Thursday, August 5, 2010

Toilet Troubles - Or how do I defend the poverty in India

Not quite jewel-crusted, but my toilet did have a flush
Yesterday again, the topic at dinner turned to the horrendous poverty in India – to be more specific, the way millions live without toilets, being forced to shit out in the open.

There were two Australians (including Sid), two Americans, a Newzealander and poor little Ms-Indian-Me at the table, and we had just finished the most amazing Indian meal at a restaurant near Leicester Square.

The comment came about rather innocently, as such comments usually do. I asked the Texan if he had ever visited India and his wife started a story about how he used to keep saying that he didn’t need to visit India because it couldn’t possibly be that different from Mexico City – loud, colourful, lots of poor people and great food – until he saw a documentary about how so many Indians live without sanitation. Then, he changed his mind.

I didn’t bother asking whether he was keener to visit India now.

I am never quite sure how to react to such comments – and they come up in conversation often enough. I don’t think they arise out of nastiness at all. People are just genuinely bewildered that such poverty can exist at all. And it is precisely because such statements are true that I feel at loss about how to respond.

The easiest thing would be to turn around and say, “Yes, 665 million defecate openly in India. But we always had a toilet at home. It even had a flush!”

A lot of Indians do that, they make it point to mention how back in India they had so many servants, and a chauffeur, and a huge garden with one gardener to water, another to weed, and still another to sing and dance to the plants.  I guess, they want to define themselves as far apart from the miserable minions that the West see in documentaries and films, as possible. I can see where they come from.

Only, then we immediately come across as evil, feudal and insensitive. After all, the general assumption is that if you are living in such luxury surrounded by such inhuman poverty – then you must be exploiting the poor. How could you otherwise, so casually, talk about having servants. The whole servant-structure is seen as rather exploitative here.

So what I really want to say is this: Yes, there is immense poverty in India. Horrifying poverty. But I am not ashamed of the poor of my country. I am ashamed of the caste system, the criminalised politics and religous riots, but not the poor. With or without toilets, they are no less human than those Swiss with their toilets that even clean the seats automatically.So whatever else you want to be overwhelmed by, don't be overwhelmed by the poor.

And yes, I was privileged, but I was not evil. I was just at loss about how to address a problem that is so immense and so overpowering. I was just one tiny Indian, earning a middle-class salary, trying to enjoy life while still hoping to do my bit to help the poor: pay my taxes, vote diligently, sign petitions, and occasionally join a protest when I thought something egregious had occurred. It was no more, no less than what an average European would do.

But it is too much, too complicated for a casual dinner table conversation. So I usually choose to just remain quiet.


lokulin said...

Interesting to hear your point of view. The interesting thing is how people will be shocked by the enormous inequality in places like India or elsewhere in the world but be blind at the inequality (even if it is less so) in their own back yard.

Cognitive Bias said...

I guess the poverty levels are not the same that we used to read in school textbooks.

Check this out:

I agree about the caste system, it has to be out of the equation for brand India to be more acceptable.

globalbabble said...

Lokulin: I guess, it isn't a question of their vs our backyard. We have eye-popping levels of poverty and inequality, and I don't dispute that.

I just want people to think of it as a human problem and not a freakish thing.

Cognitive Bias: I guess so. But numbers can be deceptive. And Times of India more so. People can have televisions and cell phones but no toilets in India - and that is the real tragedy, isn't it?

Vaibhavi said...

Well said. I end up getting defensive usually...

jaimit said...

why did you really remain quiet - read this for a possible answer - -- You only confront prejudice when you believe people can change

prerna said...

I am still thinking as to what to say....but nice read!

Virendra said...

Indian Government did provide sanitary latrines in villages, many used them as store house, lack of education and awareness of health hazards are the issues. This is a social evil which needs elimination, nothing to be ashamed off.

Virendra said...

Indian Government did provide sanitary latrines in villages, many used them as store house, lack of education and awareness of health hazards are the issues. This is a social evil which needs elimination, nothing to be ashamed off.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess the easiest thing to say is India had an underground sanitation system 7000 yrs back in Harrapa and Saraswati river civilization. It is the oldest sanitation system known to the world. The Europeans were able to copy that and had their first sanitary system implemented almost after 6600 yrs of we doing it. It took 300 yrs more to come to the level of what we had in Harrapa. Short duration hmm. Be proud of what we have and given to the world, not be ashamed of what we don't have.

Chandru K said...

Yes, there's poverty, debasing poverty in India, one manifestation of which is this lack of sanitation that you refer to. But let's not forget what the origin, largely, of that poverty is. For most of India's 5000+ year history it was not known as a poor, dirty, overcrowded, particularly unequal country. The reason it was invaded so often was for the exact *opposite* reason, that it was fairly wealthy, by the standards of those days. The average Indian was actually a little better off than the average European well into the last millenium. The poverty India is associated with nowadays, is a relatively recent phenomenon, when taking India's history as a whole. It was really only with the British colonial system, that mass poverty and deprivation occurred. And it has stuck with India. The ravages of Islamic invaders caused huge loss of life, property and displacement. But under the British, for the first time, India's wealth was transferred out of the country in enormous numbers, some scholars placing the figure at $10 trillion at today's prices.

globalbabble said...

I could blame the early invaders and the British if I felt that at least today we were doing all that we can to remove unequality and poverty.

But I don't see it. I don't see enough investment being made in schools, hospitals, rural roads and other public infrastructure that would eventually pull the abjectly poor out of their poverty.

And perhaps that is where my guilt arises from.

Anonymous said...

Well Chandru u r very right. Till 100-150 yrs back India was almost the richest country of the world. British looted it as much as possible then left brown sahibs to complete the loot. So even after independence the loot is still going on and swiss banks are filling up with this loot. Freedom fighters like Azad, Bhagat Singh, Tilak died to make sure that after independence of Bharat we get a Bhartiya government but sad enough that we got a govt and education system of brown sahibs whose first Prime Minister proudly used to say that I am the last englishman to rule India and the current PM goes to london and praises Britain by saying "colonial rule had lots of beneficial consequences for India". Till we get a govt and a leader who understands the poor and take action accordingly, nothing will change.