It’s one of those things that we’re hard-wired to do being part of a young nation. The culture of celebrating even the most minor achievements has become a very “Indian” thing to do.
Achievement without honour
So it was with great pride I walked down the halls of a British university not long ago, announcing the great feat that was Mangalyaan. A mission to Mars that costs 10 times lesser than NASA’s Maven launch. We’ve somehow managed to turn monetary frugality into an asset. Phenomenal!.. Until someone said to me, “Yes indeed, but over 20% of your country live in poverty and they’re sending rockets to space?”
A hundred arguments could be made. Scientific advancement, education, communication but in the end, India is still seen with an albatross around its neck – poverty.
Almost every news outlet outside India wrote about the Mangalyaan mission, but almost always said this – “India has been criticised over the cost of the mission because it is a country where millions of people live in poverty.”
The mission cost $45 million which is absurdly low for a mission to Mars; no doubt a feat of great scientific skill and phenomenal improvisation. But all these arguments don’t matter to observers. Poverty is what matters.
Poverty is our brand
It has become all too easy to look at India and instantly picture thousands of people living in slums or begging in the streets of New Delhi or Mumbai.
India has sent a number of movies to the Oscars each year, but it was a movie set in poverty that bagged the honours. Admittedly, many of those movies lack originality to sway the Academy. Nevertheless, it was a movie that portrayed the grim reality of that same 20% in India, who live a life of consistent mediocrity that won big at the awards – Slumdog Millionaire.
It says something doesn’t it?
Apathy and the double-edged sword
The problem with poverty in India is that people have become desensitised to it. It may sound harsh, but growing up seeing ‘beggars’ (I hate the term but its use is rampant in India) in trains, roads and at your doorstep even, has made the Indian populous apathetic. In your younger years your pupils are dilated with compassion for these unfortunate people, but over time they contract and a dull, careless countenance takes over.
However, it is ambition that is poverty’s biggest enemy in India. As a country, it wants to walk on the shoulders of giants and as a people they are in a perennial race to the top. India’s burgeoning middle class has lived alongside poverty and has decided to look away. ‘There is no time to help the poor. You look after yourself and your family.’
It is a sharp double-edged sword. The one thing that drives the Indian economy is also the same thing that stifles it. So how do you solve this equation? How do you make the people care about the poor. Every household has tales of grandparents or some relative overcoming great odds to put a roof over their family’s head. How do you argue against that?
As you can see, poverty is a complex issue. One that has both cultural and societal roots. How do you deal with this? How can you make people care? That’s a problem that can’t be fixed with a throwaway line in an article.