In India, many poor kids inherit poverty

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/23 19:03:41

She approached me when I was standing on the cross-street bridge out of the Mahalaxmi train station in Mumbai. She was a girl with big shining eyes. I was there gawking at the endless fields of clothes and bed sheets strung on ropes to dry out in the area below called Dhobi Ghat, wondering what life is like for the thousands of "dhobis" - washer folk who live in the slums down there and work every day from dawn to dusk to hand wash what seems to be the clothing of the entire city.

A must-see listed in any tour guide of Mumbai, the 130-year-old Dhobi Ghat is known as the world's largest open air laundromat and has been crowned as such by the Guinness World Records. Workers wash hundreds of pieces of clothing each per day and make five rupees per item, compared to the 50-150 rupees or more per piece their clients in the upper levels of the business chain - hotels and laundry shops - charge their customer.  

 The little girl doesn't live at Dhobi Ghat. And her parents are not "dhobis" but vendors. They work on the bridge because this is the spot where many tourists come to get a bird's eye view of the area while keeping a safe distance from the appealing but intimidating unknown down there.

 But the girl didn't thrust the goods she was selling in my face. Instead, she started the conversation with small talk. "Where are you from?" she asked with a shy smile, then kept going - "I am from Rajasthan", "Is your country cold?" "It feels cold here for me"... Then she flashed the necklaces hanging on her arm. "I am here selling these, you know. Would you buy one, please?"

 I didn't want the necklaces which looked cheap and ugly. But I liked the girl immediately because of her amiable way of talking and because she looked a bit like the "big eyes girl" on the popular poster of China's "Project Hope," a program that helps children from poor families go to school. As I pulled out my wallet, I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. "A doctor," she said without hesitation.

 Not long after I finished the purchase, another little girl selling magnets came over. "Where are you from?" she asked me. And the conversation went on in the same way until I asked her what dreams she had for the future. "I want to be a police," she said.

 By now, I realized that they were all trained by the same master, the conversations were merely a selling technique and the personal touch they offered was probably made up. Only their dreams were different from each other and seemed genuine.  

But the girls, ten and eight as they said, were clearly not on the way to pursuing their dreams - they even couldn't spell their names for me. It was mid-morning on a Thursday, and they were not at school. 

 In India, not only the dhobis pass their profession to their children, but also the vendors, panhandlers and all others struggling at the bottom of society tend to do so. 

There are many beggars on the streets pushing their young children forward with their small hands stretched out - a tactic that often brings some immediate rewards from sympathetic tourists. But in the long run, it forms the toughest fortress of poverty in a country where, according to the World Poverty Clock, 70 million people still live on less than $1.90 a day, defined as "extremely poor" by the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda.  

Indeed, the vicious cycle is not only there in India. In the US, the "school to prison pipeline" that has been haunting the black community, and the violent crime that has been plaguing some Native Indian reservations are two examples. How to break the vicious cycle is a question that challenges the most capable social reformers. But directly giving people handouts hasn't always worked either.

In his 2008 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger, Indian writer Aravind Adiga looked through the eyes of a protagonist driver from near the bottom of society who was struggling to break out. "The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave," he wrote.

Now when I think about the "big eyes girl" on the bridge, I wish I didn't buy the necklace and rather showed her a video clip of doctors in practice or jewelry designers crafting better looking necklaces. The money almost certainly went to whoever trained her as a salesperson, whereas such images might have stuck in her mind and made her strive harder for realizing her dreams. Trying to inspire children of the poor with the vastness and beauty of the world and to ignite their drive so they just might change their own fate, is probably the best an outsider can do. 

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

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