The Poverty Of Hearts

Charity was once believed to be an elite ploy to postpone revolutions, but in today’s world even that doesn’t concern the new and rising India. Read together with Xavier Dias’ piece from Jharkhand on the systemic genocide the rising food prices have meant for the Adivasis, this article tells a lot about the food crisis in India.

Priya V K Singh

Mother, civil servant, patriot – I believe that we, the generation which has benefited most from India’s recent growth story, must do something about India’s crumbling institutions and the rapid spread of corruption if we are to guarantee our children a secure and happy future and a sense of pride in belonging to the country of their birth. I do what I can.

About a fortnight ago, I read a Facebook status about an initiative by a group of Gurgaon residents to launch in  Gurgaon what they called a Food Bank  —-  a place where home made meals pledged by residents would be collected and then distributed to slum children on a daily basis.

The idea is simple.

Gurgaon is , by any standard, an extremely affluent city, but in the midst of all the affluence are pockets of heart rending poverty —-urban slums that house those who have migrated from villages in search of a livelihood and have found employment as construction site workers, household help, gardeners, security guards, trash collectors, rickshaw pullers  etc. They live in tiny spaces, and do not have access to either safe drinking water or proper sanitation facilities. Many of them get to eat just one proper meal a day, one, because they cannot afford to spend more on food ( they have to send money back home ) and two, because their long hours of work and cramped living spaces mean that they do not have the time or the inclination to cook. The children of such migrant workers sometimes attend NGO run schools ( government schools are non existent or non functional) but are mostly to be seen either whiling away their time in slums or begging on the roadside. These children, deprived as they are of safe drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, education, and nutritious food are an integral part of our nation’s future. If they are not educated/skilled and healthy, does the nation’s future not look bleak?  Or do we imagine that the nation will be run by the handful of children who graduate from IITs and IIMs and land jobs in MNCs? Will they even know what the real issues are that confront the large part of our population? Equally important, when a large majority of children are neither well fed nor schooled, do we expect them to have any sense of belongingness or pride in the nation? Can we look to them for the task of nation building when we have let them down so badly as to keep them deprived of the very necessities of a dignified life? Are they not vulnerable to taking up lives of crime ? Is that the kind of urban reality we wish to create where affluence is constantly threatened by anomic crime?

I am not privy to the thinking which went into the food bank initiative, but i was happy to read about it and to immediately pledge at least two freshly prepared meals every day. With a great deal of enthusiasm, I shared details of the initiative on Facebook —–on my page, and  in groups ( some of which have members running into 1000s). I wrote to the group e mail id of the plush neighbourhood where I live and where none of the 1000 odd families has less than two cars per familyand many are billionaires many times over.

When I found that the response was disappointing, I shared again —-and again, and again. The number of meals pledged in a rather upscale area of Gurgaon with roughly 10 neighbourhoods varies between 60 and 70 every day. The minuscule number  is enough to break one’s heart. This is a geographic area where literally thousands and thousands of families live, order their pizzas and ice cream cakes, buy Audis and BMWs, splurge on designer wear and  expensive watches, send their children to schools that charge 3 to 4 times the tuition fees of an average’ school .

Yet, their response to a plea to pledge a meal ( just one meal) is nearly absent. It is not as if the lady of the house would even have to cook the extra meal. Most of these are households that employ household help. An extra meal will not be an expense that cannot be borne. The meal does not even have to be transferred anywhere,Food Bank’s volunteers pick it up every morning and visit slums where children now eagerly await their arrival. Photographs are shared every day so we know we are not being duped and that the food is reaching the intended recipient. The look of joy on the faces of the children who get a wholesome, stomach filling meal would gladden any heart. I would think it would make even the hardest heart melt melt enough to resolve to pledge a meal. If that happened, no one would sleep hungry in Gurgaon.

For several days now, I have tried to figure out what explains the indifference, the apathy. It is not as if we were talking of the distress of farmers living hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. We are not talking of the hardship that adivasis undergo —-we neither understand their way of life nor their culture, are prone to treating both as inferior”and therefore easily dismiss their problems from our mind.

These children, however, we encounter everyday —-on the roadsides, outside shopping malls, near the Metro, rag picking in empty plots. They are right there in front of our eyes, and we know they belong to the men and women who build our houses, keep them clean and green and secure, take away the trash, and perform a hundred other services such as plumbing and painting and telephone connection repairs and tailoring and fruit vending. The list goes o and on. Yet we are not moved enough by the hungry stomachs of these children to take the baby step of pledging a meal.

Is it that no matter how rich we may be, we suffer from poverty of hearts ?

 

 

 

  • edsa0601

    Lack of compassion seems to be an Indian trait. Care and concern seem restricted to the family and immediate community.
    Plain indifference to suffering is perhaps more a Hindu trait – else how do you explain the refusal to end the primitive caste system and the continuing awful treatment of the Dalits? And worse still, they justify it by invoking the ‘law’ of karma.

    • Priya VK Singh

      I think it is more to do with institutionalisation of philanthropy in the west where it has become a way of life just as community participation has. Both philanthropy and community participation are rewarded and incentived from a very young age . Perhaps we ought to create more models for incentivising community participation and for duly acknowledging and appreciating philanthropy. Why is it that Mukesh Ambani is a larger than life picture but Azim Premji is not?

      • edsa0601

        I wasn’t talking of institutionalised charity but rather of that natural human impulse that should make one feel for (empathise, be stirred, moved) by the plight of the less fortunate. Christian scriptures expressly exhort people to take pity on and help the one is poorer, troubled or suffering. Do Hindu scriptures have any such thing?

        What did you mean by Ambani being ‘larger than life’? The Ambanis or Hindujas strike as being too remote from ordinary folks, humourless money grabbers, cosy in their mansions, not seen reaching out to the less fortunate. In contrast, A Premji of WIPRO had written to PM Singh about his poor governance, public morality and the people not benefiting from the ‘high growth rate.
        Maybe the Indian people have been subjected to wretchedness and misery for so many centuries (and under assorted invaders) that they may well believe it to be their natural condition and put up with it.