casually, we behave as if poor people have no aspirations and should, in fact, we happy for any little bone thrown their way. A loud voice from the slums and the corridors of power bristle. Like this Dharavi Redevelopment Plan for instance. Dharavi is in Mumbai now (which it wasn't when it was first set up) and so obviously, people have decided that the land could be put to much better use than slums. But the people of Dharavi are many, united, and refuse to move out of that area. So they have reached a deal with the government. They are going to be relocated in tall buildings, freeing ground space. How tall the towers will be, the size of the houses, is under debate. But one thing is very clear after speaking to everyone involved. The houses they are going to be put into are going to be really, really small.

Now the thing you need to understand about Dharavi, any other slum, or even a village is this: there are levels of poverty and also, in my opinion, definite signs of progress in some families. So while some have plastic sheets as their roof, others have tiled floors with TVs and fridges. But when we talk of them, we assume that they are poor and helpless, and also that we shouldn't plan for their future (i.e. give them space so that their families can breathe easy) but we do expect to be utterly grateful for small mercies. So what is going to happen? The slum will go from being a horizontal slum to a vertical one. Their lives will be put into these suffocating boxes for a new mall. And when a new slum will crop up next to that mall, the rich will complain loudly about their view being spoiled. And those who have actually saved money over the years to make their little hole in the wall a home will lose it all to a generic plan.

You know the most popular question I am asked in a lower income locality? How much I earn per month. I'm not kidding. They want to know whats out there, they want to reach that. These are not people who want to live by a different standard, they are only being forced to by circumstance.

But talk to people, even people in your own office, and they say insensitive things such as "oh they will be happy with anything" and I wonder why we assume that poor equals less than human. It's not true. And unless we give them tools to help them lead respectable lives -- no matter what job they have -- this country will forever remain third class. And countless lives wasted and unfulfilled.

P.S. The Dharavi story is truly fascinating. I'll post more on it later. Do come back and read.