Vinoth Ramachandra

Slumdog Justice

Posted on: February 27, 2009

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?

13 Responses to "Slumdog Justice"

I guess one way the people in the slums have been affected is by slum tourism that has developed from the film:
( I was pleased that the tour guides interviewed didn’t allow photos, although presumably more guides will appear who don’t care about such things. As for whether people really are helped through the film, charities have been quick to make the connection: ( I had never heard of that charity before, so that seems to be a positive aspect to the film.

It is true that, if nothing changes in the slum as a result of this film, it is another instance of the poor being exploited.

However, it is a bit early to tell if that is the case. After all, community development’s life-cycle is much slower than Hollywood’s.

If I’m not mistaken, life in Cairo’s Mokattam slum has greatly improved over the years, but it’s been 30 years since Ramez and Rebecca Atallah moved there

Furthermore, the growing critique of liberal economics has reached a boiling point now that the realities of unconstrained capitalism have finally reached the west (where most of the leading business schools are).

If change has to happen at a world view level, expect to see these changes emerging in a few years, not a few weeks.

Great blog and hope to have some time soon to come back and read more!

Apparently, the children’s lives are no different. D. Boyle and Co. have made trust funds for their education and claimed to have taken care of them, for the future, but their economic lives are no different. And the jealousy that privilege for the few generates is in full force. So yes, we privileged who watched the movie and were given a glimpse of this side of life were royally entertained by the de rigeur Bollywood turns at the end. He got the girl. The children’s lives, and those of their families, are no different.

Vinoth provides a valuable overview of societal contradictions, as true for the rest of the world as it is for India.

He also writes: “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 was glad for the question-mark at the end. I am not sure that the appreciation of films (even this particular one) can be based on the application of such a narrow criterion.

I really like the write-up and I agree with the relative difference in wealth being the biggest criteria which decides how worse off the poor are in any society. From an informational perspective, I am going to provide some data ranked from worst to best country for both:

(lower % is worse)

USA – 2.8
Germany – 3.9
United Kingdom – 5.0
Indonesia – 5.1
Canada – 6.0
Finland – 7.4
India – 8.1
Australia – 9.0
Norway – 10.4
Ireland – 12.2
Korea – 12.3
Spain – 13.2
Japan – 13.9
China – 14.4

Just to numbers into perspective 150mn people in the US own less than 3% of total wealth in the country

(higher % is worse)

Denmark – 76.4
Switzerland – 71.3
USA – 69.8
Indonesia – 65.4
France – 61.0
Sweden – 58.6
United Kingdom – 56.0
Canada – 53
India – 52.9
New Zealand – 51.7
Norway – 50.5
Italy – 48.5
Australia – 45
Germany – 44.4
Korea – 43.1
Finland – 42.3
Ireland – 42.3
Spain – 41.9
China – 41.4
Japan – 39.3

Another interesting thing to notice is also that the rankings for both could also be a ranking for which country is more capitalistic. Capitalism is “Survival of the Fittest” in a social context with huge disparities in opportunity availabe to an individual based on circumstances of his birth. Over past few millenia we have tried to equalise the opportunity sets with things like

– all men are equal before the law
– increasing access to education/ training to everyone
– free and fair employment laws

But the nature of the beast is to increase the disparity in the society. Capitalism is a brilliant system which helps us evolve and prosper really fast as a civilisation by making the most judicious allocation of resources, but that comes at a cost of marginalising those who don’t flow/fit or adapt to the system

just some thoughts

Samir rath’s declared interpretation of concept and numbers suggests that the US is the worst place in which to be in the poorest 50% and China is the best.

But that can’t be right. Given the option, would you choose the US or China if you could be in the bottom 50% of either country?

Obviously, relative deprivation matters. But it is only one of the many things that matter. Poverty is a multidimensional problem.

As an addendum, an useful thing think about is teh total amount of wealth a country has. So 5% of wealth in a rich country is mroe than 100% in a poor one. So the question of relativity comes in only when everyone has a sutainable living standard. For countries like India and China and poor places in africa, the average $ earned per day is less than 5 for half the population. and of course thats not desirable despite lower income inequality.

The point I was trying to make is that when the average earning capacity is say 50,000$ per year, say in the US, the number of homeless people earning less than $10 a day is just a staggering number that boggles the mind. While over all the the economic system operates has enable say the US to be the best in research, health care, education, military, it has come at a social cost. Thats inevitable given the way raw capitalism works. Its a selection algorithm similar to what happens in nature – “survival of the fittest”

I feel the next phase for us as a civilissation is making th eprocess fo evolution more humane.

Btw I am not singling out the US here, cause I seem to get that drift from the last post. I am talking about the scenario in rich countries today and where do we go from here. US is a country which everyone is aware of at some level. Fi I say finland, some people will search for it on the map..

Good conversation so far, hope thsi keeps flowing

Good to see your blog, Vinoth…

About how those kids lives have been changed, or not, the Times of India recently followed up another set of Indian kids, who were at another Oscar ceremony four years ago, and what became of them:

As for this year’s kids, its too early to say.

“If nothing has changed, is this yet another instance of the poor being exploited for the entertainment of the rich?”

I quite agree with this. After I watched the movie I also felt a sort of what Vinoth has raised.

Some newspapers compared this movie with the Bombay Salaam and commented that Bombay Salaam deserves much more appreciation. I very much agree with that. No doubt BS is more realistic and does not have a happy ending unlike the Slumdog Millionaire. Probably Slumdog has a more ‘entertaining value’ but is that the reason why the Slumdog is more appreciated as an ‘art’ than Bombay Salaam because the later leaves a very sad and helpless situation to the watcher at the end? Of course who does not want to watch a happy ending movie because that’s more entertaining. But the reality is, life goes on and the poor remains poor. Two days back Times of India carried an interview of the child actor of the 1988 movie- Bombay Salaam and reports that he is an auto driver, trying to make both ends meet.

Jamila, thanks. But my question has to do with the slum itself, which was the location of the filming (or a good part of it) and not just the kids who were “stars”.

Oh, okay.

The slum has certainly become well known; hopefully it will get more attention from NGOs and government. Can’t say for sure, since the media don’t cover that aspect much.

Vinoth, thanks for those thoughts and quiet interested to know how people have responded. I was averse to people making remarks on the film SD until saw it. As the film came to a close deep down there was a cry yes it should have sent a powerful message. I watched Swadesh later and felt it was a hundred times better where the main actor leaves NASA to come back to India and settle in a village and light up not only with sustainable source of energy but also light up the human minds.

SD had no place for Slums i believe, though a few bites from the table indeed did fall.

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February 2009
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