Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story. The acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire employed a compelling metaphor to express the deprivations holding back India’s poor: a make-believe reality TV show.
Earlier this month, it seems, that fantasy world came true. In the first season of the reality show India’s Got Talent, a dance troupe of young day labourers from an impoverished district of Orissa took home the Rs50 lakh prize money—and won the hearts of India’s television viewers.
But the very same reason their story has generated so much buzz—that the dancers overcame seemingly insurmountable odds—is also its most disheartening. Is it plausible for day labourers from Orissa to earn Rs50 lakh in any other way than the one-in-a-million shot on a glitzy TV show?
The Prince Dance Group won the contest on the merits of their performance. But their personal histories augment their success on the show: They lacked professional training, and came from destitution.
Opportunity in India has increased over the past few decades. But it’s not evenly distributed among the population, nor among India’s regions. Informal day labourers in Orissa do not have the access to opportunity that any urban-based formal sector employee does.
We need to think hard about how to extend opportunity to India’s poor. The metaphor is often over-used, but there really are two Indias: formal sector PAN card-wielding employees, and informal sector unskilled labour. These two worlds need to be better integrated.
This is not an easy task, but equality of opportunity is paramount for a true, substantive democracy—not simply a procedural one. There are some who say that India’s poor should be capable of taking care of themselves, or bettering their own situations. Some might say the poor are intrinsically incapable of accomplishment, and therefore responsible for their own misery.
The Prince Dance Group demonstrates that success can come from even destitution. Now imagine all the Prince Dance Groups that could exist if they were given the opportunity.
These dancers certainly deserve applause for their success. But winning India’s Got Talent shouldn’t be the only opportunity for India’s poor to climb out of poverty.
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