Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wheels and class

There are many visible indicators of class and wealth in India. You can see it in the way people move, their body language towards each other, the clothes they wear (not just the quality or costliness, but the aesthetics), and in their faces (a browse through the faces on milaap.org, a brilliant site that facilitates micro loans to needy people in India, will show many people for whom the daily toil of life for millions of Indians adds decades to their appearance). And you can also see it in how they get about.

Transportation may not seem a particularly important marker of class or power, particularly in a country where millions identify themselves as poor by proffering a begging bowl. But as any country's economy develops, the need to move about - and the desire to do so in comfort - grows inexorably, and this puts massive stress on infrastructure and inhabitants. In Delhi, with its crowded roads and might-is-right traffic rules, traffic and transportation are becoming one of the most visible battle lines of class conflict. As the city grows, so does its inequality, and this battle looks set to go for a good while yet.

Take this story, for instance. Gaurav Jain, a 26 year old journalist, researching the lives of cycle rickshaw pullers by doing the job himself, was assaulted by a police officer for 'blocking the road'. Before I say anything else I want to say: kudos to Mr. Jain. Most of the time, Delhi seems to consist of a million or so "important" people and countless millions of others who get ignored. The cycle rickshaw pullers, the street hawkers, the hijras tapping on your car window at the traffic lights. Your average car-driving Delhiwalla barely seems aware of the existence of these people, never mind having such an interest in how they live that they'd be willing to take on a tough and - let's face it - demeaning job in order to understand it.

I don't say this to be critical. Anyone who has lived in a big city will understand that urban survival depends on an ability to act as if you're the only person walking down the street, standing on the train, driving to work. There are just too many people. We can't acknowledge them all. And the ones we do acknowledge tend to be those most like us, the ones to whom we can relate. So in Delhi it's no surprise that the aspiring middle classes pay scant attention to the poor guys slogging their guts out dragging a family of five on the back of their bike for 15 rupees. It's the way things are, and after living here a while you find your blinkers tend to come on pretty quick.

Anyway, back to Mr. Jain's story. Following the attack he went to the local police station to make a complaint, but was ignored. "It's strange how much a person's professional standing or profile can affect the way the law treats him", he said. Quite. Somehow I don't think his rickshaw puller colleagues would find it all that strange.

That the rich and privileged can expect better legal redress than the poor and excluded is no surprise. What was interesting to me was the reason for the attack: "blocking the road". Read: getting in the way of the car drivers, who are far more important than you.

This reminded me of another story that came out a few weeks ago, about the ongoing saga of Delhi's bus lanes and the objections from car users that they are causing delays. The quoted comments in the article lay bare the stark class divide here, and the assumptions made by the privileged about the millions of dispossessed Indians (on whom they depend for everything from domestic cleaning to shoe shining). "People" are being delayed by traffic jams because of the bus lanes, argue campaigners. "How does it matter if a peon reaches his office five minutes before time?" asks one. The apparently radical idea that "people" should also include those who use public transport has to be specifically pointed out by a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology.

It should be obvious that when only 10% of a city's inhabitants drive, yet the streets are already clogged to all hell, public transport has to be at least a part of the solution. But the fact that the bus lanes are fighting for their survival is testament to the disproportionate power held by those 10%. Of course, while they appear to be fighting for their own benefit, if they get what they want it will simply ensure a miserable future for everyone: a city even more gridlocked, fume-choked and cacophonous than it is already.

And this is what worries me most about the emerging battles around Delhi's transportation system. It seems to encapsulate a situation where growing inequality leads to class-based battles that belittle ordinary people and lead to the privileged taking decisions in their narrow benefit, rather than recognising the need for development to work for all, not just the "wealth creators".

The result, it seems to me, is usually a set of outcomes that are worse for everyone.  There are parallels to be made here with the increasingly unequal societies in the UK and the US (among others), which in the past 30 years or so have become massively richer, massively less equitable, and arguably a good deal less happy, healthy and secure. Repeating those patterns in a city the size of the Netherlands - let alone a country of 1.3 billion - is a scary prospect.


Kay in India said...

Brilliant post. I know I've become quite desensitised to the poverty here.

Supriya Prathapan said...

It's always a treat to read your blog.Have you read Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger'? A majority of Indians live in 'darkness'. It's not that the well to do Indians are not doing anything for the poor.They are. However, this is a huge developing country, with more than a billion people from diverse socio-cultural n economic background. Red tapism and corruption, prevent most people from indulging in constructive social service. Thats probably the reason behind our apathy. We have learned to ignore. We try to do our bit through donations made on special ocassions(which is clearly not enough). But I don't think any of us can be truly happy till poverty reigns.

Well as to the traffic in Delhi, if one wants to learn Hindi obscenities, he can get free lessons on Delhi roads. U can get into trouble only if u follow the traffic rules!

A Very Happy Diwali to you in advance.

Chris said...

Thanks both for your kind comments. Supriya, yes I have read White Tiger and it was an eye opener - a real unflinching look at realities in India.

I agree that there are wealthy Indians who do lots for the poor - the milaap site I referenced is a good example of that, though India needs more initiatives like this to channel people's altruism. I think you are so right that poverty makes life worse for everyone, not just the poor.

A very happy Diwali to you too!

GauravJain said...

you have made commenting so difficult man. well anyways, let me try this final time -
that what i want to day -
"hi Chris,
was googling for that HT story when came across ur blog. Thanks a lot man.
I like blogging, it gives me a high but its a different high altogether to be mentioned in a blog.
feel like Saman Khan of Dabangg ! ;)
btw, that milaap site is a great initiative...if I ever land up with a good job, I hope to contribute something ! :)"

- I hope it reaches. bye

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Hi Gaurav, thanks so much for commenting and I'm sorry it's taken so long to publish your comment - I've been away for a lot of the last month on holiday and then back in the UK for a family funeral, so the blog has suffered. Great to see you commenting here and I hope your work is going well!

I don't know why but a lot of people seem to be struggling to post comments at the moment. Maybe a glitch with Blogger as it was working just fine before.

Milaap is brilliant, such a great initiative. Remember it's loans not donations, so you get your money back - I think that's what makes it so special, as it means even people who don't earn a lot can help, and the people receiving the money are empowered and trusted rather than being passive "recipients".