Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's a rich man's world

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India's cities. This chasm is growing, despite increased welfare programmes... In today’s world, humanity is evolving into advanced new avatars — the rich, and those who fear or worship them. Step out onto any of our pothole-riddled, garbage and sewage-swamped streets, and you will encounter pinnacles of the evolutionary process. Yes, we’re talking of those magnificent Indians in cars broader than roads, costing more than the annual GDP of a typical tehsil. Our progress is stupendous indeed, for such affluent Indians are more commonplace than public toilets or parks.

Money is today’s new religion, and the focus of our existence. It gives us a reason to live, defines our place in society, and inspires us with a sense of purpose. Best of all, more people are now making more money than ever before.

Society today is growing more open and inclusive. Control over wealth is no longer confined to ruling aristocrats who enjoyed traditional privileges and status due to their noble or ignoble pedigrees. In the bad old days, royal and aristocratic dynasties controlled military and political power. Their wealth came mainly from the control of fertile land, and the labour of expendable peasants and slaves. Those retrograde snobs zealously guarded their wealth and privileges. They ostracised the poor populace and upstarts who chanced into wealth.
As civilisation evolved, a new breed of entrepreneurs rose from among the masses. They refined the techniques of transforming riches into power, and power into more riches. They discovered the truth that continues to govern our world. Anyone with enough money can gain prominence, influence and supremacy over others. These innovative people discovered how to channelise available resources into profit-making ventures, which in turn generated more wealth. Modern market economies evolved from this basic principle. You no longer need to be a blue blooded aristocrat to aspire to live in grand mansions, flaunt grand clothes and jewellery, acquire businesses or win popular votes. Let’s sing praises to our democratic polity where anyone can be elected to power. People like us, too, can hope to become leaders and make a fortune. If we are too squeamish to mastermind scams, we can at least follow the frugal example set by a former chief minister who reportedly had her official residence fitted with 31 ACs, 15 desert coolers, 16 air purifiers, 25 heaters and 12 geysers. 
Modern day demigods of wealth defy nature and turn age-old conventions on their heads. Why bother to work so hard to change the world? They use their money wisely to transform themselves instead. They boldly reconstruct ugly noses, and pay surgeons to remove excess fat caused by gluttonous gorging. It’s passé to simply buy high-funda educational qualifications to get that stamp of intelligence. The super-rich will buy up engineering or medical colleges, and print their own degrees instead. Kickbacks, bribes, buyouts, embezzlement and corruption on colossal scales, need true guts and grit to pull off. Plotting mega scams is challenging work, and only for the superior and daring elite. When pitted against these ‘best’, the ‘rest’ of us lesser mortals can only cower in awe and terror. How they go forth proudly, as though they own the roads, and even the country, with its floundering economy! 
Wealth equals success and commands respect in public perception. In these progressive times, even ordinary crooks can dream of reaching a holier-than-others status with the help of riches. All one needs to join the privileged club is the cunning and gumption to make megatons of money.
As the rich are getting richer than ever before, the standard of living of lesser mortals is also rising. Personal cellphones are a necessity rather than an undreamt of luxury for domestic helpers, carpenters and their ilk. Neighbourhood vegetable and milk vendors now do their rounds on motorcycles instead of going on bicycles or on foot. However, while the rich are becoming wealthier, the gulf between them and the poorest sections of society is increasing phenomenally. While economic activity is growing and more wealth is being generated in the world, it is not being equally enjoyed by everyone. As Pope Francis so aptly observed, “It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples, rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences.” 

Growing divide
This divide between the haves and have-nots is defined by the huge difference in their respective quality of life. Those with more money obviously live better and more fulfilling lives, enjoying superior homes, healthcare, education and luxuries. But the presence of many poverty-stricken people around us affects us all. Poverty leads to malnutrition, diseases, drug addiction, crimes, illiteracy and domestic violence. People mired in such distressing conditions find it difficult to rise up, and this in turn leads to more poverty. The side-effects spread beyond the miseries of these unfortunate poor souls. Property prices are reduced by the proximity of slums. Poverty leads to an increase in crimes, and this fuels the need for more policing and jails. Slums breed diseases, which can spread to those living nearby in posh settlements as well. More public money needs to be spent on doles, and to maintain order and provide basic amenities among the growing numbers of poor people. Poverty breeds social unrest and political upheavals, and can threaten democracy and stability. In the course of history, Tsars have been exterminated, and kings and queens beheaded, as fallouts of popular uprisings. The cadres of Naxalites and other militants in rural India are often driven into anti-social and anti-state activities because of poverty. 
These unfortunate poor people are born with as much innate intelligence and capabilities as their more privileged neighbours. Sadly, poverty holds them back from improving their education, and ill health dogs them because they cannot afford nutritious food or optimum healthcare. They are thus unable to make the best use of their inborn human potential, and the hidden cost to society as a whole is beyond all measure.

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India’s cities. Now, the rising gap between the rich and poor in rural India is surprising economists. This chasm is growing, despite increased government welfare programmes in villages. Inequality levels, computed from the National Sample Survey on Household Consumption Expenditure for 2011-12, shows that though the proportion of the poor declined between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the divide between the rich and the poor increased for the first time in rural areas in almost 35 years. This gap also peaked to an all-time high in India’s cities. 

Points to ponder
Why is it that in this nation of over one billion, only a tiny percentage of people benefit from a major chunk of the income? Why do a handful of people enjoy palatial homes with every conceivable luxury, while innumerable migrant labourers living in the shanties around them consider modern sanitation and plumbing, clean toilets and pure drinking water as luxuries? 
One reason for the growing divide is the ongoing migration of rural people who seek better opportunities in the cities. They do earn more in the cities than they may have as landless labourers or marginal farmers in their own villages. Unfortunately, that money is not enough to get them decent food, housing or education for their children in the expensive big cities. 

Inflation is another reason why poor peoples’ money buys them less and less. Many of them end up sleeping on footpaths, or setting up homes under plastic sheets propped up on poles. The prices of food items too are shooting through the roof, making even basic essentials like potatoes, onion and milk unaffordable for the poorest Indians. Thanks to inflation, the government’s treasuries are being emptied on doles and sops. The same concessions which were affordable a year or two ago, are now being cut back. Reduced government subsidies have led to higher prices of cooking gas and petrol. This has directly and indirectly hit the poorest people the most. Funds which could have been used for building infrastructure are now being spent to somehow maintain the poor at their present level.

Another problem is corruption, which compromises the government’s welfare measures. Funds meant for the poor are too often siphoned off into the pockets of middlemen, and corrupt officials at every level. Though colossal sums are allocated by the government for welfare schemes, corruption prevents benefits and doles from reaching those who need them most. 

Advances in technology can hit the poorest of the poor the hardest. The middle classes have the time and money to master computers and new technology, and this knowledge increases their earning capacity. The poorest of the poor are too busy struggling to get a roof over their heads and food to fill their bellies. They have no time, energy or means to improve their education, and have to confine themselves to less skilled, menial jobs which pay less. Meanwhile, technological advances enable machines to do more of these menial jobs, and there are fewer such jobs to be had. This is how the poor continue to lag behind because they are less educated and skilled. 

We are too ready to blame the poor for their miserable plight, just as we rush to worship the rich for their wealth and status. We harshly dismiss the poor for their shiftlessness and lack of enterprise. After all, isn’t wealth the reward reserved for only those who strive tirelessly to gain it? Others among us make snap judgements against the rich. Would the poor be so miserable if the wealthy were less selfish? If only the wealthy were more compassionate, and made more efforts to help the less privileged! However, such ideas are too simplistic. They do not take into account the importance of sound government policies for all-round growth and development at the macro level.

Ethic of reciprocity

Various religions have attempted to explain these gross inequalities. Many have offered solace by saying that it is the natural order of things ordained by higher powers. But is it our fate or past karma alone that defines our wealth and worldly comforts, or the lack of it? Conversely, religions also advocate the virtues of compassion, charity and benevolence towards all less fortunate and privileged than us. Visionaries and saints have always urged rulers to mitigate the plight of the poor and to govern according to the principles of justice, impartiality and altruism. 
The fault does not always lie in our stars, but also in our own attitudes. Making easy money, not struggling to earn it, is today’s success mantra. In our rush to keep up with the rat race and acquire material wealth, we neglect our spiritual and human sides. Our greed and increasing lack of moral scruples to get rich quick makes us forget that money is not an end in itself. 

Misery is sure to overwhelm us, if we allow money to rule our lives. Money, when used wisely, is a good servant. But it can be a terrible master. People who are slaves to money study courses not because they are interested, but which they hope will make them rich. Money rules their choice of career, life partner and their friendships. They constantly compare themselves with others, lack confidence in themselves, and are jealous of anyone they perceive to be doing better. Their lives are ruled by inflated egos, avarice, and discontent, and all joy and mental peace is banished from their dismal, self-absorbed lives. The overriding compulsion to make money makes them blind to the immense joys of family, friendships, good health, peace of mind, and the beauty of nature. There are some people so poor that all they have to call their own in this world is just money.

When we spend more and more money on our personal desires, the returns diminish. Owners of several cars or mansions are unlikely to grow proportionately happier if they acquire many more of the same things. True joy can come if we also use our money to spread sunshine among those around us. A gold biscuit stashed away in a vault will bring less real happiness than spending the same sum on a holiday with loved ones, or sponsoring the education of a poor child. When we have enough for ourselves, sharing and helping those less fortunate can bring us priceless spiritual rewards. It is next to impossible for ordinary people like us to radically change the world. But we can make a difference by devoting some of our time, energy and resources to help others who are less fortunate. As a wise person rightly said, there is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.
My essay is published in Sunday Herald