If you read articles on websites and are on social media, you couldn’t have missed an article titled, “The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed: Millennials Who’re Broke, Hungry, But On Trend", on Buzzfeed. Thanks to everyone posting the article, I decided I must read about the “urban poor" and their travails. To say that I am stumped by the total disconnect from reality while discussing “this particular brand of urban poverty" would be an understatement.

A woman who bought a car with her first salary. And then had to live and sleep in it.

A young journalist who refused to eat the whole day, despite having subsidised food available in the office canteen, but would pay 200 to buy a sandwich at Le Pain Quotidien.

“These are the urban poor. Objectively and relative to a vast majority of Indians, they aren’t ‘poor’ at all. But they’re certainly hungry and broke a lot. These are the metro-dwelling twentysomethings who’ve internalised the pressures surrounding them, and spend a majority of their salaries on keeping up the lifestyles and appearances that they believe are essential to earning those salaries."

Actually, these are what we call first world problems in a third world country. The last thing these people are is “poor"—urban or otherwise. Purely because they have a choice—to buy a car or to pay rent. To have food in office or to buy a 200 sandwich. The power of choice is what separates them from the “poor".

The “urban poor" are the people who are homeless, living on the pavements in our city, keeping their belongings in plastic packets which they store in the bushes. The “urban poor" is the 13-year-old girl at the chai shop, who finishes school in the morning and rushes home to sell tea to help her parents make ends meet every day. The primary reason she goes to school is not female emancipation, but because the school provides her a meal of puri alu and a glass of milk every day. It’s free food and comes with a spot of education.

The “urban poor" is the boy who worked in my friend’s office. An accounts executive who came dressed in clean, pressed clothes to work, but never invited anyone home. His home was one of those big cement pipes we pass on the side of the road. Later, he earned enough money to rent a small apartment for his family. The “urban poor" is my maid, who spends every penny she earns by the end of the month, paying rent, putting her kids through school, buying new but ordinary clothes for them and taking them for a treat once a week. And having to eat lunch at one of the homes she works in, because she can’t afford to provide two square meals for herself and her children. So she chooses to skip a meal herself, so her children eat better.

That is “urban poverty".

Not someone who lives in a home with a pucca roof and electricity and water. And goes to an air-conditioned office and chooses not to eat the food on offer. Poverty-stricken people have no choice—and no daddy or mummy to send them money or an inheritance to dip into. The real “urban poor" work 18-hour days, usually as daily labour, and go home to sleep on the pavement, because no one will rent them a home (because they’ve always been street dwellers) or give them a job in an office or a house.

The people described in the article are entitled, deluded and utterly irresponsible. And no excuse should be made for their actions and decisions. When you make an excuse for them, you are enabling them to carry on the vicious cycle of their foolishness. What they need is to be shaken up and told to be responsible and live within their means.

“Marketing guys who starve all day to buy one coffee at a five-star hotel."

Or “when someone starts bringing their own lunch to work one day". Which, by the way, actually makes you more popular than those who order in. Thanks to me bringing home-cooked food, I had to speak to people I didn’t want to speak to. It’s great for popularity. Since that’s all these 20-somethings supposedly seem to want.

The people being described and molly-coddled are people who have gotten an education in an English-medium school, have been given the confidence and privilege by their parents to leave home and find work in another city and live independently. And have the safety net of daddy or mummy or grand-daddy’s wealth.

They have the two other essentials that “poor" people don’t have—privilege and opportunity.

That they choose to squander this privilege and opportunity because they want to keep up with the Chopras is not to be explained away in pithy statements. “Somehow, we’ve built a culture that places such immense value in appearances that we’d rather spend a lot to appear full than spend a little bit to buy food".

Nobody has built any such culture. There are people who think appearances matter, and others who don’t. The culture is in their own heads. It is up to you to choose your peers and if you have the poor judgment to choose the Louis Vuitton-owner over the I-don’t-know-where-my-bag’s-from owner, more fool you. Don’t blame society for this. Or your job. I would blame your parents though, because while growing up you’ve been taught that the wrong things matter.

I’ve worked across industries—starting with what could only be called being a daily wage labourer for a PR diva who paid me 100 per working day. From the time I was 22, I have lived away from home. On my own. And till the age of 32, I footed my own bills with my salary. After which I came into some money and lost most of it by starting my own restaurant. But in the beginning of my professional life, I lived with and socialised with people just like me, who had the privilege of education and opportunity and self-confidence. We earned very little, lived in “flats" which were actually converted one-room “servant’s quarters". We couldn’t afford a car for the longest time, we rented our ACs and fridges, travelled everywhere by auto, ate fairly well and dressed decently. No one frowned on our lack of riches, and we couldn’t care if they did.

Yes, we did without drinking cocktails at fancy pubs. And waited for family friends, relatives and slightly richer people to show us the good life—when they’d visit town and take us for a fancy meal. But we were never starving ourselves to buy a drink at Djinn’s, because that’s what the cool kids did. And it’s not just us who were such pinnacles of responsibility. Our promotions—and the promotions we gave others—were dependent on work. Not on our or their shoes or ability to buy a Starbucks coffee.

I’ve led teams of many 20-somethings, and worked in offices full of them as well. And for the most part they’ve been sensible kids. Living within their means. Dressing decently, and living a pretty good life. Yes, at the end of the month, they all look a little sad, when the back account dips to triple digits. As did I. And still do when the cheque doesn’t come in on time or someone reneges on a payment. But none of these youngsters go off the rails as a result. There are always the one or two entitled ones—usually from richer homes than those of others—who would fall into this “urban poor" category. But they are the aberration, not the norm. And they need to be called out for their skewed priorities, instead of being pandered to.

There is not one person I know, from my generation to the current millennials, who while living and working outside the city their family lives in, hasn’t had to count their pennies and live in horrible rooms at the start of their career. (And I’m not counting those whose parents pay their rents and send them pocket money.) Or hasn’t needed to borrow some money either from a parent or a generous friend, at some point. But we have all survived, and none of us have had the temerity to call ourselves “poverty"-stricken. Other than with our tongues firmly in our cheeks.

I am one of many who—because I didn’t want to ask my parent for money after wanting to shift out of my home city—changed professions. If you want a comfortable life, there are more sensible ways of doing so than by going broke. And honestly, the person who bought a car with her first salary and now lives in it, instead of selling it and paying rent, is not particularly sensible. The anecdote sounds incredibly far-fetched. And anyone who decides to buy a car in a city like Mumbai, which has the best public transport in town, including AC cabs, and opts to live in it instead of paying rent should be sacked from her job. For being a poor decision-maker.

Honestly, if you’re skipping a meal so you can buy a Mango shirt or a Starbucks coffee, you’re not very bright and need to get your priorities straight. And no one should make an excuse for your lack of sense.

The closing paragraph is on how the urban “poor" become “a member of a tribe that understands what’s going on, starts losing weight, starts spending nights at the office to avoid paying for the commute. If you’ve felt that hunger, even briefly, even a long time ago, you see it everywhere you look".

Hunger. Poverty. Poor. It’s not so much the anecdotes as the words used that are jarring. And an insult to those who actually make up the “urban poor" demographic in our cities. I’ve always been a fan of Marie Antoinette, but suggesting that some people should be pitied and pampered because they chose to have a really expensive mille-feuille pastry instead of chapati and alu from the office canteen, at the risk of bankruptcy, is beyond laughable.

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