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.


Goli said...

To some extent I do agree with you that political system and bureaucrats are the biggest problem for India. But I do feel that people who are at middle level, I mean managing particular wards in city are more cooperative and interested in implementing something good.
For example this one http://www.collectivelens.com/blog/2008/10/29/kilikili-playgrounds-for-everyone/

Examples are few but hopefully would increase.

I have linked your article on NGOPost, hope you dont mind.

Ashwini Kumar said...

Some quick points Mahima
1. To blame the Government (politicians+ bureaucrats)only for this entire mess will be being overly simplistic. It is favourite pastime for those in media & academics to blame the Government. We must appreciate that a bigger problem lies within the society. I mean the mindset needs to change. We must appreciate that governing such a huge country with all its complicated problems is a big task. I do not intend to defend corruption or inefficiency (both are different things & they co-exist) of our officials.
2. NREG story is heartening. It's good to see poor people revising their income expectations upwards.
3. As for the idea of Government paying for farm labour, the existing MSP regime does take into account wages (both actually paid & imputed for family labour) while arriving at the cost of production. I think any further intervention of the state is rather unwarranted.
4. Ragpickers are just one group of people engaged in unorganised sector. We must think of public policy intervention for the unorganised sector as a whole. But that is easier said than done. Implementation remains a big challenge. Believe me not all bureaucrats are corrupt/inefficient. But there are some genuine issues in implementation, which only gets even more complicated in case of unorganised sector.
5. Slums are a major problem. I agree that urban planning has choked in India. There simply isn't any vision. The problem here is that opportunities & facilities (jobs, education, health, money) are centralised in cities. How to remove this urban-rural, rich-poor disparity is a big question and I don't have any straight answers for this.

Lastly, I must say I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. I find your writings well-researched and educating.

mahima said...


Also, I just wanted to point out that I'm not -- NOT -- wholly blaming the government for the problem. I'm just saying that these are some of the issues and governance is key to solving these issues. The reason we blame politicians is because they ask for the job based on the assumption that they want to work for the development of their country, but as it turns out, many are incapable for thinking ahead. That is why academics/media people, many who are highly educated get irritated. But perhaps thats a good enough reason for us to get off the couch and join politics :)

At the same time, there are enough non governmental people who share a myopic view of society who add the the troubles.

BUT I have realised one thing, I am going to focus, next time, on the people who add positively to our progress. (Thanks, Goli.)

Anonymous said...

Do you think our political system has reached a stage where they will always work against such developments?

Does the burden of lending tools and infrastructure to the rural population rest on progressive thinking doers and NGO's who have the will and backing to make a difference?

Ill say one thing though, the change in the mindset of the rural population () shows progress.

I wonder who can we give credit for this change management?

egg style said...

Typically, in India, there are two responses to urban slums.
1) Let GDP per capita go from four to five digits USD, and slums will vanish on their own, just as the slumboats of Hong Kong did a couple of decades ago.
2) Let the government turn the slums into high-rise resettlements before their appalling squalor becomes the abiding image of Dickensian India, at least among global moviegoers.

Neither the Market nor the Statist solution would work, in my opinion. What might, however, is Hernando de Soto’s empowerment plan: hand people the legal title to the land they’re on, fairly, and they might at least have an asset to get loans on terms that are not usurious; that a smallcar project gets credit at throwaway rates while the poor pay through their noses for small sums is a scandalous state of financial affairs. The rich pay much less for money than the poor, though their ‘credit ratings’ needn’t differ much if done honestly.

The other elephant in the urban room is our failure to reverse or contain the saffocating forces of urban ghettoisation. The human right to life (let alone liberty) should not be contingent upon the composition of the neighbourhood, as sliced up by artificial labels of man’s own device.

These relate to fundamental failures that thwart the country’s progress so completely that it takes guts just to acknowledge them openly. Solving the slum problem will take more than a long wait and will have to be more than a bricks-and-mortar exercise in urban redevelopment.

mahima said...

Yes, i agree. They should have a right to their land. The option to buy... anyway its a long argument, I'm going to revisit it soon.

Bharat Sharma said...

My blog is at yatratatrasarvatra.blogspot.com and also at paramvaibhavam.wordpress.com

A.R.Sofi said...

Hi Mahima, Congratulations, last night i saw ur interview in NDTV
please accept my heartiest congratulations

Anonymous said...

NDTV interview? pray, please provide youtube clip

mahima said...

nothing on youtube :(

Bahni Hazarika said...

I agree with most of what you have said but would not blame the government entirely. The country provides a lot of tools to economically challenged sections of society but many a times the target audience fails to capitalize and exploit these opportunities. It will be a mistake to give them all the tools in a platter without them meeting certain standards of proficiency. (Case in point - Reservations and all the quotas that the government has bestowed upon our under-privileged and backward classes have led to dilution of brand equity and quality of some of our premier institutions with negligible gain to the targeted audiences).

Provision of basic infrastructure and amenities is a government responsibility but the attainment of a certain standard of living depends on an individual's level of education and his/her ability to create value (or wealth). Like you said, give them the tools but leave something to meritocracy too.

After all, we do not want to create a section of society which depends on government aid, lives off food stamps, feels secure and complacent, borrows 10 times their disposable income to buy houses, and lives a highly levered life only to realize one day that there is no alternative to hardwork, there is no free lunch.

mahima said...

you know i can't agree with you more. My only grouse is (not necessarily with a particular group) that people either don't avail of schemes or they do not know about them... With standards of merit ..think its a big factor but i can't begin to tell you how many well educated rich dumb people i know.. Ha ha.

Anonymous said...

Good debate here. It is an old as the hills excuse to say that poverty is the fault of the poor for misdeeds in the past, accumulated over many births and impious lives. This excuse for all suffering of the less fortunate people is explained as the result of Karma. This explains some of the apathy in India when considering those who are living at the margins of proper life in extreme poverty. The caste system and the beliefs that support it are relevant here. Try to suggest 'equality' and you will be bludgeoned with the first word of the Oscar awarded film Slumbog Billionaire, "maaderchod" (better than "terrorist" you may say but is is a term of abuse in a country like India which Oscar jury surely must have heard).

Anonymous said...

How come the blog opening page is appearing as a grey screen?

Anonymous said...

Open mag's book section has something on Dharavi. Issue 10 July 2009 www.openthemagazine.com

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

learned a lot