My recent visit to India followed my reading of an excellent book by Aravind Adiga called The White Tiger (winner of Man Booker award for 2008). It is an account of a poor man from the lower social status, who was crafty enough to pick himself up with his shoestrings, and advance his career to become a chauffer for a rich family. Eventually the only way this uneducated slum dweller mockingly called White Tiger (bold and rare), could free himself from bondage was to commit a crime.
A similar theme is followed in the new movie Slum Dog Millionaire (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup), which I saw on my return from India.
Two brothers, victims of poverty and religious strife in the slums of Mumbai follow two different paths. The older brother resorts to crime and becomes a hatchet man for a mob leader, and the younger follows his survival instincts to find work in legitimate jobs, using his wit and talent to advance himself. In this film, virtue and vice are pitched against each other, and of course, virtue wins in the end.
These stories ring true in the filth and the squalor of the slums of Mumbai today. Many more impoverished lives are quietly lost or wasted, with their stories untold. When I was in Mumbai, I saw many new buildings and roads under construction. Monstrous high-rise buildings are being built everywhere, with slum colonies of workers all around them, like discarded rags, with open sewers and heaps of garbage.
The vibrant society of Mumbai has not diminished and there are many changes clearly visible. But some things have not changed over the past forty years I have been visiting Mumbai. It is the children begging on street corners and at traffic lights. One can never ignore or get used to this sight. It is the nadir of human dignity. Young girls with infants hanging from their hips knocking on air-conditioned car windows. Naked, skinny dark-skinned boys running the beat amidst stagnant traffic. Pathetic blind scrawny children singing old movie tunes at street corners, with their hands extended. Crippled children hobbling on sticks and makeshift crutches, winding through intersections at traffic stops. I even witnessed a two year old toddler being taught by its mother the fine art of begging!
Many of these beggar children are manipulated by adults who run crime gangs. They deliberately maim the children so that they may earn more sympathy and collect more alms. Girls are sold into prostitution the moment they come of age. The atrocious crimes against children have gone unabated despite all the progress India has made in the economic sector. Child labor is one of the highest in the world. The parents often have to depend on the money the children can bring by working or by begging. The children are the victims of abject poverty with no hope for a decent future.
India is touted as one of the five largest economies in the world. But the street children and slum dwellers are still living in the middle of human waste and garbage, in poor sanitary conditions, urinating and defecating openly like animals. Surely there are many more poor people living a hand-to-mouth existence outside the big cities all over India. But it is the plight of the poor children of city-slums that is particularly gut wrenching.
The resilient population of Mumbai has bounced back. The devastation of 26/11 terror attacks is still fresh in their minds but they exhibit no signs of anger or desperation. Indians have this remarkable attribute of moving on and not brooding over the past. This is not a fatalistic view but just a resignation that fate plays its hand in many ways. Their concept of karma plays a great role in their attitude. But there is also little talk about the destitute poor on their streets. They have been left to their fate as well. The train of economic progress has left the station, and there is no turning back. Hope is that everyone will get on that train, eventually.
In a democracy, there are always obstacles. For every two steps forward, one has to expect to take a step back. But eventually, there always is movement in the right direction. I have heard some frustrated people say that an autocratic government would be a better alternative, so that the self serving politicians lose their power. But they all know the folly of such a government because many have experienced the brief experiment undertaken by Indira Gandhi in the 70's with the Emergency Rule. Those were the dark days in the history of India and people do not look at that period with nostalgia. They would rather 'suffer' the consequences of an 'imperfect democracy' than an autocratic rule. Today, thanks to that infamous action by Indira Gandhi, Indians are unlikely to take their rights to liberty and equality for granted. The idea of living freely under democratic rule is firmly etched in their minds and souls.
India is a relatively new democracy. It has not gone through all the stages of democracy yet. Alexander Tyler (University of Edinborough - circa 1787) wrote that democracy goes through eight stages and the process of maturation takes an average of two hundred years.
There are eight stages of democracy, Tyler observed:
From bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back to bondage.
Perhaps India is in the middle of this process of maturation, going from liberty to abundance. But this is the stage when there could be trouble. Abundance may lead to complacency and eventually to apathy. When apathy sets in, the very foundation of democracy could be in danger of crumbling.
There is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The middle class in India has grown exponentially and rivals the populations of entire nations like the United States and Russia in number. But the status of the poor has not changed much. The burgeoning population is outpacing the rate of progress. The opportunist politicians are still on the prowl. A staggering 25% of the population of poor in the world live in India. Many Indian children lag behind in nutrition. One estimate by the United Nations shows that 40% of Indian children are malnourished.
That brings us back to the plight of children in the slums of Mumbai and Kolkata, or those who sleep on the pavements in Chennai and Bengaluru. In an authoritative country like China, the slum colonies are simply mowed down and the poor are sent far away to the country side, never to be seen again. Thankfully, in a democracy everyone has equal rights. My faith in democracy and freedom will be reaffirmed only when all the people are able to taste its benefits and exercise their inalienable rights in their pursuit of happiness. Rome was not built in a day and India is still a fledgling democracy. After all, we are only in the second quarter of Tyler's cycle of two hundred years of maturation of democracy. Abundance and prosperity have not reached many segments of the population.
Until such time, the number of Slum Dogs will not decline, and there will only be a handful of White Tigers amongst them.