It always strikes me when I go out and interact with the poor; how much of our understanding of the world around us comes from deeply ingrained biases about social class.
In our survey work in Nathupur Village, Gurgaon (which I am doing as part of my research on shelter conditions for migrant workers), we clearly do not have a lot to offer those we are speaking to. For the moment. But that does not put people off. They are interested to listen to us because we seem empathetic to their lives and their problems.
We tend to believe that being illiterate and uneducated hampers an individual’s understanding of systems and processes that govern their lives. But I am happy to see that that is not necessarily true. Many of the people we meet are intuitive and intelligent and have very insightful comments on why they are in a situation of poverty and disenfranchisement. For instance, one construction worker told us “Kheti karne se paise kisne kamaaye hain, kheti karne keliye to paise chahiye”, which translates to “One does not earn money from farming, one has to earn to be able to be a farmer.” A telling commentary on the plight of the million engaged in subsistence farming across the nation, with small land holdings supporting large families.
In the context of women’s issues as well, many upper class urban people assume that less educated rural folk treat their women badly, or that they have less regard for the rights and dignity of their women. That is not true either, even though cultural norms make this seem so. For instance, the fact that women cover their heads and behave in a more subdued manner in public may not mean that they are dis-empowered within the household. Many of the women we met were vocal and completely involved in decision making for the home, including financial decisions. Many women in urban migrant families work as well and therefore have a fair understanding about financial issues like affordability, savings, repatriation of income, expenditure, etc. It must be said though that these women find it much harder to have identity papers in Gurgaon because the nature of their work is far more informal that their menfolk who usually work in semi-formal or formal jobs (drivers, guards, cleaners, retail assistants) with contracting agencies.
An interesting case in this regard was that of a middle aged gentleman from Bihar who works as a security guard in one of Gurgaon’s glittering skyscraping office buildings. His two grown sons work somewhere close to their village and are educated until Class XII and BA respectively. Their wives, though, have BA and MA qualifications and the latter aspires to do a PhD! I was intrigued and I asked him about how this came about. His story was so simple and interesting.
He said: “Girls nowadays want to study too. When we fixed the marriage for my older son, we knew there would be some time between the wedding and the gauna (when the girl actually comes to reside with the husband’s family) because my son was still studying, so my daughter in law asked me if she could study too. She completed her BA in her father;s house. When she came to our home, my son was away from the village working, so she went ahead and did her MA as well. Today, she has a job as a secretary in the local Bank of Baroda Bank and supports her own financial needs as well as her child’s. Why would I object to something that helps my family be more financially secure? Together, my son and his wife can be financially independent and maybe I will not have to be here in Gurgaon so far from my family forever!” We also found out that the same man had paid Rs 20,000 in bribe to get his younger daughter-in-law a job as an Aanganwadi worker in the village; a government job is considered the ultimate panacea for all troubles in Bihar, UP and most of rural north India.
If I think of the many urban educated households I know that actively or passively deter their womenfolk from going outside the home to work, or at least give them a darned hard time about it, stories like these seem reassuring and logical.
I was also struck by the number of fathers who take hands on care of their infants in poor migrant families, contrary to our perception that women are saddled with all child rearing responsibilities among the poor. With no extended family for support, these families live in one-room tenements with shared toilets and baths and working in partnership to rear children is a key for couples to be able to make ends meet and survive the harsh lives of migrant workers who are far from home in an alien, urban environment.
I come away from the squalor and filth of those village streets, full of grime but full of hope. It is ironic that many of us who drive around in air conditioned cars and live in homes we own struggle to keep at bay the negativity in our lives; while those who have nothing in the bank and live a financially and socially precarious existence are willing to share their meager resources with you when you visit and are able to be positive about the future. Their biggest source of happiness is that they are spending their hard earned money on investments into the future like education for their children. It is another matter that the quality of the education they pay so much for can be very questionable. A story for another day….
Watching Chakravyuh just after we came back from the village makes me wonder about how much a person’s point of view informs their own reality, how much realities differ from person to person and how confusing it is to unravel these multiple perspectives in an attempt to see things for what they really are. But that’s the thing, reality is not absolute.
In Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha exposes us to the multiple realities of Naxalism. The State perceives them as terrorists, while they believe they fight for the rights of the tribals. In a situation where the very meaning of the development is conflicting- with tribals rejecting any form of development that devours land and resources and the State believing that industrialization is the only viable form development can take- this is a fight in which it’s hard to even take sides. And that is brought out well in the film.
Back in Jalwara, we got disturbing feedback on local politics and economics and much of it conflicted with our urban perceptions of rural issues. As landowners, our family is finding it tough to find adequate labor to work in the fields. Apparently, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or commonly known as NREGA incentivizes people to not work as they get paid a minimum number of hours whether or not they work. At crunch times, landowners have to request officials to delay NREGA payouts so that they get people to work the fields. Of course, the other point of view is that landowners can pay more than what the NREGA offers which is minimum wage and get around this. In fact, NREGA has been responsible for labor wages shooting up across the nation and in that sense, it has benefited the poor. Analysts have also proven that NREGA creating shortage of labor is simply a myth and that the rural poor would not logically opt to work for lesser wages paid weekly, fortnightly or even monthly by NREGA if better wages were paid daily by employers. I don’t understand the economics of this in detail, but this debate is another confirmation that we need better systems to manage, monitor and deliver subsidies so that people get paid for work they actually do. Plus, the gap between demand for labor and supply of workforce needs to be managed as well in some manner, though ideally the market should take care of this by itself.
Another disturbing piece of news was that the Naxals have tried to cross over from neighboring Madhya Pradesh into the Baran district in Rajasthan, hoping to recruit local tribals like the Sahariyas. Fortunately, these Sahariyas, as one landowner in Jalwara referred to caustically as the ‘tigers’ of Baran district, the hot shots, the guys who get all the resources. A recent editorial by Harsh Mander on this community highlights the fact that malnutrition and death by starvation continue to be a reality today, even though much less than before. Pretty much the only thing that keeps the Naxals out at this point is the special Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) that gives every Sahariya household 35 kgs of wheat a month and keeps them away from starvation. The same article reports, however, that these tribals gets only 10-25 days of work a year instead of the 200 days they are entitled to by the NREGA.
Coming back to Chakravyuh, effective governance in poverty struck areas of this country is critical. We don’t realize it, but as a nation we are very close to being in a situation of complete anarchy. Imagine a life when you will not be able to step out of your home without firearms, your children will lead a life of privilege and constant, unrelenting fear, fear of the poor who will strike back at every opportunity. The disparities are growing and we desperately need to innovate means to make development more inclusive. There is a big job out there. And unless we see inclusive growth as a real objective and not just a fancy word, we’re in trouble indeed!
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!