Thursday, November 26, 2009

India's Poor - Part Three

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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.

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Next week: the highly visible working and middle classes in Nepal.

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