By Sreeja Karanam:
Does the image on the right shock you?
It wouldn’t shock me either. With a vast increase in technology and media, we are constantly exposed to pictures and stories of people living in slums in today’s modern culture – something I like to call the desensitization phenomena (also happening with the chain of ISIS terrorist attacks for a more recent example).
This phenomenon is one of the main culprits in the lack of aid and awareness for war, poverty and disease-stricken countries. We, as a society, have become so used to seeing such pictures and videos that it has desensitised us, and so we go back to our little bubble of “I shouldn’t take what I have for granted.”
But, all the media does is divide us even further and the pictures you see floating around on Facebook and Instagram are merely instigators of deception. The reality is far from it.
This year, during my trip in India, I wanted to see the harsh reality of life – what life was like on the other side of the coin – the rusty, broken and corrupt side of the coin.
Over 3 billion people, that’s just short of half of the world’s population, live in poverty. Of that 1 billion children suffer from malnutrition, stricken with disease and of that, 22,ooo children die every day as a result. This is the side we do not see.
The grass is always greener on the other side, with Western countries having had developments in infrastructure and economy over the past century leading to a higher quality of life for citizens. Levels of poverty in the EU stood at 16% in 2010 – which is significantly low as the figure takes into account the poverty levels of its 28 members. Now, compare this figure to the 48.5% of people living below the poverty line in Africa.
What makes India stand out is that it has one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world and an array of recent achievements in technology, industry and entrepreneurship – it strides confidently towards a better future. But, in the world’s largest democracy, more than 300 million Indians are victims of hunger, illiteracy and disease with 23.6% of these unfortunates living below the poverty line. This is far from the country Mahamta Gandhi envisioned.
I have met people who have lived in slums their whole lives and their stories fascinated me. The person above is one such example: having been born into the lowest caste, his family was ostracised by society and this meant that they were not allowed to be educated and were given very little, if not no, job opportunities. The stigma of being a Dalit is very much alive today, also known as the ‘untouchables’, and due to this he could not be the breadwinner his family desperately needed. As I was speaking to him, I could smell the alcohol off his breath and when I stepped into his home, I saw many cheap liquor bottles thrown aside in the corner. Being uneducated snatched away any hope he had of getting a well-paid job which meant he could not afford to educate his children. He is just one of the many trapped in such the vicious cycle, and for him alcohol is a means of escaping.
The holy being does not claim the Dalits, which means they often live their lives as outcasts – shunned away in slums because they are considered too impure to even be considered as worthy beings. They are ruled by prejudice and experience injustice every day, with poverty being the epitome of this. Without a fair and equal society, one that is not based on religion, the issue of poverty will always be a priority for India.
Corruption is in the blood of Indian politics, the bloodline goes as far back as Nehru. In fact, the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi publicly admitted that only about 17% reached the ultimate beneficiaries and the rest was siphoned off by people connected to the government strategy being implemented. For example, let’s say that the parliament releases a new bill saying that 1 lakh (Rs. 100,000) will be invested in constructing new roads in villages. Contractors will take double the amount that was agreed, so Rs. 20,000 is taken by them. Down the next level, Ministry of Road & Highways Department will take an additional Rs. 20,000 returning it to the government and even further down, the local council will take another sum of Rs. 20,000. When you finally get down to the level of the companies building the roads, they are left with 40% of the original sum – leaving them to build very poor quality roads. Now, imagine the same with the money being invested into helping the poor.
Education is the one thing that can break the cycle with immense benefits for the family, society and economy. However, even the education system is corrupt in India; parents have to pay hefty sums of up to 5 lakh rupees a year for each child until they are sixteen. If the blessed wealthy ones find this a financial burden, how are the poor expected to finance their children’s education? As a result, many slum dwellers only send their sons to school, sending them to much more affordable schools hundreds of kilometres away. The women are left to work as maids, cleaners and street sweepers to earn a few measly rupees for the family’s daily roti (if they can afford it every day.) High levels of illiteracy, particularly in rural areas and among women, has always been a crucial factor in perpetuating economic backwardness and also in a high population growth. When women are educated, not only do they contribute to the economy, but they also keep family sizes small with healthy children.
One of the most remarkable things I came across while visiting these slums was the sacrifices these parents were willing to make so that their children have a much brighter future. Harika, who is 9, goes to school alongside her older brother and what astonished me was that she spoke in English. She told me she wanted to become a teacher, and when I asked why, she said she wants to help others learn too because she loves going to school. Her older brother wants to be police officer to help other poor people who cannot fend for themselves. Their parents slave away, earning just enough to give their children a high quality education and when I asked their father why he works so hard, he said, “There is nothing more important in the world than education.”
Seeing the lives of these people brought tears to my eyes and gave me a new perspective of looking at things. I only hope that poverty is one day, maybe even long after our deaths, completely eradicated and mankind can live in a world where colour, gender and caste do not justify the mistreatment of others.