A Year in India

Understanding India’s Poverty
January 28, 2009, 5:15 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags: ,

Esha, one of the teachers I work with, recently made a film about migrant construction workers’ lives in Bangalore.  These workers are making extremely low wages, living in temporary slums, and moving from place to place based on where they can find work.  After watching the film, I had a few questions: Are the workers angry about their situation?  Do they feel they’re facing injustices or being deprived of basic human rights?

Esha’s answer was a simple “no.”  But he went on to explain that this “no” was meant to satisfy my American perspective, one that clearly attaches poverty to sadness.  In India, things aren’t so clear-cut.

Here are some thoughts Esha had in response to my questions:

  • India’s caste system makes it so difficult for impoverished people to move “up” that they feel there’s no point in trying
  • A majority of India’s population lives on very little, so people have adjusted to a non-money-centric lifestyle
  • Indians have a different “mental makeup” than Americans
  • These migrant workers separate their frustrations at “the system” from their day-to-day, personal mindsets
  • Many poor people don’t know what it means to be wealthy; money is a dream so far away that it’s intangible (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pictured below)
  • If people are sad about their situation, they might cover it up; Indians tend to place more value on the community’s well-being than individuals’ emotions
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It’s frustrating to know that, as an outsider, I may never be able to fully wrap my head around the Indian context that defines the attitudes of these workers.  The best I can do is listen to people like Esha, observe my surroundings, and read as much as I can about India.

Esha and I are brainstorming ways to make a film addressing this gap between the American perspective and the realities of Indian poverty.  We’ll begin tomorrow by meeting with a friend of Esha’s who heads up Action Aid India in Karnataka …


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While there are many poor Americans that may be angry about their position of poverty, I don’t know if it is always tied to sadness, at least from their own viewpoint. They may not view their own positions as sad, but instead as improved or hopeful (much of the population below poverty is immigrants from other countries intending to move up in the world) or even as livable/enough (I think that the American level of poverty is probably closer to the “safety” level of Maslow’s pyramid). This is not to say that people under poverty are necessarily living a fine life, but it is just to highlight that poverty in the US may be much different than in India (not just from the attitude towards it).

It could be interesting to look at how relative poverty is and compare an American’s perspective of poverty to an Indian’s.

I’m also not sure if I agree with you in how you define, or rather generalize, “the American perspective’ either; at least in terms of understanding how one could be content with their current, although lower, status. Don’t you think that everything is relative?

“Do they feel they’re facing injustices or being deprived of basic human rights” – if the rest of the community in which they are living has the same resources wouldn’t they compare themselves to this community instead to the upper class that you had mentioned is only a dreamlike world to them? One could extrapolate this to some of the richest people in the world imagining to live like a blue-collar working class man.

Comment by Loren

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Comment by Dhanaraj

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