Utter disregard?

March 14, 2007

Soon after I arrived in India and resumed posting again, a contrarian (and beloved) friend offered the following nugget in the comment section: “India is the world’s largest Controlled Chaos experiment. Their utter disregard for each other’s poverty/starvation/cleanliness/lack of shelter is awe inspiring.” Being used to, (and generally pleased by) his blunt provocation, I wanted to argue the point, but wasn’t really ready for the debate. Instead, I shook my head knowingly, rolled my eyes and moved on. With some time and distance, however, I’m ready to take it on.

Here’s some stuff you should know:

More than 93% of India’s population is either a) unemployed, b) self-employed, or c) off-the-books, and there is barely a system for collecting taxes from these workers. There is even less of an ability to pay. These are the men selling raw spices off a small towel spread on a traffic median, or the woman who carry the raw sugar cane on their heads from the fields to the fire and they make pennies a week, if that. These are not tax cheats — even if these workers could or wanted to pay taxes, they’re so disconnected from the system by geography, literacy, administration, and registration, that the idea of collecting from them is almost silly.

Still — some try to pay, in order to more fully participate in the system. And they vote… in massive numbers. Election after election, studying the candidates, looking for someone to help lift them up and pave a better way.

And what of the remaining 7% of workers? The on-the-books government employees, professors, the young Indians with call center jobs, the doctors, employees of international firms and the very wealthy? Well, turns out that a huge percentage of these “elite” are, in fact, good old-fashioned tax cheats. Professional tax evaders. (Sound like home?) Traditional collection methods aren’t working, so just like with the monkey problem, India is getting creative.

But, back to the facts:

  • More than one billion people
  • Extreme poverty at nearly 30%
  • Tax collection at barely 2%
  • Systemically corrupt politicians and officials
  • 22 official languages, plus 800 more with 2,000+ dialects

Do the math and a scary picture emerges. There’s simply nowhere near enough money, and what little there is is often corrupted. This government doesn’t have a prayer of making a real difference for a significant number of its citizens for the foreseeable future.

Might sound like I’m making my friend’s point about “utter disregard” for him. But here’s the thing: the people are running headlong towards these problems, attempting to plug the holes on their own. India is so full of grass-roots NGOs, that I can’t even remember all of the ones I learned about or came in contact with in four short weeks. Women’s empowerment groups, child labor reform, small business development & micro-lending, slum schools, care and advancement for the disabled, extraction, protection and re-assimilation for victims of the sex trade, skill training for the poor, child care for women workers, alternative fuels, lobbying against the caste system, animal welfare, anti-pollution, clean water. You name it. Average everyday people are doing it. Not just reading the paper, and mouthing off against their country’s ills as so many of us, myself included, do. Without resources or training or support, thousands of people are diving in and making huge differences in their communities today. It’s everywhere you turn.

I could share thirty or forty examples of this just off the top of my head, but I’m afraid I’m starting to get all long-winded and shrill. I guess what I’m saying is that I spent only a short time in this gigantic, diverse nation, and what I saw was a drive in ordinary people to make positive change for their brothers and sisters that blew me away. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it here at home — countless people with nothing deciding to devote everything to serving others. Awe-inspiring? Damn right.


One comment

  1. The “utter disregard” makes an awful lot of euro-centric assumptions about what systems there are in place to get people included. The lack of infrastructure in services is mind-boggling at times (from a privileged 1st world perspective).

    What looks like disregard is, I think, people just as concerned as we might be but dealing with it in other ways. I’ve always been impressed by the ingenuity of people feeling those gaps in innovative and resourceful ways – just like so many of the NGO’s you mentioned, for example.

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