India has a long tradition of social service, social reform and voluntary agencies. NGOs emerged in India soon after Independence and Gandhi followers established voluntary agencies to work closely with the governmental programs on social and economical issues.
Working for a foreign-based NGO across India for more than four years I have for the first time got a doubt in my mind. Is India ready for development, or maybe more a more important question would be, does India really want help?
It is quite clear that India has more than enough money to help its own people. One can wonder why it seems impossible for the second largest economy in the world to provide everyone with shelter and nutritious food that would make the sclera, (the white around the eye), white instead of yellow.
In my daily life I always come across people who before asking my name ask me what I do for living. Half way through my explanation they seem highly disappointed and bothered, as if they regret they ever asked. Being engaged in NGO work is not the most respected thing to do in India, and it is definitely not the most highly paid job either. A MSW (masters of social work) earns as less as INR 5000 per month in Mumbai. This goes for a lot of professions and I will not get further in to this here.
Through my work in the slum communities and rural areas of Maharashtra I have seen a world that most Indians do not come across in a lifetime. I am not only talking about poverty here. I am talking about honest, hard working, friendly people. The things I have learned from them are invaluable.
I guess some by now must be thinking – how can she call them honest when they steal as soon as they get a chance and try to grab you when you get stuck near the traffic signal. The answer to this is pretty simple. The society is not made for them and their background will assure that they stay where they are. Wouldn’t you also steal if you got a chance?
Mumbai is by far the most international city in India. You don’t need to visit Palladium in Lower Parel on a Saturday afternoon to realize that Mumbaikars are suckers for everything with a foreign tag. Nowhere in the country can a young woman earn two lakhs a month and nowhere else will you see the gaps in the society as clear.
A few days back I went out for dinner with some friends and a bunch of people I have never met. The topic poverty was raised and one of the Indian girls said that she has never in her life seen a poor Indian. From this statement I could feel my eyebrows raise and I thought to myself that this was an interesting statement. Despite claiming that she lived in many states across the country she stood by her point that she had never come across anybody in need and further asked how “you people” can come and decide what poverty means.
My small attempt at explaining that I was not deciding how to measure poverty failed. Facts such as roughly 42% of Indians live below poverty line (which is $1.25 per day as decided by the World Bank) seemed completely unfamiliar to her.
In this moment I could not help but think that I had wasted several years of my life trying to educate the poor and to motivate them to help themselves. From this moment I understood why 55% of Mumbai´s population reside in the slums, at the same time Mr. Ambani is getting lost somewhere between the 9th and 27th floor of the world’s biggest private residence. Should I have spent my time educating the poor, or is it rather on time that the common man becomes more aware?
Some NGOs work with the concept of sustainable development. This will be successful only when the target group is ready to help themselves. But how can we expect the illiterate lot to understand the need for sustainable development when their very existence is ignored?
When it comes to family life, India is a collectivistic country. The family as a whole is in focus and not the individual. When it comes to career and success people turn individualistic. With a population of 1.3 billion people you need to fight to survive. To climb the ladder of success is not an easy task and I wonder whether it would it be possible to climb if the poor were not there as a foundation of the society.
Take the demolishment of Dharavi as an example and the plans to do so for the last so many years. Is it really the objection (among other reasons) from the locals in Dharavi, which is the cause for the slow process? What would happen to Mumbai if thousands loose their jobs and the production of goods in Dharavi stops? There is a need for the poor, and that need is uttered with closed eyes.
One day I went to somebody´s office. I got chai served in expensive china cups with gold filigree and was greeted with respect. I handed over my company magazine. Leaning back in his leather chair he had to adjust his glasses to really see what was covering the front page. A picture of a mother trying to save her child from starvation.
– Why are “you people” here to spread lies about my country?
I must say that being surrounded by educated people calling me “you people” and who do not want to see the surroundings in which they are living have made me wonder. Is India really ready for development?
Maybe it is not about “wanting” to see, but “daring”.
One thing is for sure. “The Mumbai dream” of becoming the new Shanghai will have to wait.