Sunday, May 17, 2015

Where are the poor?

I grew up in coastal Andhra (1941-54) and then got interested in mathematics and it has been a life of abstract thinking since then. My main connection with reality seem to those early years when poverty seemed to be all around. Now visits to that area are about once in year and half or so. Other NRIs from Melbourne visit more often to visit relatives or sick relatives or attend or perform weddings. I ask them about the poor. They say it is all fine now and there are very few poor. That does not correspond with my readings from Angus Deaton and others. So what goes? Again from my readings, the so called middle class in India is very small: about ten percent or so. So, I tell my friends this and say that may be they see only the relatively affluent. Some of them say that they spoke to one of their drivers. The personal drivers in India are an interesting category. Apart from driving, they do several tasks for the car owners like grocery shopping or car repairs and some of them keep a fraction of the proceedings. Since they spend a lot of time outside the house waiting for the owner's call they also interact with other drivers and one can get a lot of information and gossip about the other affluent people from them. So meeting them does not tell much about the poor.
My own impressions is that it reduced in some pockets. In coastal Andhra, I see much less beggars than those days and people do look a bit bigger than before. But it is different in Kolkata where you see a lot of thin people or the boatman on whose boat I crossed Hooghly for two rupees. I also saw women repairing tar roads with clothes tied around their feet, with babies sleeping on the roadside and they go off and on to feed them. There are some very rich neighbourhoods in Hyderabad where you dot see poor because they are kept outside by gatekeepers. But if there is a construction site, you can see many of the workers in small tents in rain and shine. In empty lots, you can sometimes see itinerant groups from medicine men to repairers camping. You can see them in the photographs of Kandukuri Ramesh Babu, or ...of lives and livelihoods series of Madhukar Shukla or from archives like those of P.Sainath. But we do not usually see them from our friends on Facebook which often show paunchy people attending functions or enjoying good food.
May be we cannot see misery all the time. We want to make our own spaces and live in some sort of comfort. After all, we have to make a livelihood, achieve some thing, caught up in these paradigms of growth and achievement. And anecdotal evidence and our own experiences are unreliable. Nor data as Angus Deaton and Tom Slee point out.
P.S. On my wall, Professor Shkla responded:
that's an interesting blog and observation, Prof!
the trend of keeping poor out of the frame in bollywood perhaps started with a film "Dil Chahta Hai" some 10-15 years back (good entertaining film, but that perhaps was the first of this kind showing a 
different sanitized reality), and now there are many movies which would fall into this category.
incidentally, poor have not disappeared - they are all around - in and in the backyard of most prosperous places... but mostly we dont "see" them

My response:
Professor Shukla, I see it a bit differently. We had this exclusion from times immemorial (for lower castes who were essentially poor and in Europe for Jews and Gypsies). During independence movement, there was some flowering of ideas but leadership was mostly from the privileged groups. I think films were influenced by this flowering as well as money at the bottom of the pyramid. That is why classical music, dance previously the exclusive to the privileged classes was reluctantly (remember the Keskar ban) 'diluted' (though some forms were originally adopted from folk idioms) to appeal to the masses. But now with a bigger middle class and NRI market, films can afford to ignore the poor again. Many sceneries in Piku look like those in Hollywood movies, highways, roadside restaurants etc. I think that there is also resurgence of classical music and dance among the middle classes and NRIs.  May be.

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