Contrasting perceptions: A rising India and the ‘real’ reality of poverty- April 21, 2012
A reader’s comment on my post about Pune and its quaint bakeries got me thinking. The reader liked the post because it showed a positive, exciting side of India instead of the endless portrayal of the slums! A few days ago, my nearly eight-year old son Udai was wading through a pile of National Geographic back issues, in pursuit of some information for a school project. He came across a map depicting the world’s population by income; this was the issue about the world population reaching 7 billion. So Udai stared and stared and looked quite aghast. For the first time, he realized that India, compared to the rest of the world, was a poor to middle income nation. He also observed that there were only very tiny parts of the word (Europe and coastal strips in the US) that were very high income. And that Africa was the only part of the world that was poorer than India.
It is hard for children raised in privileged, urban families in India to perceive of our nation as poor. Even though they see the beggars and the slums, they also see an overwhelming bombardment of visual and audio information that portrays a bunch of upwardly mobile people buying stuff, going on vacations and having endless fun! In India, for Indians, the image of India as a nation progressing and developing is the image we filter out as the one we want to see. For the rest of the world, the poor, slummy image is what represents India. What a contrasting way to look at one reality!
Poverty is a harsh reality. No matter what the Planning Commission defines as poverty lines (and there is a raging debate about that), there is no doubt that the present and future of millions of people is in jeopardy because they are poor, with little opportunity to break that poverty spiral and access essentials like nutrition and education.
When I took my kids into the slums during the execution of the Jalti Jhopdi project in Gurgaon, I did so deliberately. To show them this other reality, the more real reality, so to speak. People often ask me what I aspire for my children. I have absolutely no pre-conceived notion of what I would want to see them do as adults, but I hope they will be sensitive people. If I were to push myself and zero down, there are two streams I would be happy for my kids to follow. One is the arts; to me, to be true to your art is to be truly free and give meaning to life, yours and that of others! I can see myself being very proud of any child of mine who is a practitioner of creativity (any sort will do-writing, painting music, dance, theater, puppetry…am not choosy!) The other is to be be in professions in which they can make a real difference to the lives of the poor, the underprivileged and the downtrodden.
I know this is dangerous. To pen this down is to set expectations for them, but I had these thoughts and I cannot deny them either!