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Irrespective of whether you are a freelance humanitarian or a freelance patriot, a fact that is beyond dispute is that the country treats its poor very badly. (Photo: Bloomberg)
Irrespective of whether you are a freelance humanitarian or a freelance patriot, a fact that is beyond dispute is that the country treats its poor very badly. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Opinion | Why India should treat its poor as though they are rich

This idea may sound ludicrous at first glance but there is evidence to suggest that it’s possible

All Indians are poverty-alleviation experts; their need to depute the task to the right authorities is often what their tweets, evening chats and morning walks are all about. India is obsessed with poverty. Most of our policies are about the eradication of poverty; most of our funds are dedicated to the poor. That Indians are still poor is not the perplexing element in this—there will always be the poor as long as there are the rich, and India’s poor are way better today than the abject poor of our childhood. What is perplexing is the way India treats its poor. This has not changed.

Irrespective of whether you are a freelance humanitarian or a freelance patriot, a fact that is beyond dispute is that the country treats its poor very badly.

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Across India, in the name of fighting a pandemic, India has beaten up its poor, denied them their livelihood, made them run behind trucks for food, and forced thousands of families to walk hundreds of kilometres to their villages, letting some people die on the way. A few days ago, more than a dozen men travelled inside a cement mixer to escape detection. You may say, or you may not say but discreetly believe, given the logician that you are, that poverty has rough consequences, so what is the surprise? But then, even if we adjust for the misfortunes of poverty, India tends to treat its poor with a degree of cruelty that economics and practicality do not justify. This is unnecessary.

How then can India treat its poor better?

The problem is that India treats its poor like they are poor. This is our central flaw. When India says all Indians are equal, the country is not entirely being economical with the truth. The trouble is that India treats all Indians as though they are poor.

The poor, usually, have very low standards for themselves. Most visuals emanating from covid stories are actually not very shocking for the poor. Even in peace time, the poor do walk extraordinary distances in the sun, carrying heavy objects and other humans, if they don’t have a choice. Even in peace time, they run behind stray buses and travel inside cement mixers. A vulgar truth of life is that most of what appears to be misery to us is not so miserable to the immiserated.

These low standards for life and living, while practical, are useless for a country like India that is on course to be a much better place. The way forward is not to let the poor set standards for themselves and the nation. India must set a very high bar for the living standards of the poor.

As a reporter, I used to frequently encounter an attitude that concerned air-conditioning. Not about it being a luxury—which it was and still is. But that the poor do not “deserve" air-conditioning. Not only because they will not pay for it, but also because they do not expect to be so well treated.

At the heart of the good that Indians try to do—not only through policy but also through pious activism—there is this unspoken sense that low standards “will do" for the poor. India’s very definition of comfort is a state of being that is inaccessible to the poor. Often, we pay not for the quality of service, experience, home or education, but for keeping the poor out.

Low standards for the poor are embedded in all the cures that India prescribes for poverty. It begins in the faulty middle-class academic conjecture of what the poor want. There is this overrating of food, a certain cultural oversensitivity to the act of eating. It is not a surprise that the moment there is a crisis, the government announces that every poor person will get two bags of starch.

The poor themselves have been demonstrating standards of living that are somewhat higher. The poor routinely reject the low-quality schools that many state governments build for their poor, and instead splurge on superior schools. Many long-distance walkers of the pandemic, for instance, dragged suitcases with wheels. I am not saying suitcases with wheels are a sign of new wealth, but they represent a visual of poverty that is very different from governmental and journalistic projections.

People who are not poor are constantly guessing what being poor might be like. And the poor play along, trying to guess the right things they must say to satisfy those who ask.

The problem with conjecture is that it is a talent; to guess a whole experience you have never endured is a talent, and most people do not have this intuition. As a result, they have wrong perceptions of poverty, and they keep lowering standards for the poor to such levels that they unknowingly start treating the poor like some other species. For instance, the notion that what the poor need is food, food and more food.

Here is a suggestion. India should instead treat its poor as though they form the country’s upper middle class. This might seem ludicrous at first glance, but when we come down to what it would imply, the idea is much simpler to comprehend.

For a start, the police should not hit the poor at will. Cops don’t hit you, as you could testify, so we know that this is possible. Also, don’t make schools for them that are useless; nor hospitals that are filthy. Kerala and the Delhi government have demonstrated that this is also possible. Give them expansive playgrounds and nature and beauty. Many of them grew up in exquisite places, after all. And let them travel in great comfort. The Delhi Metro, and the metro systems of many other cities, have shown that this, too, is possible. And that if you treat the poor well, the poor will follow all the rules. It is in the nature of the poor to love the government.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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