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February 11, 1998


Dilip D'Souza

Keep Pushing, Back There!

I think I would have found it hard, and I'm a generally well-fed six feet long. The two that night were neither long nor well-fed. Far from it. They were tiny, scrawny street kids, no more than six or seven years old. But somehow, they were managing to do it. Inch by inch, one laboured step after another, they were pushing a Maruti car across the wide Metro intersection in Bombay.

Inside the car? The front seats contained two large men; the back seat their two large wives.

Every few seconds, the driver put the car in gear to try starting it. It bucked, as cars do when push-started. The hard-working urchins got a jolt. The car did not start. The kids resumed pushing. The little scene played on without pause. On that breezy January evening, in the very heart of Bombay, four well-dressed and bulbous adults sat in their non-functional car while two dirty, bare-bodied little children pushed them across one of the city's busiest intersections.

I watched and I thought: there's a metaphor here, somewhere. I just know it.

Just days before, we had heard screams and shouts from the street below our fourth floor flat. Downstairs, we could see a few residents of our building and some others yelling at a dusty woman with one child on her hip and another, snot-nosed and crying, some feet away. Much finger-waving and admonishing was in evidence, so we went down.

The wife from the 7th floor hissed at us as we arrived: "She bit her son on his private parts! How depraved!" Horrified, we spoke to the dusty mother and her teary son. That way we learned a little more.

Abandoned by her husband a year ago, the woman was left with no option but to walk the streets, begging for money and food for the three of them to live. This evening, even with the high fever she had, her hand was stretched out on our lane. As they wandered down it, her skinny little boy had picked up some pebbles and thrown them playfully at a few of the cars parked on either side. His mother, fearful of the righteous anger -- always righteous -- of the car owner, admonished the boy and then screamed at him to stop. He would not. Finally, unable to control him, she slapped him.

But no biting on his private parts. The boy confirmed that. "He's my own son, would I hurt him that way?" she asked us. As we returned home after the fuss had died down, the 7th floor wife hissed again: "These people get themselves into this condition deliberately! They are like that!"

Yes, obviously this dusty woman had deliberately had herself two children, deliberately got her husband to abandon her, deliberately turned to abject begging, deliberately done something to her son just then that must, without question, be assumed to have been a deliberate bite on his genitals, no less. It made perfect, deliberate sense. I will have to live forever with the thought that I wanted to drive my fist clear through those smug 7th floor teeth. Deliberately.

Is there anything bigger in India than numbing poverty? Is there anything that shames us more? Yes, there is: our middle-class attitudes towards it. They serve two wholesome and related purposes: one, they keep the gap between us and them secure and growing; two, they ensure that precious little is ever done to truly, truly, tackle poverty.

Precious little, unless you count slogans. Those, we have had in plenty. None were more glamorous than Indira's 'Garibi Hatao!' ('Remove poverty!', of course). That one so caught the imagination that even today millions will say, even from inside their desperate little hovels, that that lady was more concerned than anyone else about reducing poverty. When everyone else's concern amounts to a fat zero, I suppose Indira's slogans count for something. So why then does she gall me so?

Figures about poverty, let me assure you, are confusing. For what it's worth, here's a look at some of them. For a while, the government was trumpeting our success at cutting down on poverty: by about a year ago, we were being told that only about 19 per cent of the country -- less than one in five Indians -- lived below the poverty line. Last March, the success suddenly frayed. Banner headlines announced that, going by a new method that factored in the diminishing purchasing power of the rupee, the government had doubled that estimate. Now, 36 per cent of India -- better than one in three of us -- lived under the shadow of the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the UNDP used still another method in its 1996 Human Development Report to conclude that nearly 62 per cent of us -- almost two of every three -- were what it called 'capability poor'. These are people, the report said, who 'lack basic, or minimally essential, human capabilities'.

As I said, the figures are confusing. 19 %, 36%, 62% -- what does it really matter, anyway? They are just figures. It takes no more than a glance outside, at pretty much any time of day, pretty much anywhere in the country, to see utterly poor Indians. You don't need me to tell you that. Whatever fraction of our population they actually are, it is substantial. That's not confusing in the least.

And yet, poverty is no kind of issue with us. Not with my building-mates, not with PMs dead and gone, not with the dudes and dudettes we have to live with today.

I have here a news report which tells me about the chaos in the Bombay Municipal Corporation one day last week. It erupted when a Congress corporator accused the housing minister of printing a booklet with a 'shoddy picture' of Shivaji. For two hours afterwards, ''members of the Shiv Sena, BJP, Congress and Samajwadi Party hauled accusations at each other, raised slogans and created chaos''. Clearly, the lack of time for and interest in civic issues, people issues, cuts right across party lines.

I read about the Ice Goddess, Sonia, who tours the country telling all who care to listen that her family has sacrificed such a lot for us. No mention does she make of the millions of families around her, some who recall her mother-in-law's empty slogan, who have sacrificed for good even the hope of a dignified life.

I must listen to Kanshi Ram, whose one mantra through his campaign has been that his party will not give tickets to upper-caste candidates. No word of how he, or his caste of candidates, will do something about poverty. Or if they want to do something about it. Or if they even know there are poor among us.

All this: and yet, the effects of poverty can be so easily addressed. Malnutrition among children, for only one example. Tamil Nadu has long operated an Integrated Nutrition Project: a food and nutrition education programme that is targeted at the poorest areas, to those at the greatest risk. The results have been dramatic. Two years after completing the programme, children are, on average, two kilogrammes heavier than children who did not participate in it. As far back as 1987, one study (in Malnutrition: What Can Be Done? by Alan Berg) estimated that expanding such programmes nationwide would need spending to the tune of 2.12 per cent -- yes, two point one two per cent -- of the country's budget.

Why is it, do you think, that we cannot spare two paise in every hundred to pay for programmes like these that aim at -- at least -- some dozens of Indians in every hundred?

Well, we all know that they get themselves into their dreadful condition deliberately! They don't deserve programmes! They deserve to stay exactly where they are, in exactly the state they are: pushing sleek, well-filled cars around. Yours and mine.

Dilip D'Souza

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