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Last time I wrote about the overwhelming number of poor and homeless people in India, and the comparatively small numbers of the middle class. The balance appears to be something like Europe circa 1400, just before the arrival of the printing press. In Europe the advent of more and cheaper books, pamphlets, and broadsheets led to far easier dissemination of information, a rise in literacy, innovation, and the rise of the middle class. Within 300 years the middle class was the most populous class, and within 500 years it took over government in all of North America and most of Europe.
But in India not only the introduction of printing, but film, radio, television, and the internet have passed without having such an effect, except for what middle class there is taking over politics. I will leave it to historians, sociologists, and anthropologists to determine why; all I can do is report my observations.
Is anyone trying to help the poor and homeless of India? Yes. Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity are of course the best-known. There are other charities ministering to the poor and sick, or offering education, but they appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the numbers. For reasons unknown to me, the government does not offer even the most basic free education--imagine the possibilities for all those children who now spend their lives begging if they were taught merely to read and write.
In our travels we saw two projects designed to provide training and work for the poor, one from within that was simple self-interest, and one from without. I wrote earlier about the silk workers in Veranasi. To us, it appears that they are being exploited. Nevertheless, they are better off than most of the poor and all the homeless. They have homes, even if there is no glass in their windows. They get paid for their work.
We were told that the silk industry in Varanasi employs 3000 families. We may deplore the conditions under which they work, but they are nonetheless far better off than the masses who live in the streets.
Nevertheless, their children beg.
The other project is outside Orccha, and is sponsored by Microsoft. It's a paper factory in which women make specialized paper for sale outside India. The day we visited they were filling an order for special watermarked vellum for university diplomas. In the company shop we saw beautiful textured wrapping paper, colorful diaries and notebooks, and paper puzzles and toys.
I certainly have no criticism of teaching a trade to these women workers, providing them with a means of earning a living wage--it's a very good thing that Microsoft is doing.
But is specialty papermaking really a practical trade to teach them? About half a dozen women were working the day we were there. My guess would be that that little factory with its hand-cranked machines cannot employ more than twenty people total. Twenty families are being helped. Wonderful--but that's twenty out of millions. If Microsoft hired members of 3000 families rather than twenty, to make something more utilitarian than specialized paper, would India be better off?
It appears that the papers they produce are for export--but they don't make the kinds of paper you will find at Wal-Mart. The wrapping papers are for high-end boutiques and department stores, and how many assignments can they get to produce diploma paper? Their beautiful gift products are also specialty items. I can't help wondering how sales are going for them now, as the recession among working people drags on, no matter what the stock market does.
I look at the little paper factory and wonder, how can this industry grow? In twenty years will it employ three or four times as many people? I don't think so.
It would be an entirely different situation if a group of Indian women who knew how to make paper applied to Microsoft for a micro-grant--seeking a means of earning a living with skills they already had. But if you are going to teach them marketable skills, why something so limiting? Why old-fashioned hand-cranked presses, and laying the paper out on the grass or hanging it up like laundry to dry? Why only specialized paper with a specialized market instead of office paper that could be sold inside India as well as abroad? Why not notebook paper? Legal pads?
I'd say why not paper towels and toilet paper, except that those are items only for tourists in India. But why paper at all in a world that is trying not to kill trees? Why specific skills that are not applicable to another industry? Why such encapsulated success? Even if the women who now work in the paper factory bring in their daughters and teach them the procedures, the mothers will have to retire to leave room for the daughters--it's small and specialized, and cannot support many more employees.
Now suppose Microsoft wanted to create a business that could first put a number of women to work and then expand, one that could go on to help future generations, one that could adapt to changing times. Why not make that business a school?
Except for a handful of missionary schools, all schools in India charge fees--so once the original students learned to read, write, and cipher, they could be employed as teachers of the next generation. Microsoft could provide scholarships for children of the poor, as the entire purpose would be to make it possible for them to support themselves, and ultimately make Microsoft's participation unnecessary.
A school could expand. As the years passed it could take in more students and add more subjects. In the early years TESOL teachers might have to come from other countries, but within a few years the school would produce its own speakers of English who could teach that language to future generations. I'm not being a language snob--English is supposed to be every Indian citizen's first or second language, the lingua franca of their huge country. It is a language that opens job opportunities within India, and allows people to seek work in other countries as well.
Education in the basics--learning how to learn--would produce graduates capable of training for any available form of employment.
You must understand that I have absolutely no idea what restrictions the Indian government places on organizations coming in to help the Indian people. I don't know what the limitations are on women according to the culture and mores of non-Westernized Indians. That paper factory seems so backward and non-entrepreneurial that I don't understand why Microsoft chose it instead of something capable of future expansion. Perhaps there were governmental or social restrictions they could not overcome.
There is just so much that I don't know. The single thing I do know is that what visible programs there are to employ the poor are so limited as to be statistically insignificant.
Next week: the highly visible working and middle classes in Nepal.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Where is India's middle class?
I'm a TV addict and news junkie. Wherever I go, when I enter my hotel room I immediately turn on the TV and hunt for an English-language station. In Europe I usually find BBC and CNN, which provide very little local flavor.
In India I found a wide range of English-language stations--generally about a third of the channels available, and in most places there were at least fifty channels. Interestingly, the majority of entertainment channels were native-language, I believe primarily Hindi. There were numerous Bollywood-style music channels, and lots of programs that were clearly quiz shows, comedies, and dramas, including a daily continuing drama I found everywhere, about ancient gods and heroes.
The rule seemed to be entertainment in local languages, with local news shows morning and evening, much like American entertainment networks. There were also occasional news channels in local languages. But the English-language channels were all news or education (National Geographic and Discovery-like channels), with very little comedy, drama, or film. Local English-language news was a revelation, often for what it did not show: 90% of the population.
There were numerous stories about India's growing middle class. Yes, they exist, but either not in the numbers the news stories suggest or--more likely--not in the implied percentages. Naturally I could not understand the news stories on the native language news channels, and I have to ask who the audience is for the English-language channels. Tourists? Or the upper and middle classes? I can't answer that.
What I can say is that the picture of typical life in India on television clashed harshly with what we saw. It's entirely possible to avoid the poor by driving a private car everywhere, and we saw gates and fences to keep them out of many places, especially the great monuments where tourists go, although that seemed unnecessary. The doors to the lobbies of our hotels were not locked, but the poor stayed outside--often right outside. In Varanasi, two men huddled around a little fire each night tucked right against the steps into the hotel.
But where are the vaunted middle class citizens of India? First of all, I don't know exactly what they mean by middle class. Is it the old British idea of being able to live on an inheritance or investments without having to work? That definition allowed people to work if they wished, at white-collar jobs, and it also included by courtesy a few people who had to work to survive, such as ministers and teachers of every sort.
In the U.S. the definition of middle class shifts constantly, usually based on income per capita--yet almost every American defines himself or herself as middle class, including both millionaires and people technically below the poverty level. It's all very confusing here, but at the moment the definition appears to be "I've made the money I have myself rather than inheriting it, and I can support my family without resorting to welfare or charity."
In other words, in common parlance Americans tend not to distinguish between middle and working class, because virtually everybody works. It crossed my mind--but I had no one to ask who would understand the question--that possibly middle class in India means something like "We are literate, we earn enough to support our family, our children go to school, and we live in a place with a lock on the door." Possibly the Indian definition includes speaking English. I do not know any of that. It's just that if there are as many middle class people as the news broadcasts claim, some of them must be among the better off of those we First World folk would still classify as poor.
All I can say about the middle class of India is that they apparently aspire to live like the families in Bollywood films. Because we were in India at midwinter, between Christmas and New Year's, we saw far more Indian than foreign tourists at the great monuments...and almost nowhere else.
We saw well-to-do Indians at the airport when we arrived, of course. We glimpsed them in taxis and private cars in Delhi. But we did not see them in large numbers anywhere else we went. Admittedly we were not taken to the new malls and shopping areas that we read about--but neither did we happen to see anything in or on the outskirts of cities that looked like new malls or shopping areas.
According to the guide books, there are malls and expensive shopping areas--but where? In the U.S., Europe, or Japan, any place I've ever been before, you see them all around the outskirts of cities, and also in the middle of town. Where are they hiding the ones in India, that we did not glimpse a single such area on our journeys through cities, or from the trains and buses we took from one city to the next? In Jaipur we did find a shopping mall across the street from the deluxe restaurant where we ate dinner one night. But when we went in we found it shabby and cheap, another example of the way each small enclave of comfort and elegance is surrounded by poverty and dirt.
As I said above, it would be possible to avoid touching the poor, the dirt, the squalor, by being ferried door to door, but I do not know how it could be possible not to see these things.
We visited three expensive shops--the jewelry shop and the rug factory in Jaipur, and the silk factory in Varanasi. None was in an area of luxury shops; each one was isolated in the midst of what Americans would call a slum.
We went to Orchha, a resort. It was a small village and we walked all over it. There, too, we saw middle-class Indian families on vacation to celebrate New Year's. But the hotel didn't have a shop, and in the village there were only open-air trinket/souvenir shops around the temple square.
If there is such a growing middle class in India as the TV news would have us believe, why are there no entrepreneurs in a resort town, set up to sell them quality goods as well as trinkets? What a contrast with the resort of Pokhara in Nepal--a poor country with a communist government, mind you--where the central street was one shop after another selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, crafts, from inexpensive right up through top-dollar goods. Even Chitwan had a main street of shops and restaurants, bike and motorcycle rentals, and resort hotels.
Yes, we saw what we would think of as middle class people in India, but unlike anywhere else I've ever been they were a small minority. I hope the news is correct that the middle class is growing, but you would certainly not know it from what we saw.
Next week: projects to help India's poor.
Learn Speed Reading
Monday, November 9, 2009
Having spent all of one week in India, I am hardly an expert on that country. I can only tell you what I saw while I was there, and when it comes to the majority of the population, what I saw was disheartening.
In India the poor and homeless are everywhere, and their children are not in school. Most beggars are children, who swarm tourists in the city streets and even moreso at tourist attractions. However, we are warned not to give them anything, for two reasons. First, give to one and you will be swarmed by dozens--every beggar within hearing will surround you in a feeding frenzy, and you may actually be harmed when you run out of money. Second, we are told it is useless to give money to a child, thinking the child can buy food with it. Rather, the child will be forced to give that money either to a parent who will use it to get drunk, or to his handler, who will use it for his own purposes.
By the way, in the northern part of India where we toured, boys outnumbered girls at least ten to one as beggars on the streets. We never found out where the little girls were.
Teenage girls held infants and begged, but the babies may or may not have been theirs. It was not only the tour literature and the tour guide that told us not to give money to beggars. It was also in the newspapers, which at the time were running stories about how the mutilations of children shown in Slum Dog Millionaire were really going on. The truly sad thing is, the papers report what is going on, but they don't report any programs to stop it.
Although English is supposed to be the one language every citizen of India knows, the poor do not know it. They speak only the local language, and a few English words like "Hello," "money," and "give." The girls with babies know "Baby hungry." As there are no free public schools, the children of the poor remain illiterate and speaking a local language that traps them within one geographical area.
If you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you may remember that the fact that the protagonist is literate and speaks English is carefully accounted for in the early scenes, as part of the special magical destiny of his life. It is not presented as the norm for an orphaned slum child.
I saw that movie after I returned from India, and in it saw something else most people would not: the fact that the protagonist grew up in a slum meant that he had a roof over his head, and walls to protect the few possessions his family had. Until he lost his family, he was better off than the homeless people we saw everywhere. What we saw were not children growing up in slums, but children growing up on the streets. No roofs. No walls. Not even the outhouses that are the site of a cruel joke in the movie. Toilets were streets and sewers and streams.
What most of the people who have seen that Oscar-winning film have no way to recognize is that when the slum was destroyed at the end of the film--something that actually happened in real-life Mumbai--it was not replaced with better housing for the slum dwellers who were displaced. Those people were simply displaced, period.
Everywhere we looked were people with no possessions but the clothes on their backs, and perhaps a filthy rug or blanket to wrap up in at night. People seeking shelter from the cold midwinter nights on railway platforms, in doorways, any place they could escape the frigid air. People building little fires with cow dung or street garbage, in any nook or cranny, and huddling around them to try to warm themselves.
I realize now as I sort through my photos that I didn't photograph the beggars. I'm not a journalist, and at the time was not thinking about a blog entry I might write ten months later. Next trip I will try to remember to photograph everything!
These are not the images the Indian government sends to the rest of the world. They don't even send them to their own people.
(Continued next week. Where is India's middle class?)
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