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The poor in our country simmer with discontent

November 30, 2006

Trains torched.
Cars burnt and stoned.
Buses set on fire.
Nanded. Ambernath. Nashik. Bhiwandi. Mumbai…what’s happening to you Maharashtra?
All this because a statue of B. R. Ambedkar (one of India’s freedom fighters and a leader of the Dalits) was damaged in a city as far away as Kanpur?
Some might believe this to be the reason for the violence, but I doubt it.
Ofcourse, I could talk of a political conspiracy and I would perhaps be right – partly at least.
Ugly facts
But if I went a little deeper I would see the ugly facts. Whether or not a political party is exploiting the situation, the truth is that our country’s poor are simmering with discontent. It was fine when the majority of our people were dirt poor. But that’s not the case any more. We have 9% growth during the first half of the current fiscal year. The highest since the reforms started in 1991, according to P Chidambaram, finance minister. The surging economy has brought with it a burgeoning middle class. But a significant section of the population (the uneducated, the untrained) have been left out.
Jealousy and bitterness raise their heads
The poor see the advertisements of glossy products, they see fancy cars flashing by and they burn. From inside.
Is it really surprising then to hear what this commuter, whom TV news crews caught outside a burning train had to say? ‘Hundreds of people came. They first banged on the doors of the AC compartment and broke all the windows. They told us all to get out and then entered the Canteen next-door and stole everything inside…’
And this newspaper report: ‘Suddenly a mob of slum-dwellers on the Eastern Express Highway started pelting stones…’ It would be very interesting to find out how many of these young men who took part in the riots were gainfully employed.
Our country’s poor don’t know why they have no money to go to good schools and they don’t know why companies are not giving them permanent jobs. All they know is that they live in crowded, unhygienic surroundings, have an intermittent supply of water, and cannot afford even mithai (sweets) for Diwali. There is a general feeling of disillusionment and disheartenment. They believe the government owes them. The rich owe them.
This is not rocket science. It’s simple. It’s the response of human beings to injustice.
They desperately want to be part of India’s economic growth
Unlike in many developed countries, our country’s poor want a good education, because without it they are destined to misery and perhaps a destitute life. But the free municipal schools are unable to provide the poor with a decent education. It is a well known fact that teaching standards in municipal schools are pathetic and the teachers very lenient in passing their students…but these very same students come up against a roadblock in the tenth state board exams. The students who need the greatest help have to suffer the poorest quality of schools.
No hope for the future
Without a good education all that the poor foresee for themselves is hard labour and moving from one temporary job to another, with a time lag inbetween. They foresee a life where they will be lucky if they get Rs five thousand a month for 12 hours of work. No medicare. No nutritious food. No time to enjoy life. No education for their children. At least the poor in developed countries don’t live this life.
Ofcourse, violence has no justification
I am not justifying the violence. In fact it horrifies me so much that I am desperately trying to find reasons for it. I had a tense day today as I was in touch with my daughter on her cell the whole day, making sure she returned home safe from college. Local trains were burnt. She came away earlier. Thank God.
What do we need to do?
I think it’s time we all sat down and had heart to heart talks with the poor in India – all those without permanent jobs. See how they live – without hope, not only for themselves but even for their kids. What does a human being do when he loses hope? What would you do?
Well, what we can do now is to ensure that each child in India gets a good education. If each one of us sponsors just one child’s education, or even a group of say three or four people come together and sponsor one child’s education, our country will rise to glorious heights.

2nd Dec: All sorts of explanations are being provided by the newspapers as to why the Dalits in Maharashtra reacted so violently to an incident which took place in far-away Kanpur. Some newspaper reports claim it is because Ambedkar is from Maharashtra, that the Dalits in Maharashtra are the most socially and politically aware, that it is a political conspiracy to oust the present State government, and some claim that the Dalits in Maharashtra are the most ‘militant’.
None of these explanations seems right. It’s is important to find out why they are militant. Could it be because Maharashtra has seen prosperity in a big way and there is a big divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’?
If the Dalits in Maharashtra are indeed more socially aware, they would feel this divide most keenly. A news report today mentions how vandals at Ulhasnagar railway station broke into the lockers of railway staff and stole items like uniforms, books and small amounts of money. Just waiting to jump on to the rioting bandwagon – not just to vent their anger at the ‘haves’, but also to make a quick buck.

9th Dec: Yesterday and today the newspapers and the television have brought out the real reason for the riots…the simmering discontent amongst the poor. Well, when will the government wake up and realise that the only way to solve this problem is by improving the quality of primary and secondary education in this country?

Related Reading: Violent mobs should pay
Docs in India often have to face irate mobs
Comparision of violent crime in the world
Too many policemen on VIP duty in India
Poor people to Police ratio
Fake mob attack by political party

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2006 1:16 pm

    “Our country’s poor don’t know why they have no money to go to good schools and they don’t know why companies are not giving them permanent jobs. All they know is that they live in crowded, unhygienic surroundings, have an intermittent supply of water, and cannot afford even mithai for Diwali. There is a general feeling of disillusionment and disheartenment. They believe the government owes them. The rich owe them.”

    India is, very quickly, coming to a crossroads. Your country’s underclass/poor must be shown that it is possible to advance no matter what their socioeconomic condition. They have to be shown it is possible for them to receive an education which can then be used somewhere inside your community.

    When immigrants come to Canada they are immediately given opportunities to create a better life for themselves. More importantly they have the automatic right to make a better life for their children. People come here and have the opportunity to be employed in jobs for which they are qualified, but unlike the country they have left here they also have the right to make something more.

    For example, a close friend of mine came here from Bangladesh fiteen years ago. He started out by leasing a storefront and opening a small business in Montreal. Now he owns two stores outright. More importantly his two children are receiving an education in a Canadian University (engineering and mathematics). He was not a rich man when he came here, but there was a system in place designed to help him succeed. There is a strong Bangladeshi community in Canada (www.bangladeshi.ca/) which helps their fellow immigrants adapt to Canadian society, but more than that the Canadian Government has put in place a bureaucracy specifically designed to help newcomers help themselves.

    Your country has to make every effort to make the ‘underclasses’ believe — regardless of political and religious beliefs — that their poverty is not something that will be everlasting. People have to be able to wake up in the morning and make plans to better themselves, and the government has to be there to facilitate their plan, not hinder them.

    India is right on the cusp of its Second Industrial Revolution, moving from a resource and agrarian economy to a service and technology economy. Not too long ago Canada was in the same position. But the problem with being on the cusp of anything, let alone a major shift in an entire society made up of over a billion people, is it doesn’t take much to fall over the wrong side. I personally don’t believe India is going to fail. Democracies don’t fail. But they can be stunted or slowed when an ‘underclass’, especially one as large as India’s, start to feel “entitled” to what the middle class or upper class have… I don’t mean clean water, I mean ‘entitled’ to the lifestyle but without the work. Envy.

    As important as it is for India to concentrate on making your economy grow, it is vital for your government to concentrate on making sure the basic needs are met: clean food; clean water; shelter from the heat, cold and rain; a strong Judiciary with a meaningful Charter of Rights & Freedoms (http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/index.html) to protect the unprotected. As long as The People believe the Government is moving Everyone forward *together* and — more importantly — that the Indian people believe their government is protecting them while they move forward that “disillusionment and disheartenment” will be tempered. To that end racial and religious inequalities must be addressed, and so must individual rights. Indian women are on the forefront of the next Indian Industrial Revolution and must have their rights guaranteed with strict laws and consistent judicial decisions.

    There are important lessons to be learned from those who have gone before you. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” also applies across borders. Canada and America both went through a Women’s Movement and a Civil Rights Movement. Religious freedom in both countries was fought for and is now guaranteed. There are not many countries where Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Athiests, Homosexuals, the Disabled, Women, Men and all the rest can live and work without fear of persecution from the others, and who all have exactly the same opportunities for the same jobs or schooling (I know that might sound a tiny bit Utopian, but – seriously, it is against the law in this country to discriminate based on any factor… we’ve even got a law which makes Promoting Hate a crime).

    I’m really enjoying your site. You seem fearless and tenacious and you are fighting for a noble cause, and I respect that very much.
    Gabriel.

  2. December 1, 2006 2:04 pm

    Thanks Gabriel.
    Also, you analysis is right. If the poor feel that there is no hope it means the government has failed. That is what poor people feel today in India. I see the longing in their eyes as well dressed children troop to fancy schools and it breaks my heart.
    Just last week, a little girl who was the poster girl for UNICEF in it’s campaign against child labour was still found working at the small tea-shop. After the media brought this to the notice of the state government, it very magnanimously decided to sponsor the education of the child by enrolling her in a good school! What about the other children who are working the whole day because their parents cannot afford to feed the family?
    In our country, Education is a state subject, and each state has it’s own record. Some states are doing very well, like Kerala, where there is almost a hundred per cent literacy.

  3. December 6, 2006 1:44 pm

    “At least the poor in developed countries don’t live this life.”

    I cant say about this statement. But hope it is true.

    Like you said, it is definitely because of their frustrations, that this incident happened. It was not a sudden outbreak. In fact, it showed their condition, their lack of freedom, their lack of opportunities.

    And sadly, media and politicians create the hype that India is shining; which might be to woo foreign investors to invest in a country that is growing.

  4. Raj permalink
    January 1, 2008 4:08 am

    Nita,
    Thanks for writing this superb article explaining the frustration of the poor.Many of us are simply unaware that there is simmering discontent waiting to boil over at the first sign of trouble.

    Actually there is no need for something like the desecration of a statue to happen for the poor to vent their frustration.In our cities there are several areas which many people simply avoid.I mean the slums.These have become the ‘rough neighbourhoods’ in our cities where an outsider would not enter.

    Though Chennai may not have as many slums as other cities of similar size,the level of deprivation in some of these areas is shocking.Five years ago,when I was riding my motorcycle to a friend’s place,I decided to take a short cut through a deprived neighbourhood(I prefer it to the word ‘slum’).Two children as young as ten or eleven deliberately threw pebbles at me for no fault of my own and one of them hit my helmet.If such was the dislike that those deprived children had for an innocent stranger riding a normal motorcycle(not one of those fancy imported ones that the filthy rich use),I could only imagine the hatred that the poor would have for those who shamelessly flaunt their wealth.

    That incident taught me a valuable lesson.That any amount of growth is meaningless if it does not include all sections of the society,especially the most deprived and marginalised.

  5. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    January 1, 2008 5:50 am

    I stumbled upon this thread thanks mainly to Raj’s contribution showing up in the sidebar (13 months after Nita’s initial post, and with just two other responses in the interim). As one whose professional and academic career, as well as social network, has often led to the homes and workplaces of the most deprived among the deprived, I am painfully aware of the several truths contained in — and underlying — what you say.

    The path of “development” we are embarked upon today benefits only a handful of people, bringing prosperity to the few at the cost of the many, and promotes blatant conspicuous consumption which, additionally, is grossly wasteful of scarce resources. Such a state of affairs is bound to promote simmering discontent among the deprived majority. And from “simmer” to “boil” — and thence possibly to “explode” does not take all that much. History has demonstrated this again and again. Even a symbolic and minor offence can set off a chain reaction.

    The development pie in India may be growing, but it is not growing at the same pace as the share demanded in it by those whose wants are the greatest. In such a situation, whether we like it or not, those of us who are more fortunate must give up some of our material aspirations so that a modicum of redistributive justice comes about, reducing the divide that will otherwise get entirely out of hand.

    As individuals and as a society, we have a range of options that lie between the extremes of Mahatma Gandhi and Marie Antoinette.

    Sombre thoughts at the dawn of the new year, but if we want the next year, and those that follow it, to be really happy, we need to start thinking and acting, in whatever small ways we can, to make that desire into a reality.

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