Review: A Powerful Book That Gives A ‘Heart-Wrenching’ Image Of Poverty In India

Posted on February 5, 2016 in Books

By Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi:

Image Source: Wikipedia

We have all seen poverty around us. Walking through those shabby lanes in the backyard of our walled colonies, smelling of sewage and garbage dump, snotty kids clad in tattered knickers playing barefoot in the cold cloudy afternoon, women trying to burn the damp twigs to prepare a bowl of rice outside the makeshift house made of tin shades or cardboards – but how often have we stopped by and tried to understand, why some of us have to live a life so rotten and filthy, while some of us are among the Forbes list of billionaires? Why is there such a huge gap between the rich and the poor? Why, when there is so much talk about growth and development, a huge section of our society is living in a world of perpetual poverty parallel to our world of growth and opportunity?

“Only some of them are lucky enough to find a hirer. Others go on waiting and waiting for many days, often not having enough money to eat even once in a day. They generally come to the city from neighbouring rural and semi-urban areas in the hope of making some money. They come because they have lost the traditional source of earning, their farm land slowly and slowly to moneylenders, builders, to government projects or even to banking institutions, because the funds made available to them were not enough or in time to produce enough return for them to pay back their debt and interest thereupon. Frustrated, some of them return to their native places to become bonded labourers of big landlords, while others soon become sick, meet with some accident, etc, and become incapacitated for hard labour. This source feeds the cloud of the group under discussion as the primary source or the root stock. The women and even minor girls breed in this hostile environment, not only in a family arrangement of some sort, but also, as a result of sexual exploitation by kabadiwallahs, truck and bus drivers, etc, who during their long journeys prefer to park their vehicles for a rest near such ghettos.”

tightening noose of povertyThis bone-chilling narrative is not from a war-ravaged country or a refugee camp, it is a peacetime description of the unfortunate souls who, as the author Masood Rezvi in his debut book ‘Tightening Noose Of Poverty‘ describes, are at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. The book is themed around the prevalent corporate greed based on the philosophy which looks at the world purely as a marketplace, and the ‘good business sense’ that argues wealth maximisation of the shareholders is the sole purpose of the manager in a corporation. The author presents the current economic system, its genesis and its impact on the future of earth and its inhabitants in layman’s language. The book is illustrated and a rather quick read. Since it is not a textbook, but a commentary from a personal perspective, the author has successfully managed to do away with the jargons and has presented the subject in a lucid and impactful manner.

Tightening Noose Of Poverty‘ begins with a prologue in an autobiographical narrative which makes you feel a bit confused about the motive of the author, but as you sift through the pages and reach the second chapter, you realise that the author means business. It is interspersed with powerful quotes, illustrations and images captured by the author himself to give you a sense of what he is talking about. The image of a (dead?) naked man, his belongings, that I and you call trash, lying around him in the cold winter morning, tells the horrific story of the chilling night that we might have spent in the warm cosy bed, lost in the glitters of some reality TV show.

The book is dotted with many such heart-wrenching images – kids scavenging at the trash dump, a woman carrying twigs to cook a lucky meal for her kids, another man exhausted with hunger, sleeping in the middle of a road, a colony of makeshift jhuggis made of thrown away cardboard boxes and plastic sheets with the old and still glorious clock tower of Lucknow in the backdrop reminding the heydays of the mighty British empire and the dawn of the industrial age and huge corporations.

The author draws the attention of the reader to the direction of the flow of wealth – “By common sense, it appears that the pyramid has taken its typical pyramid shape only because money has historically and traditionally moved against gravity gradient – from bottom to top.” And asks a very pertinent question right at the beginning of the book – “But how low is the bottom of pyramid? How low?” You don’t have to read through the entire book to understand the imminence of this question, you just have to look at the images and you will get to know the answer for ‘How low?’

The book seems more like a collection of essays written in different times, on different issues and in different mood, but one string that connects all these chapters like the ‘beads on a string’ is the conflict between the ‘good business sense’ and ‘do-gooding’ as the required corporate philosophy and a model for sustainable growth. The author argues that the current economic system where wealth maximisation is the sole purpose of the business managers will gradually widen the gap between the rich and the poor and will inevitably skim the earth of its resources and convert it into a barren land devoid of resources.

At this juncture, at the expense of a blurred boundary between fiction and theory, the author suggests that either the world will perish with all its inhabitants or a minuscule fraction of the super rich will flee the earth to settle on some distant planet to evolve into a new species (Homo machiavellian) leaving behind the less fortunate majority (Homo gaius) to be exploited further. The author draws a parallel between such a future and the past exploitation of the Indian sub-continent by the East India Company and plundering of India’s economy to maximise its own wealth. The complicity of the state (the crown) in this Machiavellian endeavour and their sinister ploy to divide the populace along the rifts of religion and ethnicity to divert its attention from the economic issues is evident even today in the national politics and is candidly presented by the author in the backdrop of recent unfortunate events of increasing farmer’s suicide and religious discontent of national prominence.

The author has presented few assertions based on his own experience in the banking sector and one of them caught my attention while reading the book. In the chapter dealing with the ‘farmers and debt trap’ the author asserts that if the NPA (Non Performing Assets) are categorised based on the sector, it will be evident that the major fraction of NPA will be found stuck with the big business houses – “… from my experience I do believe that NPA stuck up with big business houses is much more than the total NPA with the farm and weaker sector.”

The author seems to have missed a report in the DNA published on 18th June 2015, mentioning exactly the same – “It’s not the poor farmers or the middle class who are defaulting on their loans. It’s the country’s super rich, businessmen and the upper middle class with loan amounts of over Rs 1 crore who account for a staggering 73% of the unpaid loans to banks.” This apathy of the super-rich towards a society from where they draw their wealth, but for which they have no sense of responsibility seems to stem from the same philosophy which sees the world as a marketplace that has to be sucked till the last ounce of the resources is dried up. In this context, it is not surprising that liquor baron Vijay Malya’s birthday bash has been criticised none other than the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan.

The author believes that unless we start a culture of ‘do-good’ as the dominant culture, that we start giving back to the society, not just as a counter measure but as an instinctive behaviour to sustain and survive, our long-term existence is highly unlikely and therefore, the paradigm has to be shifted from the conventional ‘good business sense’ to ‘do-gooding’. No matter how much overarching and idealist it may sound, the do-gooding behaviour does gets rewarded, and no matter how much you think that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a waste of shareholder’s money, it, at least, serves well in the time of need – “But even if you accept Friedman’s premise and regard corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut. New research suggests that CSR may create monetary value for companies—at least when they are prosecuted for corruption.

As the author himself has mentioned at the beginning of the book, please beware of what lies ahead before you start reading the book, it will certainly change the way you look at the world around you once you will complete it. You will be forced to think about who is responsible for the disparity you see around you, the poverty that is so bizarrely and evidently spreading right under the glitters of showbiz culture that seems to have infected even the highest public offices and the ruthlessness with which the wealth and resources are being sucked up the pyramid and you will certainly hear these words echoing in your ears – Who is responsible for the present state of affairs then?

Who could be, except the ultimate sovereign? Who is the ultimate sovereign in a democracy? Who else could be, but “We the People”?