Saturday, July 15, 2006

Poverty
Dr. K. Rohiniprasad

Today we live in a technologically advanced world. We have mastered the science and art of controlling nature as per our convenience. We produce machines that are as intelligent (if not better) as the best of us. We have understood most of the mysteries of life and analysed several natural phenomena. And yet, as a civilization, we have failed simply because we have not been able to banish poverty, misery, wars and worse. More than two thousand years ago, the concepts of democracy and human rights took shape in some parts of our world. Two centuries ago, the French talked of liberty, equality and fraternity. The Soviet system made a bold attempt at forcing the pace of an egalitarian society. And yet, the problems remain as ever and seem to be getting worse by the day.

We have grown immune to the fact that in its most extreme form, poverty is a lack of basic human needs, such as adequate and nutritious food, clothing, housing, clean water, and health services. The poorest amongst us continue to struggle daily for food, shelter, and other necessities. The poor populations of the world include those suffering from destitution or absolute poverty as we occasionally notice in some of the African countries.

What has gone wrong? It is difficult believe that poverty is merely the result of lack of adequate resources such as land, food, and building materials required for the survival of the world’s poorest. It has more to do with the uneven distribution of resources on an international or regional scale. That is why many people have much more than they need to live in comfort, while many others do not have enough resources for mere survival.

One of the excuses for the present sate of affairs is to blame it on the past. The division of a society into a hierarchy of wealth, power, and status began with the earliest civilizations of ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and the Indus Valley. The ruling classes in these civilizations often mistreated the poor, sometimes subjecting them to hard labour or enslaving them. That is why old religious texts often exhort people with resources to treat the poor with compassion. The very existence of poverty is never questioned and the whole stress is on pity, charity and nobility in behaviour.

The so-called rise of civilizations only seems to have made the matters worse. Some of the powerful and wealthy nations maintained and increased their power and wealth and built empires by using the labour and resources of less powerful regions. This inevitably led to colonialism and imperialist ambitions. History was reduced to a series of political and military confrontations among the rich nations while the poorest of the poor continued to languish, irrespective of their geographical location.

It is not that progress has not been achieved. Industrial revolution, the age of mechanization, improvements in atomic science and electronics and the information age have all resulted in tremendous success and made a difference to the lives of those who could afford them. One only has to watch an old Hindi movie of the 1930s or 40s to notice that while the lifestyles of the rich and middle classes have changed tremendously, the condition of the poor peasants and labourers (who appear as walk-on characters) appears to have changed little! The only difference seems to be that today the government can learn quickly where the drought-affected zones in a particular region are located. It is altogether a different matter that nothing is done to remedy the situation. Thus we have all the trappings and talking points of the modern technology but little else beyond paying lip-service to the gargantuan problems of inequity.

The rise in the awareness of human rights has been very slow and mankind could finally banish some of the more abhorrent practices like slavery and unequal civil rights for some races. Even here, glaring errors persist to this day whether it is due to the age-old caste system in India or racial prejudices in the ‘egalitarian’ western societies. Clearly a minority continues to be more equal than the rest of us.
The frequently touted reason for poverty is overpopulation, paucity of jobs, and not enough food. But one can not ignore other factors like the unequal distribution of resources in the world economy, inadequate education and employment opportunities, environmental degradation that is mainly brought about by the rapaciously wealthy nations, and lack of welfare measures. In fact, the present trend is to push more and more sections of society out of the welfare net out into the cold. While such measures win the approval of institutions like the World Bank, the social costs of asking large sections of people to fend for themselves can be tremendous. The rise of criminal elements in Mumbai, for example, is often linked to the closure of mills with the lives of thousands of skilled workers and their families permanently destroyed.

The legacy of colonialism accounts for much of the unequal distribution of resources in the world economy. Some of the wealthier developed countries continue to practice neo-colonialism by adopting trade practices that favour them in the trade with the developing world. Developed countries also continue to get inexpensive natural resources from poorer countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, including oil for power, ores and minerals for manufacturing commodities. The low-paid workers in factories operated by multinational corporations represent the new face of slavery or serfdom.

Poverty affects everyone. It not only results in poor nutrition and health problems but also high infant mortality rate and low average life expectancy. Diseases, overcrowding, unhygienic practices, exposure to elements, malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, mental illness, and drug dependence are also the direct result of poverty. The rise of crime and violence, lack of education, mental depression, domestic violence are some of the other consequences. These problems are bound to boomerang on the privileged classes as the world shrinks into a global village.

One of the main shifts that can be noticed in society today is the total lack of conscience on the part of the intelligentsia and the middle classes. Caught in the web of media that continue to spin unrealistic dreams of wealth and prosperity, the thinking and chattering classes have forfeited their role s the conscience-keepers of society. The vulgar and irresponsible depths to which some newspapers (some of them are more than 150 years and call themselves ‘leaders’) have sunk appear incredible. The capitalist-consumerist juggernaut tries to sweep everyone off their feet in a desperate attempt to make money out of the miserable urban poor. Even as the masses try to make both ends meet in its daily grind for survival, the media promote acquisitive culture with sex as a powerful motif. The economically and sexually starved millions are left drooling at the mega-billboards and television commercials. If occasionally some of them lose their mental balance and cross the limit, they are caught and punished! The poor and deprived souls are constantly tempted with goodies and at the same time, sermons are preached about self-control and good behaviour. The media assiduously promote pulp culture and the lowest of cultural values. As a result we have millions of neo-illiterates who hardly do anything other than gawk at television screens that dish out socially irrelevant trash. With no value-system to provide moral and social guidance, the poorest of poor turn to crime as a short cut to acquiring wealth. No wonder the President of India recently remarked that most of the prisoners on the death row seem to belong to the economically deprived classes.

Much has been discussed and argued about the various forms of government that can provide the ideal solution to the problems of social inequity. But the inescapable conclusion is that as a species, race and civilization, mankind has failed miserably to achieve even a modicum of decency in treating their fellow-humans. And no one seems to be ashamed of it.

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