By SANJANA PEGU | NEWSLAUNDRY
THE Indian state currently recognises me as an NRI which, as any non mainland Indian will tell you, is slightly bemusing since our relations with India has always been one of estrangement. Personally, my feelings towards the Indian nation state is moody and tenuous, somewhere between like and dislike, between grudging acceptance and unbridled exasperation.
However, one interesting fall-out of being an NRI is that spared of the country’s daily cacophony and clutter, one can gain an outsider’s perspective. India is otherwise a vortex, sucking up your energies, your time and, often, you, with every day a small battle to navigate through its organised chaos.
What has struck me every time I visit India is not the overwhelming and heart-breaking scale of poverty but the mass-level, casual, even fierce apathy to it. People have found new and novel ways to unsee, unacknowledge, ignore, disown, discredit, disregard it, are blissfully oblivious to it, shutting themselves in through rolled-up windows and shutting out the world through cheap earphones.
This is the favoured, go-to tactic of most privileged Indians—denial. Deny that poverty exists through simple escapism. If you invest enough effort in pretending it’s not there, eventually it will cease to exist for you. If you can look through a beggar, then poor people are not your problem. If you can ignore the skyline dotted with slums then your city isn’t choking and dying. This is mindfulness of another kind.
You don’t need expensive yoga and meditation classes to learn this; you simply need to be too exhausted and/ or too self-centred to not care. Of course, this studied ignorance comes after years of training.
To an extent, denial of this kind is a coping mechanism.
India is an everyday experience of poverty and navigating it can be gruelling—the beggars cajoling you for money, the homeless listlessly sitting by the roadside, the hovels that crop up on the pavements, the hawkers (many of them children) peddling their wares at traffic signals, the sprawling slums, home to one too many award-winning movies.
Another reason for this insouciance is familiarity through over-exposure (the banality of poverty?), leading to a feeling of impotence and despondency, eventually mutating into indifference and insensitivity.
After all, with prolonged exposure, our senses can eventually adjust to even the worst sights and smell. Poverty in India is like the air we breathe—toxic and ubiquitous. The only foolproof way to escape both is to move out of the country or hermetically sealing yourself in your homes.
Numbers can deceive
India’s population of the “extreme” poor is only 70.6million people, as per estimates by the Brookings Institution. The middling poor, one might suppose, are doing okay, grandly living on $2 per day (the report defined extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day). The World Bank has put India’s number of poor people at 270million in 2012 (it would have decreased by now). The UNDP’s 2018 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) estimated that 364million Indians suffer acute deprivations in health, nutrition, schooling, and sanitation.
These varying numbers underline the difficulty of defining a poverty line when there are so many dynamic, ever-shifting, immeasurable factors that influence one’s state of being.
The probability of intergenerational economic and social mobility is still low as shown by studies and factors like caste, religion, location etc further diminish the possibility of moving up the ladder.
So, where do you even start translating “364million” into ordinary people that you see every day? The sheer magnitude of these numbers is unfathomable, making a person feel both overwhelmed and indifferent. It is much easier to be detached from the miseries of strangers, treat them as ambient noise, and focus on your own well-being. For instance, during this year’s Diwali in Delhi, I met very few people who wanted to acknowledge the disproportionate effects of air pollution on children from poor communities despite the proven correlation.
Dehumanising the poor
Then there’s the disavowal and discrediting of the facts of their existence—this is where the begging mafia myth has been extremely useful. Despite being debunked multiple times, this is an urban legend that refuses to die because of its usefulness to middle and upper-class Indians in denying the humanity of the poor by peddling the “begging is a crime” non-argument (the Transgender Bill is guilty of this too). So, the money doesn’t actually go to them but to some mafia overlord who maims young children into begging and expropriates our charity. Begging is the crime and our collective apathy is the punishment.
Another extant but false argument is that by giving money or food to beggars we discourage them from finding employment, feeding into the “poor people are lazy” trope. But what does employment for those living in the fringes of society even mean?
In this country, a majority of people work in the unorganised sector, the gulf between the number of people entering the job market and number of jobs created is widening, minimum wages are arbitrary at best and inadequate at worst, decent jobs are so few and far between that PhD holders are applying for the lowest ranked government jobs, and manual scavenging is still a thing. So, how do we, born with our class privileges, get to hector them about getting a job as if that is what keeps them poor?
By buying into these kinds of twisted logic and tendentious views, one gets to demonise the “crime” of panhandling, absolve one’s own complicity in our skewed, unequal society, and pontificate on why we shouldn’t help a hungry child. The brilliance of these arguments, all of which carry an undertow of classism, is that it makes us feel morally superior through repudiation.
This is the ultimate fantasy – heal the world and make it a better place without lifting a finger.
Lastly, there’s the outright dismissal and disdain for the indigent. Usually favoured by the ultra rich, this toxic attitude has found its way among those who are desperate to enter that hallowed club of the 0.1 per cent and, blind to their own accidents of privilege, are scornful of anyone who isn’t up to their high standards. If the poor are poor, it is because they choose to be and hence, perforce, should be rebuked and shaken out of their indolence.
In our mighty haste to blindly follow rich countries, we seem to have borrowed the worst aspects of their cultures, including the concept of “culture of poverty”, trading empathy for disgust, callousness, and cruelty. This outright hatred of the poor is a result of the growing fanatical belief in the neoliberal, conservative shibboleth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, structural oppression and inequality be damned.
But does a country like India have the luxury to wax eloquent about the mental poverty of the poor when privation is the norm rather than exception?
It is time to change this false and harmful narrative on poverty and our own attitudes towards those less privileged than us. Indulging in moral self-flagellation or guilt-tripping is pointless. What can and does help is genuine empathy and concrete actions. This includes, but is not limited to, treating people with respect, looking out for the vulnerable, spreading better discourse on the issues of begging and homelessness, and yes, giving them food and money, not for us to feel better but to help them live and live better.
Giving shouldn’t be used as a noble embellishment to vulgar displays of wealth—think of the multi-million dollar Ambani wedding with the token gesture of serving food to the poor. Neither should giving be a one-off that we partake in during specific occasions such as festive holidays. If we can cultivate ignorance, we can nurture empathy as well. It is always okay to care.
The fabric of a decent society rests on such acts of kindness. Being poor isn’t a choice; ignoring poverty is.
Sanjana Pegu is a feminist, activist, and writer from Assam. She graduated from IIM Bangalore and is currently studying gender and sexuality at the New School, New York. She works with CauseBecause.com and Smashboard.