How Long Will We Allow the West to Sell Indian Poverty?

Posted on February 20, 2012 in Media, Society

By Astitwa:

After the entire hullabaloo at the Jaipur Literature festival, we have something new to focus upon. In design, it is refreshing, deeply incisive, fast-paced, bewildering but in substance, it is the same—embarrassing, trivial and outright pathetic for any Indian citizen. Hail the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo for her three years of intense reporting that has produced yet another western masterpiece, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forever: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai under city’, that is a reminder of Indian poverty in the slums of Annawadi and Dharavi in the financial city of India, Mumbai. Flash back to 2008 and you will be able to recall the Oscar winning Slum dog Millionaire that displayed the fragile state of our country, its striking inequality, through some wonderful cinematic and media lenses. Boo’s book and Boyle’s Slum dog both remind us of one obvious reality, which we can hardly deny. Both these exemplary works of art and journalism point out to the same fact, the tantalization of western imagination with the Indian poverty, especially in slums.

If I drop the eyes of a movie buff or a literary critic and distance myself from all the hype surrounding such works, I can witness, deep in my heart, a feeling of embarrassment and to some extent, pain. Why only Indian slums represent to the west a sorry state of affairs? Why only the middle class aspirations of those in utter penury in the Asia’s largest slums paint a picture of helplessness, abject poverty and survival? Urban poverty that is metamorphosing into flourishing slums is known to us. Isn’t it? Are we or the Indian government not aware of Dharavi? Why we need the Western imagination to stir our collective consciousness? It isn’t that there are no slums in Brazil or South Africa? But have you ever heard of movies, books, art exhibitions regarding Rio de Janeiro’s biggest slum or Cape Town’s shantytowns? I bet you haven’t. It is always India.

In the circumstances that have prevailed in the last ten years, poverty in Indian slums has become the new face of India. And why not? Even if we relentlessly boast of our stupendous growth in the last decade, the reality of poverty can’t be denied. The social, political and economic divide between the poorest in the country and the obscenely rich is a fact that we have now accepted with ease. The enigma and the creative streak such inequalities arouse, compel directors and creative professionals to spend millions in filming poverty and helplessness. If we dig deeper, we can easily understand why the 27 floor Antilla of Mukesh Ambani, the sea-facing house of Jindal’s or the several multi-crore apartments in posh South Mumbai coexist in deeper harmony with the slums surrounding Mumbai. The entire areas of South Mumbai, Coloba, the oh-so-wow Marine Drive, everything was constructed by the colonial powers, the western elite for giving the then Mumbai, a status of thriving metropolis. As the entire development and richness was distributed in such posh areas, the chawls and the slums were pushed back to North Mumbai. The apathy that a significant population suffered at the hands of colonial powers was deepened post Independence, when the fragile Indian population rose to earn livelihood and started migrating to Mumbai for work. The dream city, Mumbai, in the past decades has hence seen population explosion and several other realities of a highly urbanized city.

The Indian government that runs on the premises and laws enshrined in the Indian constitution, borrowed from constitutions of several western countries, has been unable to change the needs of Mumbai with time. So, in a city that has followed colonial architecture, town planning and demographic divisions, it isn’t surprising when the west still views India through the same old lenses and looks down upon us. So, a western reporter stays in an Indian slum for years documenting stories of grit, survival and poverty, and we are in awe of her. The west becomes thrilled in such pieces of narrative non-fiction that can keep them hooked for hours, as it is ironically thrilling to experience and know about a world where one has never been. So, Boo’s one-liners like, “We are the garbage between the roses’ make tremendous impact on the psyche. It becomes surrealistic for the west to even think about a place that is just behind the world’s third best airport, but is laden in garbage and excreta, with flies hovering over them. It becomes enticing to know that behind the facade of international city there lies a city that exists in multiple identities, which anyone can explore and write about.

Commercializing poverty and pouring out empathy and sadness for people who dream to get out of their adversities has for long been a part of entertainment and media industry. So, even if the ten-year-old son Azharuddin (young ‘Jamal’ in Slumdog) flies back to Mumbai from LA, he is afraid, if he will be able to take his family out of Dharavi. If that one-movie, where he rises to fame to earn millions, will translate into reality. We, the Indian intelligentsia accept stories of such miseries and Indian poverty thanking the western counterpart to have showed us our flaws. But the truth is that, we are to be blamed for it equally. We as a nation haven’t been able to integrate the poor into the mainstream society. The inequality is widening. Indian failure to handle poverty is an altogether new story. But we should do something about it soon, because even after 65 years of Independence, we can’t let the west make us realize how poor we are in implementation and execution of social policies. The world, even the US and UK are facing the issues of financial exclusion but it is not as pathetic as in India, with one of the highest populations in the world, living below poverty line. It is time we rise to the occasion and strengthen our social policies. Or else, we must be ready to sell our poverty stories to the west, without any guilt. After all, they have given us railways and phenomenal architecture that is sufficient for us to boast about forever. We won’t create something phenomenal from our own, not even our social policies. We always need their inputs, masqueraded in harsh truths and fabricated lies.