Saturday, May 14, 2011

Everybody loves a good drought



I'm reading through a book called Everybody Loves a Good Drought by Palagummi Sainath. It has a view of real poverty in India, gathered over years of living in the areas where poverty is worst. It has some moving stories of how simple mismanagement has far-reaching effects, until the situation is hopeless. The book looks at poverty from a variety of angles: health, education, and shows where the problems lie. While reading the health section, I was reminded of a video of roadside dentists in Jaipur, India (warning, unsuitable for the faint of heart). Having seen plenty of quacks in India, it was a jarring reminder of the lack of good public health.

The book is aptly named: many people gain from poverty in India, which is one reason why poverty is so well entrenched. There are parallels with the caste system, which is being milked for political interest, and thus is becoming a permanent fixture of Indian life. Poverty, too, has become a political tool: useful for keeping certain segments firmly in control. There's much to be gained from poverty: direct aid is given to poor districts, and poor people being illiterate have no way of enforcing their rights.

The core problems are not that difficult to solve, except that we run into the usual issues:
  1. People will deny the problem exists. Indian journalists can be hushed up. Foreign journalists are ignored by calling them muck-rakers and India haters. This is also the case for awareness by Indian citizens. The young are hushed by calling them immature. The illiterate ones are easy to ignore and they don't get any visibility. College students are ignored because they are idealists. People who emigrate are ignored because they are Westernized. There's never a good time to point to a social problem.
  2. Even after the problem is identified, the authority responsible for solving it will ignore responsibility. The scene that comes to mind is from the recent movie "Peepli Live" where the core matter shuttles between government offices. Nobody is willing to accept responsibility and do something constructive while everyone is happy to assert their power when their interest is at stake. In India, every policeman I ever met was happy to order me around. But when they were needed: during a theft, or to control a situation, they'd look the other way and ask me to go elsewhere. This is pervasive.
At this point, it is important to increase awareness of how bad things are. It is imperative to have a clear picture of Indian poverty, so we can stay focused on the key causes. Palagummi's book does exactly this: it provides a crisp view of Indian poverty. The articles go into the causes of poverty, and how little it will take to change some of the worst problems. The book walks the reader through India's poorest districts and leaves him with a better understanding of Indian poverty.