I was walking in the streets of Kolkata when I saw an old man, with a gamsha around his neck, standing beside a Rickshaw that was probably his. Parked adjacent to him was a shiny, silver coloured Mercedes Benz. A contrasting sight and yet, one of the many reminders of the reality of our modern world; the rich get richer while the poor become poorer.
The old man looks up and, perhaps with a hope I may be his next passenger, calls out for me. As I am very close to the hotel I am staying in, I refuse. He still smiles and wipes the sweat trickling down his sun burnt face with the gamsha on a hot Indian afternoon. As I walk away, he continues to stand beside his Rickshaw and wait. Wait for someone to be his passenger, wait for a few more rupees so that he could his daughter her new doll that he had promised her two months ago, and perhaps, like millions of us, wait for some change to make life a bit easier.
Recently, I had read in the news that the government had the words ‘I am poor.. I get ration.” painted on thousands of houses of BPL (Below Poverty Line) families in the villages of Dausa district in Rajasthan. This was done to apparently to profile the people eligible for the subsidised food grains under the National Food Security Act. I feel that such an incident is not only sad and shameful but downright not needed. Poverty cannot and should not be a fountainhead for someone’s humiliation and degradation. It is the duty of the government to provide for those who cannot, and there is no need to ‘remind’ anyone of their present economic status, because there are several factors that make a person fall under BPL and more often than not, the people in the higher offices somehow contribute to a person’s persistent poverty.
India is a developing country but I am sure that most of us would rather not like the tag of a ‘Third World Country’ associated with us. The controversial remark by the Snapchat CEO, Evan Spiegel on India being “too poor” to consider his social media company’s expansion rekindled the patriot in each one of us (it was later reported that it wasn’t Spiegel who made the comment). Or to be more specific, in each Twitter-using-online-commenting-hashtag-following one of us. What he said was ignorant because India has approximately 213 million Facebook users, the second most after USA, and is a promising hub for IT companies. Yet, the reality is also that only about 26 % of the total population in India has the access to Internet and the number of poor people living under the poverty line is estimated to be nearly 250 million. India is not poor but is a developing nation and I feel that it is important to acknowledge that because only then do we acknowledge the millions of our brothers and sisters who earn even less than our daily data recharge and help them join our nation’s journey to a better future.
Most of us are fascinated by the ‘rags to riches’ story and somewhere it makes us feel all of us are capable of earning huge amount of money if we work hard enough. We all can become billionaires and lead a life of luxury. However, is hard work really equivalent to the salary earned by a person? I have seen people who work as labourers toil at a construction site all day and earn a mere hundred rupees. Then there are those who do nothing much but sit comfortably in a red light van given by the government simply because they won a local election largely due to nepotism and party politics. The children of those labourers can either work exceptionally hard to create a better future or like most cases, end up in a low wage earning jobs themselves. The main problem I think, is that the development taking place in our country is a lot less about raising the economic status of the common man and more about creating a larger gap between the poor and the rich.
I remember during this Snapchat controversy, I had read a comment posted by someone to invalidate that India is poor, which was ‘Ambani can buy Snapchat if he wants to.’ I found this particular statement quite contradictory. While Indians like Ambani are included in Forbes’ list of richest people, the average Indian remains a simple middle-class man earning just enough to ensure that bread is on the table at home.
It is an irony that in a country which was ranked 7th in New World Wealth’s 2016 list of richest countries according to individual assets, there are millions of its citizens who earn less than 900 rupees a month. It is an irony that while there are several industries making lakhs of rupees, there are lakhs of people who do not have any means to earn a single rupee. Some may call this as the offspring of capitalism or ill governance but a common man is not interested in the economic jargon as he is in getting a real job.
When I was very young I thought that the solution to the problem of poverty in India was giving money to everyone. I thought that currency was only paper and paper could be printed as much as we wanted. Of course, growing up I learned the bitter truth. That you earn your money. That money is more than just paper. That there are concepts like the Budget, Income tax, toll tax, this tax and that tax. However in spite of everything, I also learned that poverty is not a choice, no one wants to remain poor but circumstances often compel people to remain so. There are no direct answers or solutions to a question like ‘How do you remove poverty?’ There can only be assumptions and speculations. However, I feel that reminding people that they are poor so that they can be grateful to the government for something that is mandatory for it to do is not even a close solution.
As I conclude writing this, I think of the old Rickshawala I had seen in Kolkata. I hope that he got someone to sit in his bicycle drawn carriage. I hope that he earned enough to utilise the money for its real purpose; to bring a bit of happiness in his life by drawing smiles on his children’s or maybe grandchildren’s faces. Perhaps, money is paper after all and what matters is what we decide to do with it. And perhaps, the greatest contribution of money would be that it should enable us to live our lives with dignity and respect.