Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Climbing down the pyramid!

It was the literacy campaign in 1991 in Taramani that first introduced me to the not so equal world we live in. Strangely, it was not the caste difference, but the class difference that made an impression on me. I came from an “upgraded” lower middle class. Parents came from very poor families but managed some basic education which got them salaried jobs and which moved us into the great indian middle class. They had built a home on one ground of land (2400 sqft) and although we did not have a room each to ourselves it was plenty – 800sqft. The part of Taramani we worked in was an urban slum with 100-200sqft houses on an average. I was young and full of enthusiasm to do “social service” and to “help” the poor illiterates. We worked with the local volunteers (who were 8th-10th level) to set up street level literacy centers for the illiterate adults in the slum. We bonded greatly with the local volunteers. Towards the end of the programme we (couple of 'my class' volunteers + me) decided to take the local volunteers from the slum around a tour of the iit campus as a picnic. They had a great time but their wonderous reactions to the scale of infrastructure at iit left us feeling very guilty at the end of the day. Guilty not because we had better homes and facilities but because it just dawned on us that every one of them can never have such facilities and so, 'What are we really trying to do with all this literacy'? We concluded that lack of good education was the basic problem for all the poverty and better overall education for all was the answer to all problems. We also felt that however many we could educate would be a constructive step towards the answer.

I moved onto a job, but carried the guilt with me. I promised myself to return to more meaningful work at some social sector organisation or NGO soon enough and not be stuck in the corporate world forever. To handle the guilt, I did volunteer in my spare time, joined groups run by similar spare-timers in working for better education for all, visited NGOs that worked full-time in the education sector, hoping to join one of them some day. 
This went on for 10 years and I had the opportunity to interact closely with a couple of NGOs in mumbai who were working with kids from some of the slums. It was the same old story. English education was the designed intervention to get them jobs. The kids passed out and got an opportunity to participate in the modern economy (eg: working in malls/coffee shops/mobile stores/professional caterers). However the process of getting them educated in english increased their aspirations to an extent which their employment could not satisfy. They were taught to dream, made to feel special, taken on many joy rides during their time with the NGO but when they stepped into the real world they did not have the skills to handle the ruthlessness of the modern economy. They grew more frustrated for they continued to inhabit the lowest class in mumbai with the realisation that their dreams may remain just that...dreams. One of the unfortunate fallout of the intervention was that the kids grew disconnected with their families. They never left the NGOs, always lingering around hoping for some miracle that would transform their lives into the ones led by their sponsors! I noticed this pattern of outcomes in rural as well as urban settings in varying degrees. Most of the people who choose to work at NGOs at are more affluent than their beneficiaries and with their sense of guilt they tend to mollycoddle beneficiaries and consequently tend to give them a rose-tinted vision of life. I felt that all this mollycoddling by the the 'NGO-people', is a way of shielding themselves from having to take a hard look at their own lives & choices, after witnessing, stark differentials in privileges between themselves and their beneficiaries. This way of assuaging their guilt blinds them to the basic problem, gives a false impression of reality to the beneficiaries and creates an unhealthy emotional dependence.  And so it became clear that, whatever the NGOs (all of them put together) were doing in the education sector, they were not really making a difference in addressing the basic problem. It seemed like the lot were having a lot of fun and patting their backs swimming against the current but were not going anywhere. 

In the meanwhile the guilt in me was mounting everytime I looked around. But the reason I felt the NGOs were not getting anywhere was because the 'basic problem' was actually different. I realised that lack of basic equality, and not basic education, was at the core of the problem and rampant exploitation of people, resources and nature was fuelling it. Trying to address the core or any other peripheral issues through some activism / organised effort in the current world would honestly just lead to frustration when one sees the connections. It became also clear to me that I was a very willing contributor to the problem and the answer lay within. I saw that the disparity in privileges, incomes and status exists for the current system to work. Also that exploitation is a necessary condition for the current economic order to continue.

The whole exploitation problem has become so institutionalised that it does not seem to be a problem at all to most. People do realise that there is an issue with ecological destruction, loss of livelihood, loss of habitat - diappearing of basic necessities like water/clean air from certain areas thereby forcing people to migrate and accept menial jobs in desparation, loss of bio-diversity etc but seldom connect these to anything to do with their lives and choices at a fundamental level. The actions they take to be sensitive towards the problem tends to be at a very trivial level like refusing a plastic bag in a supermarket while shopping a cart full of stuff when they could do without some of them. Why use a plastic bag when you can wheel out the cart and tip it over into the boot of your car? I felt that the car, the cart full of stuff, the need to shop at a supermarket - all of it needs to be relooked at, not just the plastic bag!

I searched for a life that was least exploitative and it led me to work with my hands and that led me to agriculture.

It has been 5 years since I moved into a lifestyle I am comfortable with. In the context of equality and expoitation, a few things have become clear to me.

  • The only way to bridge the inequality and basic human right gap is by people who are over consuming (just using more stuff like gadgets, clothes, luxuries, houses, maids, rooms, land, chauffers, nannys, cars, holidays etc) to consume less.
  • Having someone else to do one's personal dirty work, laundry, dishes, cook, clean etc when one is physically capable of doing it oneself is exploitative at the most fundamental level. This presumes that the time of the maid is less valuable than that of her/his employer!
  • All work is work. The basic reason to compensate some more than the other is a rule that has been made to keep a constant feed into the exploitative machine. If all work were to be compensated equally, there will be no one to willing to do another's dirty work as they would not need the money! No one does another person's house work out of passion.
  • The 'Demand and supply' argument that is used to defend differential compensation is flawed because demand and supply is artificially fixed to keep the differential intact.
  • It does not really matter if you contribute to charity, buy organic, give free tutions, pay for your servant's child's education, support fair trade, sport eco-friendly outfit, run for charity and all the rest, as long as you do not do your own work you are exploitative. You honestly do not want a world that does not have people poorer than you for then there will be no one to work for you!
  • If you have and use way more stuff, like cars, phones, houses, clothes, gadgets, shoes, land etc, than majority of the people in the world and are not willing to shed some of these voluntarily then don't bother planting trees or have them planted with your money, buying organic, avoiding plastic, work with NGOs to 'empower the poor', working with self help groups, etc for none of these actions can really balance the imbalance you continue to create and maintain through your own lifestyle.


DevJ said...

K, Thanks for writing this. It takes courage to say these things. I hope what people take away from this is not feelings of guilt to run away from but some understanding of what is really going on.

"We concluded that lack of good education was the basic problem ..."

Oh it is so easy to be seduced by pat answers like this mysterious "good education". It is funny that being middle class "educated" people we assume that we have this "good education" thingy and those poor people, if they just had what we have, things would be hunky dory. All issues to do with excessive population, resource depletioin, degrading ecosystems etc., are just waiting disappear at the wave of this magic wand!

Sriram Subramanian said...

Sriram/ Karpaga, How do I get in touch with you? Email/ Ph # please.


csm said...

sriramskd AT gmail DOT com

jivanshala said...

I want to ask about this statement: "Having someone else to do one's personal dirty work, laundry, dishes, cook, clean etc when one is physically capable of doing it oneself is exploitative at the most fundamental level." My question is, would you say the same for - having someone else do your paperwork, or repair your bicycle, or deliver your letters … in short, many jobs would qualify as jobs one does for wage and not out of passion.

kpt said...


No, i would not say the same for these jobs. The difference being that house help share our personal space, have a view into our personal lives and literally is having to clean up the mess left by us. thus it is relatively more exploitative. yes, lack of dignity of labour is an issue in many jobs.

Capton said...

Sriram, Why is 'having a view into our personal space' equates to being more 'exploitative'? There are many people such as our close neighbors who can have a view onto our personal lives without doing any labor. Also, my close relatives have a maid who comes home to do chores coz' the lady of the house is sick and needs assistance even to go to the bathroom. The lady is a widow and lives nearby. She has no education and has 2 mouths to feed. She immensely benefits from the job coz' this requires no formal job training and is very flexible with no age barrier. What is wrong with this?

Capton said...

Isn't 'differential compensation' a necessary product of differential 'quality of contribution' as judged by the receiver of the service. What is wrong with a neurosurgeon getting paid more than a cobbler. Both might take the same time to do a particular job but have to invest a vastly different amount of effort to qualify to get the job in the first place.

csm said...

capton - reply to Q#1.
there is no equation or proportionality.
straightaway, valuing one's time above another's is exploitative. secondly most house help work as such out of desperation and compulsion not out of their own free will. if you have a different pov, lets just agree to disagree.
the neighbour is not doing your 'dirty' work, so they can peek all they want, it is not the same comparison.

on Q#2
quoting from the blog post
"Having someone else to do one's personal dirty work..., when one is physically capable of doing it oneself is exploitative..."

the commentary is restricted to most scenarios, but not for rare ones like caring for the aged/elderly/sick (physically incapable) - which has to be a part of society's role.
also this argument of 'poor get to earn', 'feed/clothe/educate their families' is a duplicitous one. using an analogy, under the british rule, many familes' lives did improve once they entrusted their lot to the Raj, does not mean that the Raj was a benevolent animal.

csm said...

ref to comment#2...

so you tell me, invesment banker, neurosurgeon, farmer, cobbler. who should get paid what and why?
it will be useful start for a discussion.

as kamal tells nagesh, it is very easy to ask questions, try responding..."

Capton said...

I see your point. But, considering there ARE a large number of poor and desperate in our society for no fault of theirs or the proposed employer, would it not be humane to employ them in whatever capacity they can. Agreed - agree to disagree!

What is 'dirty' work? Who decides what work qualifies as dirty? I am fully capable of cleaning the shared toilet after I use it, in a train while I travel, but that doesn't mean I want to do so, I depend on others to do it for me. Does that mean they are doing my dirty work - unwillingly? Why can't they decide if they want to do it for a higher fee. Market system. Or a bag of mangoes - barter system if you prefer that.

I see a very fundamental issue in the lack of distinction between the two propositions : "everybody is equal" vs "everybody should be treated equal and with dignity".

On the differential compensation issue, "who should get paid what and why?" - the answer is "the receiver of the service" should determine based on time and place of the service. He/She is the only person who can rightfully determine what the service is worth and what he is willing to pay at that point in time. Anyone who determines this for others, however benevolent in their intentions, are simply imposing their will on others. To me that is simply an act of violence.

Spoken like a true Kamal fan. LOL

Varnam Gump said...

Very insightful. Takes guts to write something like this and even to start thinking in these lines. Though I might not agree at everything said, there are many important points raised, like the NGO intervention and the change of expectations of the beneficiaries.

kpt said...


the issue we are grappling with here is WHY there are (and continue to be) a LARGE number of poor and desperate in our society and certainly we all play a part in it as being part of society!


valuing a product or service only based on the value perception of the receiver is likely to become exploitative. people coming in a posh car and bargaining hard for a bunch of keerai!

Capton said...

Thanks for the reply. As a long time reader of your blogs and follower/admirer of your's and Sriram's work at point return, I would like to have a more detailed and thoughtful discussion on this issue by email. This seems to be such a basic thing that I find hard to comprehend about your philosophy. If I am not fully understanding, then please help clarify, I will be glad to correct myself. Interested?