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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Poverty, poor education, and the re-emergence of caste in India

Date: 07/24/2011

“Poor people are usually very uncivil in their behaviour...... they would have hazy scruples, usually resorting to base activities (theft, crime, rape) to get by....Indians seem to be so used to living in low quality surroundings, they have become low quality people..... poor kids have been allowed to grow into poor adults, and what their value system is like is anyone's guess.... bad civil engineering, slums which are allowed to propagate[SIC], uneducated people being allowed to have a say in the decision making process by allowing them to vote, all have resulted in a society that more resembles a bacterial colony than a human civilization....So it would all have to start with forming a new megacity like bangalore or mumbai in some new place...... Restrict the number of people per square kilometre. NO UNEDUCATED B*******S ALLOWED.”

I blinked in disbelief as I finished the email. I re-read it again to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. No, I was bang on the first time. It wasn’t the first time, neither in my life nor during this trip, that I had come across such sentiments from Indians in my age group. Every time such opinions are aired in my presence, I get a really unpleasant deja vu. I hadn’t been able to place this sense of deja vu until yesterday: this was exactly how I had felt, in the 6th grade, when I had seen a picture of an “untouchable” being beaten to death by members of a so-called-high caste for casting his shadow on their food. Are we about to see the rise of a new type of caste system, one that marginalizes and exploits the poor and the uneducated?

The conditions couldn’t be more favorable! As I mentioned in a previous post, the newfound prosperity of India is limited to a population of about 60 million. Of the remaining 1.14 billion, 638 billion are so poor that they’re forced to defecate outdoors. These two types of Indians live in two distinctly different worlds: while the women in one set plan trips to America and Europe, women in the other plan trips to the fields to at night to defecate with a modicum of privacy. It is easy to imagine, for me at least, how the disgust of one group can be easily matched by the resentment of the other. Indeed, such is the case. I’ve heard poor men complain about the avarice and the immorality of the “big people from big cities” and I’ve encountered disgust at the lifestyle of the poor from my rich friends and a concern that they’re dragging down their quality of life. The poor judge the rich on their abandonment of traditional values whereas the rich make cruel jokes about the poor for their lack of “polish” and finesse (as described by our erstwhile British masters). A frequent complaint I’ve heard is that the poor shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they are uninformed and easily manipulable. This is madness! We’re all citizens of India. Our status as humans is not contingent upon our income or education. We can’t allow our society to be ripped apart like this.

Yes, the differences are steep.
I have written this post to beseech my educated Indian readers to be aware of this us-and-them feeling that is ingrained in Indian society and may lead to another caste-like divide even if it is not called as such. At least in the short term, I don’t see the vast polarities in India changing. We must not let the polarities change us in our approach to the disadvantaged. All this nonsense about the poor being morally corrupt and acclimatized to subhuman living conditions is precisely that-- nonsense. The person who treated me most graciously this summer could not have made more than Rs. 4000 a month ($100), which is really not that much. Embarrassingly, I probably had twice that much money in my wallet when I met him. At one of our community screenings. I mentioned that I was a bit hungry since I had not had breakfast. Traditional Hindus hold the view that guests must be treated like gods. This man, a senior resident of the village, promptly took out his own humble breakfast of idly and sambar and forced me to eat it. I felt horrible taking his food, but he absolutely refused to accept my “no, thank you” or my money. What’s more, he insisted on waiting on me and even helped me wash my hands with water that he had gotten out of a water pump. I know from experience that this is the rule, not the exception. So, please, don’t vilify the poor. They’re more sophisticated than they’re given credit for.

 I don't think it is possible for anyone with the means to read this blogpost to imagine the life of a truly poor individual. Consequently, we have no right to make blanket statements condemning or belittling the poor.

Another frequent accusation about the poor is that they reproduce quickly, put increased pressure on the already limited resources, and increase the congestion. Yes, this is true. A popular theory behind this is that, given the high infant mortality rates among the impoverished, parents decide to have a lot of children so that at least a few are left behind to take care of them when they are old. This has been shown in numerous studies. Children, after all, are the traditional retirement plans for parents in countries like mine. Even my parents, who are not at all poor, think of me as their retirement fund and are counting on me to take care of them when they are unable to do so themselves. Most people approach this population problem in a Malthusian spirit which is incredibly dangerous. History has repeatedly testified that reducing poverty also reduces the fertility rate and the infant morality rate. Dr. Guerrant loves giving the example of New York City which had a higher fertility and mortality rate than present day Bangladesh(2). On the graph below, you can see how they fell with the increased prosperity of New Yorkers. So, if you want to reduce population and congestion, help the poor get out of the poverty trap and keep them healthy. It’s literally the only thing that works.

Note how regions infamous for high mortality inevitably also have a high fertility rate. It is a compensatory dynamic. (2)
One thing that the poor demonstrably do lack is education. This leads to superstitious beliefs and an inability to fully utilize the resources that are available to them. Every extra year of school education, adds about 8% to an individual’s earning capacity(1). Therefore, not being able to receive a complete education is a recipe for remaining poor. Reading Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo really made me appreciate the things that influence a poor man’s ability and decision to send their children to school. They do so amidst immense hardship. Education is a privilege and if you manage to get a good one, that’s your great good fortune. All the Indians who’ve ever launched into diatribes about our uneducated countrymen went to school in buses. The kids they rip on had to walk many miles to school and not always with shoes. In fact, Gemlyn, one of my coworkers this summer, helped formed an NGO that enhanced school attendance amongst children in remote areas by buying them shoes and hiring auto-rickshaws to carry them to good schools that were 16 kilometres (ten miles) away from their villages.

Unfortunately, even if they get to school, many times the education is terribly sub-par. Sister Eugini, the principal of Auxillium College in Vellore, told me about the horrendous schools in rural Tamil Nadu where the teachers come late, if at all, and refuse to teach. The children spend their time polishing the teacher’s bike instead of their maths skills. The teacher leave the school on seemingly luminous bicycles, leaving behind children who are doomed to a dark academic or economic future. Surprise checks did help a little, but they’re not always possible. Some fundamental changes are needed, but I am not qualified to prescribe any(3).
Yes, crowds can get frustrating in India.
Many of us make these “us-and-them” comments about the poor and uneducated without sufficient thought. I don’t actually think malice lies at the root of it for the most part. Frustration? Perhaps. India is decidedly overcrowded, overcompetitive, and not always clean. People coming back from a sojourn abroad, like the friend who wrote me the email, do suffer from reverse culture shock. I wrote this piece to make them aware of this tendency and how it can lead to fissures and intolerance in our society reminiscent of the abhorrent caste system that still lingers in India like a metastatic cancerous lesion. In conclusion, I’d like to present a Thomas Jefferson quote that I found paraphrased in Dr. Guerrant’s article (2):

“The power of society belongs in the hands of the people. If the people should ever seem in-adequately enlightened to exercise this power, the solution is not to remove the power from the people, but to educate them.’’

I think our work is cut out for us.


Disclaimer: The guy who sent me the email is an old friend. I respect him deeply as a scientist, but he has just returned from a very well designed and run European country and is almost certainly in reverse culture shock. Please don’t criticise him in the comments.


  1. Banerjee, AV and Duflo E. Poor Economics. Random House India. 2011
  2. R.L. Guerrant Why America Must Care About Tropical Medicine: Threats to Global Health and Security From Tropical Infectious Disease. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygeine. 59 (1) 1998.
  3. Personal communication. 07/01/2011


  1. Hi Pranay.. I agree with your views.. The reverse cultural shock is not only for those Indians who have returned back, but also for those "economically" upper or upper-middle class of the nation who are blinded by the luxury and simply do not want to witness such suffering. I think the change or reformation or whatever, has to take place at every level on a massive scale. Its because in the struggle against poverty, one fails to fight for every other basic right.

  2. Thanks for your readership and comment, Gowri. Hope things are going well in Coimbatore.