Thursday, June 21, 2007

Of Poverty, Perseverance and Dharavi

It is not uncommon to see people seeking alms in Bangalore. Today, while coming to work, I saw a woman with a child in her arms, begging at a traffic signal. It was not a pretty sight. The baby, probably about six months old, was blissfully asleep in its mother's arms. I usually do not give money as alms, but this time I gave what small change I had, knowing well that what I gave was not sufficient even for one meal of the baby.

Did the Mother have a choice? I tried to give her the benefit of doubt. Hers was probably a genuine case. She was probably not skilled in anything, and had the burden of the child to bear. But I have this feeling that there are always jobs available for the industrious and those who really want to work to make ends meet. Why, then, do people resort to begging? I am inclined to think that it is the "man-with-the-twisted-lip -syndrome", as harsh and insensitive as it may sound.

There was a time when 'ಕರತಲಭಿಕ್ಷಾ ತರುತಲವಾಸ:' was regarded highly, when poverty in terms of food, clothes and money was almost synonymous with the richness of the mind and intellect. But this is not that kind of a time. If one is reasonably intelligent and industrious, he/she can find a job (much better than begging), that might fetch enough to ward away hunger. In the olden days, one-sixth of honestly-earned money was supposed to be given off as charity. True, giving money away as charity is good for the giver, but does it not make one section of the society totally dependent on the favors of another? Won't that breed class distinction and class-wars?

I contrasted my experience with this article on Sepia Mutiny, about the Dharavi slum. I had read about the Dharavi slum a couple of years ago in the Kannada magazine, Taranga. And the picture I got from that was that of a dirty slum filled with frustrated people, as one sees in some movies. But this article was a real eye-opener for me. The slum is dirty alright, but the people are industrious, and becoming prosperous. The reason for this is their enthusiasm and spirit, that enable them to fight against all odds.

Apparently there are more than five-thousand one-room factories and many cottage industries in the two sq. km. area of Dharavi, whose collective annual turnover is a whopping 1 billion dollars! If that is not amazing, I don't know what is! Apparently they still do not pay taxes properly, but let us not think about it for now. 85% of the households have a television and 56% have a gas stove... A funny thing, as an aside - do 29% of the slum-dwellers think that the TV is more necessary than a gas stove? Oh, and 21% of the people own telephones. A really good number for a shantytown!

I can give other examples too. A lady used to work as a domestic help in my Grandmother's house. She worked in a few houses everyday for a few years and got her children (two boys), educated. Both of them did their B.E. The younger one lived in Canada for some time and made a lot of money. Now they all live in their own, big house with cars and other luxuries. One can say that Lady Luck was on their side, that the sons were intelligent and all that, but would they have become so successful if they did not have that strong desire to succeed, and if they had not worked so hard? To reiterate a point I feel very strongly about - if one really wants something (and perseveres), the whole universe will conspire in helping him achieve it.

The work-hard-and-sell-hard concept worked for the residents of Dharavi. Will it work for this woman and her child I met? And so many other men, women and children who have to beg for their living? Or rather, will they let it work for them? I fervently hope so, in spite of having a man like this at the helm.


Aram said...

Your range of topics and the depth of emotions and also analysis is amazing.

I hope you are aware that begging is a big and well-organized racket at least in many places in India. So much so, until some years ago, India was known as the land of beggars with even our PMs going round the world with begging bowls.

The many splendoured city that is so proudly ours, Namma Bengaluru, is probably the only city in the world where the City Corporation steals money from the beggars (Times' recent report) - the beggery cess collected by the Corporation ran into crores but instead of using it for the beggars,the Corporation diverted the money to some other purpose.

Still, I see that in Bangalore at least, the number of beggars in the streets has decreased over the years. I believe that most are taken to the beggars' colony where they are taken care of.

I am reminded of how the twice-born dwijas are given deeksha during their upanayanam. One of the rituals is: the vatu is made to beg - Bhavathi Bhikshaam Dehi and Bhavaan Bhikshaam Dadhaatu !

Any idea why the buddhist monks are called Bhikshus?

nIlagrIva said...

A few years ago, beggars used to frequent residential areas. I've noted that this number is down nowadays. But they seem to have migrated to traffic signals and the beggars seem to be from out of town nowadays. I've studiously avoided giving alms to beggars, though I really feel for them.

I didn't know there was a cess on beggary imposed by our corporation. Obviously, if there is some cess for something, it won't be used for that. Education cess is another example.

But the example of twice-born dwijas getting bhikShA is not the same as beggary. It is for a different purpose - of reducing the ego and see how much the person is indebted to society. madhukara vRutti practiced by dAsas in karnATaka is similar. The bauddha practice has a similar motivation.

Having said that, beggary is prevalent even in the downtoon streets of cities like San Francisco and New York - but that is probably not an organized racket like what Bangalore beggary is.

Parijata, that was a good thought-provoking piece.

parijata said...

aram avare,
Thanks for the appreciation.

I know that begging is a well-organized racket. Even in Bangalore, it is said that children are kidnapped for begging. That is what makes it so painful. A few months ago in vijayakarnataka, there was this photograph of a woman smearing blood on a kid's body to make him look more pitiable. I hope for these kids' sake, that they are taken care of well in the beggars colony and are gainfully employed.

As nilagriva said, the reason for begging during the upanayanam and later, during studies, is to remove ahankaara. The student is now obligated to support brahmacharis in the same way, when he becomes a householder. The bauddha bhikshus are also supposed to sustain themselves through alms. Only these days do we see them leading lives in monasteries.

Thanks for the comment. I do not like giving alms to beggars either. It was just that this baby looked so innocent and the mom so helpless, I could not say no. If I could give some food, I would have.

Aram said...

In my village near Mangalore, beggars used to come home to beg every Saturday before noon. Now, with employment opportunities in plenty and good wages common, their number has considerably decreased.

I think I have hijacked the spirit of your post. I should have addressed the issue of perseverence and Dharavi.

Why doesn't the government do something about Dharavi - like for example inviting some construction groups to build low-cost housing complexes for the dwellers there by arranging for easy finance from any of the developmental agencies? Surely, the industrious slum dwellers would welcome such initiatives. Is it that the government wants to keep Asia's largest slum as a monument?

Aram said...

"I can give other examples too. A lady used to work as a domestic help in my Grandmother's house. She worked in a few houses everyday for a few years and got her children (two boys), educated."

- A famous example of a great domestic help is that of the revered R.A.Mashelkar's mother. Every year after his exams, she would ask him: "Is there any other exam after this? You must attempt that also."

R.A. Mashelkar, India's greatest chemical engineer and visionary is the person to whom even Narayanamurthy contacts whenever Murthy feels depressed.

Aram said...


I seem to be learning a lot of new things and newer perspectives from your writings.

Like for example,why the NIs are so rough and violent ( because of the continuous invasions by the Muslims conquerors), the man-with-the-twisted-lip-syndrome, etc.

You certainly have a healthy emotion-filled heart tempered with a scientific bent of mind. High EQ as well as an even higher IQ.

It is remarkable how we older people keep learning from our youngsters. Though I was a voracious reader, mine was restricted to easy, unquestioning reading. When my sun started reading Perry Mason in his high school days, I too started reading them a second time along with him and discovered to my delight the author Erle Stanley Gardner's deep insights into human and criminals' minds. These insights I had entirely missed during my first readings of Gardner. I was so impressed this time that I felt like doing a thesis on the subject. Similarly with the syndrome you mentioned now, though I must have read Sherlock Holmes stories more than once.

Talking of older people learning from younger ones, I am reminded of Sudha Murty's change of career in midlife. When the teenage Akshatha asked her mother what the latter's goal was at 46, Sudha was taken aback and sat down seriously to work on the question posed by her questioning daughter. It made her take up charitable work full time to become the chairperson of Infosys Foundation.

You certainly are a good influence. Keep up the good work.

parijata said...

aram avare,
Thanks for the encouraging words.
I have read a couple of books of Perry Mason, and found them good.
Sherlock Holmes is my all-time favorite, though.

About North and South Indians, I was surprised to learn that the traditional dress for a bridegroom is not complete without a sword. And likewise, she was surprised that it was not part of our wedding dress. Differences like these are the result of the tough times the North Indians had to go through. We, South Indians had our share of invaders, true, but it was not as regular a thing as it was for the North Indians. I am glad that you found that post interesting.

Writing is making me learn new things everyday. It makes me think and be creative, which is a welcome change from the drone of routine.

I googled for R.A Mashelkar, and found his biography very interesting. Thanks.

Aram said...

Thanks for the sepiamutiny link on Dharavi. The topic, the article, the number of very learned comments, all as vast as Dharavi itself.

Truly amazing how many people have really concerned themselves thinking about it.

The only thing lacking is an woman of action who would do something about it (men in power having proved themselves ineffective so far).