Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.

Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.

I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in  buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work.  Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!

Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.

While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.

Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).

Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.

Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….

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One thought on “Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

  1. Very interesting indeed! It seems that certain aspects of urban poverty in the US is showing up in urban India. We ( as in me and my social worker biwi) have always distinguished US poverty from Indian poverty by the inability of the urban poor to use the social services to move out. This we believe is due to the lack of aspirations(non-materialistic aspirations) and education. But it seems this is creeping into urban India as well.

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