The Point About The ‘Urban Poor’ That EVERYONE Missed Out On

Posted on May 7, 2016 in Society, Staff Picks

By Titas De Sarkar:

Students attending the Public Hearing to oppose FYUP at Delhi University.

It all started with a few anecdotes. Bear with me while I bite the dust. So, this friend of mine comes to Delhi, with an adequately paid job. However what she really likes to do is to write, be creative, and try to make a living out of it. Soon, she tries to balance this with a new part-time job and finds herself delivering every writing project on time. All could have been well – except, the pay cheques weren’t coming so frequently anymore. Freelance writing jobs don’t pay on time – big surprise! Most of these ‘free-thinkers’ are “anti-nationals” anyway, so who cares.

All this storytelling inspired by true events is in relation to that now trending article published on BuzzFeed about ‘The Urban Poor…‘ and a reply to that on titled ‘India’s Entitled Millennials…‘. While the former talks about a culture of forced consumption and holding up appearances just to keep that pretension of a happening life going on for as long as possible, the latter article points out the obvious – that urban poverty couldn’t possibly include the Starbucks-loving generation who doesn’t know a thing about ‘real’ lack in life.

What both these articles completely disregard is the ever-growing population of the youth who are neither the ‘urban poor’ in the strict sense of the term nor are those whose lunch comes from Le Pain Quotidien. There is a vast population in all the urban centres of India, that woman in Delhi being just one of them, where the youth is making a living for themselves and are desperately struggling with the daily challenges of living on their own. Yes, the concern is primarily about money because, irrespective of that “informal survey” in the second article, there are thousands out there trying to live by far less than Rs.50,000 a month. These wo/men are hunting apartments, are forced to pay the brokers lacking the required knowledge about the cities they come to, often sharing these apartments with one or two others – mostly with strangers to begin with. Sharing of private space itself brings one to the first article. It is not only about choosing to share an expensive 2BHK flat with someone else just to prove to themselves as much as to the others that their struggle has tangible returns but also very much for that strategic location or the security the housing complex provides. Decisions are made not merely on one’s preferences, but according to the basic requirements, in a country which is not really up there as far as safety of its citizens is concerned.

Since we are talking about the youth, let us consider those who are not yet employed, but are nevertheless staying outside the financial certainties of their families. The students who are going to study to the various universities across the country from their home state are a classic example. These students are getting enrolled on merit and due to governmental subsidies – which one gets reminded of every other day – are able to pursue their research, even if they come from very modest backgrounds. Now, the basic monthly fellowship they receive ranges between Rs. 5000-Rs.8000, and at best it hovers around Rs.20,000 (this is for the social science students. Although the condition of the researchers in the Science departments is not much different). This in big cities like Delhi is peanuts, even after those subsidies. Not only do they have to take care of the fundamental aspects of living a life, everything related to transport, acquiring materials for research or cost of stationeries to photocopying must be managed within that amount. One should also remember that these scholarships are not for graduate or post-graduate students who are the majority in this category of students. It goes without saying that financial assistance is received by many from their families. However, it starts drying up as one goes to the other side of twenty-five and continues to stay in academic circles. Thus, the need again for that odd job here and a temporary project there. There is a very strong foundation to movements like Occupy UGC, and one must talk about these young hopefuls, who are working through their anxieties of trying to fend for themselves and simultaneously dealing with academic deadlines. For them, there is a financial crunch even without any kinds of pretension, without those “injudicious culinary choices” or Nike shoes. Another true story – a friend gets repeatedly selected for various International Conferences around the world, but couldn’t attend a single one of them because of lack of funding from either of the countries. And he is not alone. Lack of money with a certain section of middle-class youth is a real problem. Even for those who have jobs, in the face of rising rent prices to that of inflation in the market. They do not have government subsidies, and budget allocation amongst them is a serious concern.

One cannot avoid talking about leisure time and the spaces a part of the youth inhabit to get entertained. And this is where the unintentional peer pressure comes up. Going back to the students, or people who are in between jobs, a group of friends comprises of individuals with varying purchasing power. And it becomes a challenge in the sense the first article rightly talks about awkwardness about splitting the bill equally, amongst other things. Let us not immediately jump into a debate about the necessities of venturing into fine-dining hotspots when one can’t afford it, but it must be understood that one doesn’t choose her/his friends on the basis of financial compatibility (not always). Now, one can criticise this mall-hopping food-court hungry generation all they want, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this has after all, become the definition of a day-out to the majority middle-class urban population, across ages. And that doesn’t mean that many are not having problems with it. It doesn’t have to be a daily affair for them to go to pubs and cafes (unlike the people mentioned in the first article), but precisely because it is occasional, it is hard to back out from it.

Which brings us to the root of the problem. Why is the youth suddenly out of cash? One half of the explanation has already been discussed above – the growing mobility of the youth for education and jobs like never before. This is partially related to the decision of a section of the middle-class youth to live outside the guardianship of their parents and family members. This social freedom is not entirely synchronised with the financial one, and therefore the problems. This is very unlike the situation in post-Second World War USA or West Europe, when the youth were breaking away from their families in an economy which could provide them with enough jobs. In a developing economy, this has proved to be illusory, and thus the mismatch.

The other half of the explanation is the ideological structure(s) we are under, in general. This is a world where choices are made for us, which overloads us with information about where to go, the ‘happening’ spots in the city, the way to dress up, the way to present oneself to stay ‘in the game’. There’s no denying that everybody likes appreciation in some form or the other, and the internet is telling us the easiest way to get some. Again, there could be no end to criticisms on this self-validation via Facebook, but we are living under the umbrella of a capitalistic order that has ordered our lives which we are only ready to follow mindlessly. Most of us are not aware of the mechanisms at play behind the stage, making us choose the lifestyles we are choosing, the rest are in denial. There’s a popular saying that is making the rounds on facebook itself – ‘make your life as cool as you pretend it to be on facebook’. How many could after all go against the grain of the market economy to create newer cultures of entertainment and satisfaction? How many could identify the fact that this constant ordeal of maintaining personal finances is tied up with that ever vivacious photograph of the ‘employee of the month’ or that flash sale post-midnight?

The only thing that is left to be said is whether a shortage of money – be it due to lack of steady income or choices made under certain structural pressures – could be termed as poverty by default? A personal understanding is in the negative. Poverty by its definition is a prolonged state of lack, while we could think of this trend as a phase. Students often get temporary jobs if not permanent ones, the employed youth get better offers and new faces take over their distress. However, definition gets revised based on changing circumstances. This challenge that urban India and the middle-class youth is coping with is a fairly recent one – in a majorly globalised world witnessing a kind of information revolution and homogenisation of work&play structures. Many are outside it, many aren’t.

In such a context, one could think of differentiating between Poverty spoken of in absolute terms and then the kinds of poverties that are contingent, relative but are very much experienced on an everyday level, which affects one’s choices and has an impact on people’s decision-making process. Speaking about these poverties is important because at the moment India has the world’s largest youth population. It is important because more than 50% of India’s population is below 25. It is important because youth unemployment was almost 13% in 2013. It is important in order to recognise how diverse both the terms ‘middle-class’ and ‘youth’ are – and while being ‘broke’ is too common a complaint among them to ignore, the class composition within these categories – and consequently their poverties – are multi-layered. Because it is not always of their own making, and even when it is, one needs to explore the disturbing reasons forcing them to an unstable present and an uncertain future.