Before my time in India the words ‘poverty’ and ‘India’ had a very close association for me. Essentially going off what’s presented in the media and said to each other, I thought of poverty as the dominant story of India.
Walking through Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, many preconceptions of poverty were quickly challenged. About 700,000 people live in just 2 square kilometres. With a large industry, approximately $800 million of income is generated every year. It’s important to remember that this slum is considered ‘five stars’ due to its infrastructure and it has the highest literacy rate of all Indian slums, so our experiences there aren’t necessarily reflective of Indian slums. But there did seem to be a mix of realities. The sewerage and crammed walkways were followed by booming business operations, a notable lack of beggars and 6 people living in a space the size of a small flat bedroom. One must ask why it is that the world’s most expensive house, costing $1.5 Billion nzd, is just a few kilometres away from 6 million people living in Mumbai’s slums. People possibly living in conditions far worse than Dharavi. Residents of the slum told us that Mukesh Ambani, the owner, has never helped Dharavi. As outside westerners, we must be careful to consider context and complexity when questioning such severe inequality.
Perhaps preconceptions are partially a means of constructing a belief of control over what is next. But India loosens that drive for control. When being driven in a tuktuk, I’ve had to accept coming within inches of crashing into cows, people and vehicles. Another preconception I had was that poverty would be everywhere, yet it is only part of India’s contemporary story. I couldn’t foresee the number of beggars who have multiple missing limbs. I’ve realised we often think of poverty in parts of Asia, Africa or South America, yet neglect poverty in Aotearoa. Many criticise India’s Hindu caste system. An irony is we have our own form of an ‘Untouchables’ caste; New Zealand’s 40,000 homeless people. Having said that, the scale and severity is far worse in India. Below is a picture taken at our hotel, with a hidden corrugated iron slum enclave next to a helipad equipped sky scraper.
From my privileged position, I’m able to wonder if we are ‘impoverished’ in terms of our diversity, collectiveness and sense of community in New Zealand.
None of these questions or nuances change the fact that poverty is far from a theoretical debate for so many of our fellow human beings. People who we offer sympathy to yet never interact with. It means daily struggles with starvation, malnutrition, lack of education, disease and more. It means a woman with a leg missing not being able to afford a train ticket to Jaipur Foot, where she can receive a free limb within 24 hours. In India, 20% of the population (270 million people) are deemed as poor by the World Bank. In India, 39 out of every 1000 children die before the age of 5. One dollar means a lot to them.
But I cannot possibly imagine what it is truly like, I can only try to understand the present and look to the future. 73 million Indians are in extreme poverty, with that number expected to plummit to 20 million in the next four years. So this horrific life remains for tens of millions of people, but things are improving on an unimaginable scale. Education is known to be a way out. We saw this in the passion of teachers Nirmal Sewa School in Delhi, which helps lift a diverse group of students out of poverty. We saw this at Akshya Patra, which makes lunches for 18 million impoverished school kids every day. These are changes which we in Aotearoa must learn about and become a part of. We cannot do so if we dismiss India as a land of continued poverty and nothing else.