January 10, 2005

In search of seminal

Manjeet Kripalani's comment about a seminal moment, that I wrote about lower on this page, got me thinking for the better part of the last two days. In one sense, she got to the core of where I think our biggest problem is -- the curse of poverty that means disasters are so much more deadly when they visit us. She got there with her thought that our reaction to the tsunami marked a shift away from the "us" and "them" feeling we've always had in India, the divide between rich and poor.

Why is this the core? Because more and more, I believe that poverty in India is not so much an issue of socialism, or governance, or globalization and free markets, or corruption, or population. All those things have some bearing on our greatest national shame, but in the end, I think poverty transcends them.

Oh sure, I do believe our years of a hollow "socialism" have left us miserably poor. I do believe smaller and better governance, and a honestly and diligently applied process of liberalization and reform, will reduce poverty. I remain wary of such statements as "there is no alternative" or "the only way", referring to ways to address poverty now, because they run too close to faith for me. I worry about widespread corruption.

All those things -- and I will write about them some other time -- but poverty transcends them all. It has existed before them all and will outlast them all. And that's because of that feeling, that attitude, that Manjeet touched on. In a fundamental way, I think too many of us in the Indian middle-class just don't give a damn about poverty. And that's the problem. That's why it won't go away soon. That's why we die in ghastly thousands when disasters happen.

(I realize I am dangerously close to playing the stern schoolteacher here. But bear with me).

This is why I drew the parallel between tsunami demolitions and slum demolitions here two weeks ago. The Bombay middle-class believes there are hundreds of "immigrant" families coming into the city daily (false) and "encroaching" on public land without paying taxes (false). So they fully support that demolition programme. Yet consider that more cars drive onto our roads each day than families who come in. Consider that those cars take up public land while driving and often illegally encroach on public land when parked.

The fact that the cars don't get the same treatment as the slum dwellers is that attitude I mentioned.

And that is why, again, I hope that Manjeet is indeed right. For if there is a shift out of old thinking, a recognition of our common humanity, and if these changes are not merely ephemeral but will last -- well, this is indeed a seminal moment. The tsunami was dreadful, but this would be a gleaming silver lining indeed.


amit varma said...

I remain wary of such statements as "there is no alternative" or "the only way", referring to ways to address poverty now, because they run too close to faith for me.When someone says that "there is no alternative" to capitalism or to free markets to achieve prosperity, they say that because all the evidence over the history of humanity indicates as much, and not out of faith. If you believe otherwise without evidence to back it up or an alternative to propose with a rationale for why it may succeed, that is faith.

And as for the issue of the slum-dwellers, would you like to demolish cars, then? The Godhra argument again, Dilip!

Quizman said...

Hi Dilip,

On both counts, you've raised a pertinent point, that of administering the law. If the law states that building codes have to be followed and land must not be encroached upon, so be it. If the law designates no-parking zones, it must be enforced too. [Btw, cars pay for driving on public land - road taxes, toll and registration fees are ways of collecting rent]

Sympathy for illegal construction is misplaced. What if an earthquake hit Mumbai? The shanty towns would be the most vulnerable.

Btw, directly related to the dearth of (available) housing in Mumbai, is an old socialist device - the rent control act. :-)