Life Arts

The Multiple Faces of India

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Poverty in India

I have heard many people I know say that the economic situation in India has improved a lot. The poverty crisis is being solved. I tell them that it's not so. The rich are getting richer, according to the gospel of the free market and neoliberalism, but the poor are also getting poorer, the same as in most of the world at this time. Certainly the GDP in India is far higher than it ever was before, but it doesn't mean that even a majority of people live better. The percentage of poverty stricken people in India is above 50%, and the number of people living in extreme poverty is two hundred million – out of the one billion population. [5]


Peaceful street scene in Chidambaram; nothing disturbs a holy cow


At the rate that neoliberalism is taking hold of the world, there doesn't seem to be much hope for improvement in the lives of the poor people in India. Small farmers all over India commit suicide because they can't provide food for their families. Dr. Vandana Shiva, New Delhi, is playing an important role in the fight for the poor Indian farmers. [6]

GMO seeds are sold to the farmers mainly from the giant multinational corporation Monsanto, promising giant harvests, less work and great wealth. However, the truth has been very different. The government, in cahoots with Monsanto of course, pushes the farmers to buy seeds that are not adapted to the existing ecosystems and the result is disaster – crop failures and starvation. [7]

The rude conditions of life as a farmer lead to an ever increasing flight to the cities, swelling the numbers of people living in huge shantytowns under horrible living conditions on the edges of all the big cities. These slums keep growing as conditions get increasingly unlivable in the farming areas.

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The beggars in the streets of all the big cities in India (Gangtok, Sikkim excluded) are ever present and the scenes of leprosy victims or just miserably poor beggars are hard to take. Since a leper is considered as being punished by the gods and unclean, they are considered untouchables and cast out by their families. Only charity organizations can do anything at all to relieve the miserable lives of the victims where their only means of survival otherwise is by begging.

Lepers depend on charity for survival

In Varanasi last October, we went to a charity leper village run by the DEVA Institute [8]. They also offer schooling to street children in different villages and help to mentally handicapped children, autistic and other, in their headquarters in Varanasi. They also sponsor other activities, such as helping young women develop some form of independence from their families or in-laws. Young married women usually live with their parents-in-law and have very little freedom. They are taught sewing and other practical chores and they get gynecological instruction from a physician who visits regularly. But maybe the most important aspect is the fact that they are not kept imprisoned in the house of their mother-in-law who makes all the decisions for them. They get out to meet with other young women and people who care. They talk and laugh and sing. They are very visibly happy to come several times a week to the Annapurna Center, situated a few kilometers from Varanasi.

The most moving scene in the context of the DEVA Institute was probably the leper village in Varanasi, where perfectly healthy children accompany their sick mothers and where every family has their own one-room house and so can live an almost normal life, cook their own food and clean their own home. They get weekly medical care and medicines which can arrest the progress of the disease. The French director of DEVA who introduced us to the more or less handicapped people hugged the patients as if they were his children and family. It was wonderful to see since they are used to considering themselves unclean and untouchable.

India – its charm and its deep problems

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The cheapest way of traveling, but they do pay a small fee

India, the country full of charm, India the country of beauty, India the country of friendliness, but India the country where the severe poverty is visible everywhere, where the inequality in people's lives is the most extreme we have ever witnessed, where hunger and disease are considered as the normal conditions of life, where the government is not concerned enough with protecting the suffering millions, only with making deals with the giant multinational corporations so as to increase the wealth of the wealthy.

But at the same time as the country is politically on such a devastating track of ignoring the weak and the poor, there is the beneficial absence of hype and artificiality that seem to make up the very substance of the western world. There is a sense of uncomplicated reality in the lives of the people we see in the cities and in the countryside. A simplicity that wins out over all the hardship that is so clearly the lot of the hard-working people. People take life as it comes without hyped-up dreams of luxury and change. They take care of their daily chores without complaining and without looking aside to see if their neighbors are getting a bigger house than theirs.

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Siv O'Neall was born and raised in Sweden where she graduated from Lund University. She has lived in Paris, France and New Rochelle, N.Y. and traveled extensively throughout the U.S, Europe, and other continents, including several trips to (more...)

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