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December 12, 2008

Question by the "COMMON MAN" : How wretched do I have to be?

Filed under: common man, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 05:26

This is in response to an article that was sent to me by a friend.

The article mentions the following:

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“The hard reality of this country is that we are living in two Indias. One is for the rich, who matter, and one is for the poor, who are invisible,” said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who runs Social Jurist, a group that litigates education cases on behalf of the marginalized sections of society. “In India, you can use the poor for your benefit. He should cook your meals, wash your utensils, scrub your clothes, but when it comes to doing justice for the victims of other bombings, there wasn’t this level of outrage. When poor people were attacked, the country wasn’t suddenly insecure. This is a fundamental injustice, and it has led to authorities ignoring attacks.”

Mumbai, with more than 14 million people, is India’s most populous city and has often suffered tragedy. In 2005, monsoon flooding killed more than 400 people in the city in one day, and the main victims were the poor. One Indian media study found that a fashion event got more local coverage than the flooding, which affected many slum dwellers. Mumbai is home to Asia’s largest slums.

Although India’s economy is booming, poverty runs deep. Nearly half of all Indian children are clinically malnourished or underweight, on par with the rate in Bangladesh and worse than in Ethiopia, according to UNICEF. Even as the economy has grown by up to 8 percent, child malnutrition has declined only one percentage point, to 46 percent, in seven years, according to a 2007 National Family Health Survey, part of a government report.
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This article defines a common man with a bar that is too high. As per their definition of a common man, I would not be a common man. A majority of AIDers would also not be common men (or women).

The article says that train bombings only affected “really poor people”, and in saying so, it completely ignores local realities. What, really does the article think a middle class individual is? I remember traveling to college everyday in a second class compartment in Mumbai with 10-15 of my friends. I too may have been dead if the attack were on my compartment. My mom missed the 1993 blasts by a hair’s breadth. I was significantly pained by the developments of July 26th, when Mithi river combined with rains lashed the city. Several of my friends lost their apartments with everything in it. Some of my colleagues had friends who died saving lives. Articles such as these do not do justice to the individuals mentioned above. I agree that media attention for the Taj attack shows how high-society damages are being considered very important. But at the other end, it is also fashionable to highlight only the “completely helpless”. There is someone in the middle who always loses out. 🙂

This someone in the middle is the householder who owns a scooter (If he has a car, he is in pretty bad shape, since he is too filthy rich), has a mortgage on a flat (If he owns one, hard luck – the Govt should be doing nothing for him), two kids who go to school, and a job (or two) that consistently lets the family meet ends. The family tries its best to save, it is conscious of society, but its consciousness is either directed towards religious charity, or it is very busy in maintaining a tight ship. In the worst case, the consciousness is overwhelmed by the feeling of “Every man to his own – no one is helping me, so why should I help others.”. This someone in the middle is often ignored by the media and establishment.

But then, why am I writing this email to you, and not to someone else, maybe the editor of the Washington Post. This brings me to the real grudge. I have always been outraged that our establishment exhibits callous behavior when common people die. It’s reaction to the parliament attacks has been significantly different from say, the July 26th rains in Mumbai, Bihar floods, 1993 bomb blasts, Bhopal tragedy, the train bombings, and for a host of other issues. However, I also have a grudge that this person in the middle is systematically ignored by NGOs as well.

It is neither right, nor necessary for most NGOs to stick to this definition. Of course, the poor appeal as poster ads, but in the long run it is very damaging if the NGOs seek holistic and sustainable development. The issues of a middle-class individual – “access to clean water, decent roads, honest establishment, honest livelihood, nice education” are very much in line with those of “the poor”. One blame that can be placed on the middle-class individuals is that they are not (yet) 100% desperate for these resources, and have not (yet) extinguished the facilities at their disposal to guard families from a lack of resources.

I have held a household in India now only for about 3 months. In these short 3 months, I have begun to learn why it is very difficult for the so called middle-class to sustain themselves, and why they find it extremely un-realistic to help others. Few examples:

1. I have acquaintaces who hold top jobs, and would in no way fall under the category of “opressed”. Their kids receive education in a decent school amongst several other “decent” ones. The student teacher ratio is 1-60. The education he gets is nowhere close to marginally good, let alone ideal. The civics and moral science class is a heap of rubbish. What, then is the position of NGOs here?

2. I had been to the police station recently. It was incredible to note the level of apathy meted out to the ordinary police by our establishment. For the kind of facilities provided to them by our Govt., the work they do is amazing. I can only imagine what they would be able to do if someone were to ensure them security of their families and decent living condition. This police, alas will also fall below the bar of “the common man” who should be helped.

3. Several flats in Bangalore have to purchase bottled water. It has come to be accepted as a norm. The ground water is horrible. The middle class has not been told that this is sub-standard living. They will continue buying water because they do not know any alternative. I do not know if there is any solution for this.

4. Teachers in private schools do not get paid the salary they have signed up for. Almost all work for peanuts, while parents dole out significant amounts by way of fees.

There are several instances where the “middle man” always loses out and no one even likes to comment about it. Presumably, he has the ability to help himself. The latter is alas, just a presumption and very far fromt he truth. I would go further to say that if we do not help these individuals, NGOs and politico-social organizations (like Governments) are losing out on a large support base. If we can provide them with some simple assistance, some semblance of social responsibility in their daily lives, they can potentially become a sustainable force that will ultimately assist social development. This “person in the middle” has incredible resilience, the ability to help himself, and the intent to help others. But he needs assistance. The person is regrettably always ignored in the cross-fire between “high-society” and “marginalized”…

I guess if I had to summarize this in one line, I would put it as follows:
“How wretched should I be to get help from your hands?”

BTW, for those who know me better, I am not going to stop the current activities I am involved in. This entry mentions what I think is in-appropriate ethics on behalf of various establishments. I will continue my current work, and strive to create gradual changes.


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