Monday, November 9, 2009
India's Poor--Part One
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?)
Save money on your next vacation!