Posted February 27, 2009on:
The Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire movingly depicts the casual brutality that haunts the lives of the urban poor. India’s social elites regard the latter as a national embarrassment, while depending on them for their daily chores, building their houses and keeping their work spaces clean. Politicians, film-makers and the mass media pretend the poor don’t exist- until, that is, the next round of elections or communal riots.
It has often been said that India encapsulates the paradoxes of the human condition: for instance, cutting-edge medical technology deployed in hospitals a stone’s throw away from open sewers and fetid hovels in which lice-ridden children offer their bodies in exchange for food.
The Taj Mahal itself is a theological parable, illustrating the biblical view of human nature: on the one hand, an exquisite symbol of human creativity, cultural sophistication and tender love; at the same time, an expression of barbaric cruelty (as the architect’s hands were chopped off to prevent him repeating his feat elsewhere). Slumdog, while presenting the ‘underbelly’ of Indian society, also brings out the humour in the midst of the heartache, the simple dignity and resilience of people in the most hopeless of situations.
Two million university and college graduates emerge every year from a country in which two out of three women are illiterate. The obvious question that arises is: what will these graduates do for these women and other forgotten poor? The answer, as in most other nations, is: not much. Most graduates see their degrees as a means to climb up the social ladder, not to serve those at the bottom of the heap. Middle-class graduates agonize over which mobile phone package to buy or who should lead the nation’s cricket team, but not over the fact that India is falling behind almost all the poverty alleviation targets set by the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015.
Gross social inequality is an affront to the God of justice. But conventional economists blithely ignore it, focusing on overall economic growth and swallowing the myth that wealth generated at the top will ‘trickle down’ to those at the bottom through job creation and rising wages. Yes, governments and NGOs should tackle absolute poverty, the provision of ‘basic needs'; but income and wealth inequalities are best left to the efficient allocation of ‘market forces’.
However, unjustifiable inequalities destroy social solidarity, and undermine democratic participation. Those who have more resources are able to manipulate public policy in their favour at the expense of those with less. For instance, polluting factories are sited, and toxic wastes dumped, not in the affluent suburbs of Western nations or the gated condominiums of the Indian super-rich, but in those places where the least well-off live and work. Inequality kills people because it affects public policy. It alters the distribution of education, health care, environmental protection, and other material resources.
Liberal theorists proclaim their belief in equal opportunity. But equality of opportunity is meaningless unless the factors over which we have no control in our decision-making are the same for all. Disadvantages are cumulative. Positions in the social hierarchy tend to be inherited. We can predict that the child of professional parents is likely to occupy a higher position as an adult than the child of high-school dropouts. Better-educated parents also make for healthier as well as better-educated children. A society in which the quality of education or health care one receives depends on one’s ability to pay is not a society worth protecting. In this regard, the US and UK are little different from India and far worse than continental Europe.
Adam Smith pointed out that the ability to appear in public without shame requires more in a wealthy society than an overall poor one: at a certain point, he suggested, a man needs a linen shirt to be respectably dressed. To impress at the job interview, one needs not only the relevant ability but also the right clothing and access to transport, perhaps also the right accent and social mannerisms. The whole idea of a standard of poverty unrelated to the incomes of others is false. Becoming relatively worse off can actually make a person absolutely worse off, in terms of opportunities and social standing.
In The Affluent Society (1958) , J.K. Galbraith proposed, with a nod towards Adam Smith, ‘People are poverty-stricken whenever their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency; and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgement of the larger community that they are indecent.’
Egalitarian values are reflected in a great deal of the Deuteronomic legislation, particularly in social institutions such as the Sabbath, the Jubilee, tithing and the distribution of land. These redemptive structures bring the notion of forgiveness and ‘a new beginning for all’ into the realms of daily economic and political life. Inequalities must not be allowed to fossilize. Translating this vision from agrarian societies to industrial and post-industrial societies is the challenge for Christian economists and policymakers. If the means used to generate economic growth are neither equitable, participatory nor environmentally sustainable, it is always the poor who will suffer disproportionately.
Back to Slumdog Millionaire. I was disappointed with the way it ends. A more powerful social message could have been delivered with a different ending…. but I won’t spoil the story for those who have not seen the film. Those who have are invited to supply alternative endings.
Also, I can’t help wondering how the film has changed the life-chances of those who live in the Mumbai slum in which the film was made. If nothing has changed, is this yet another instance of the poor being exploited for the entertainment of the rich? I certainly hope not. Does anyone out there in India know?