Wednesday, August 26, 2009

India - January 3, 2009 - Part Two

The afternoon activity was a trip into the Moslem area of Varanasi to see silk fabric being made. We were once more in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, watching people do magnificent work on hand looms. Three thousand families, we were told, earn their living in the silk industry. Horrible livings, in tiny dark rooms in squalor, while their children beg from tourists who come to see.

Then we went to a shop that sells the fruits of their labor, and just as with the carpet in Jaipur, I found some irresistible items, this time at irresistible prices--which only shows how little the workers are being paid.

It raises a moral dilemma, of course. People are being exploited, and I support that exploitation by purchasing the products they make. On the other hand, suppose all western tourists were to refuse to purchase these goods, and thus drive the owners who exploit them out of business. Three thousand more breadwinners would be out begging, and probably turned out of the miserable housing they live in to sleep in the streets and railway stations like the thousands of other homeless people. Exactly how would our refusing to buy improve the situation?

There are attempts to improve the situation of workers, particularly women, going on in India. Near Orchha we saw a paper factory, part of a project backed by Microsoft. It's a little worker-owned company that hand-makes specialized paper. The day we visited they were making water-marked paper for university diplomas. In the gift shop we saw gorgeous wrapping paper far too elegant to be found on the shelves at Wal-Mart. I would guess that they sell to Harrod's or Saks Fifth Avenue.

But that little place cannot employ more than fifteen people, and it is not a model to lift millions of people out of poverty because its product has only a limited clientele. Were the silk workers in Varanasi to form their own company and charge what their skills and time are actually worth, there would be only a tiny market for the resulting expensive hand-loomed silk. That market might support a dozen families, like the paper factory--but what about the rest of the three thousand families?

Clearly, we are not going to solve the dilemma of India's poverty--and it is particularly sad to see how inadequate sincere attempts are to the enormity of the problem. Furthermore, as tourists we are only superficial observers--we have no concept of the culture that produced and permits these conditions.

Well, cold thoughts for a cold day. In the cold high humidity, the laundry I did last night had not dried before it was time to pack. I dried most of my underwear with my hair dryer, but rolled the rest of the damp clothes up in a plastic bag to hang up again tomorrow night.

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