Back in Cali, but here’s something I started and failed to finish before leaving India.
After enjoying a 23 Rs glass of juice at my favorite Ahmedabad juice vendor, Mark, Priya and I passed a group of 19 laborers who were digging up the side of the road. No easy feat. In America, 3 guys with well over $1M in capital equipment would have accomplished a similar task in about an afternoon. In India, frail-looking women and men with blunt picks and dented steel dishes pound at the road for days on end, hauling away the dirt beneath by placing dishfuls on their heads and loading it onto a truck. I’ve seen similar laborers across India and wondered about them and their work. Lots of questions, many that aren’t easy to ask on some level. Where do they come from? Where do they live? What are their homes like? Do they know what they’re digging for? How much do they make? Is it enough to make ends meet? How do their employers treat them? Are they in pain at the end of the day? Do their kids go to school? Curiosity about most aspects of their life. In reality, I know the answer to most of the questions, and that’s why asking the questions is hard. You have to look at their harsh reality in the eye, and share their suffering without touching their pain. These people are financially poorer than most in the slums across the city. They’re the ones on the sides of streets, the kind we spent time helping after the floods in early July.
Today, we stopped to learn whatever we could from them. Just crossing the trench they were digging, we already attracted a crowd of on-lookers from the nearby shops. Generally speaking, a white guy doing anything slightly abnormal attracts attention. Mark is much more than slightly abnormal, and so has become a low-level Ahmedabad celebrity, often being greeted by strangers who’ve read the steady stream of press about him and recognize him by his trademark bandana.
Mark jumps in the pit and starts digging and filling a dish with dirt, effectively doing the work of two people. I ask one of the women laborers what she earns in a day. She stares at me blankly. At first, I think its because she might be from Bihar (the poorest state in India where many often migrate to richer states to do manual labor) and thus not understand Gujarati. Then it actually seems that she was stunned speechless by the dual-combo of a white guy (the likes of whom she rarely has seen) taking her shovel and momentarily relieved her of her labors, and a bourgeois Indian standing next to her in the pit and calling her ‘sister’ while trying to learn about her life. It must have been a Twilight Zone moment. I ask again. This time she opens her mouth, but still just stares at me and squints. Maybe she is from Bihar after all. A shopkeeper answers “70 rupees” on her behalf, throwing me into an equally stunned Twilight Zone. Around a $1.50. For 10 hours of back-breaking hard labor in the tropical sun with no protective gear, let alone shoes. I spin for a brief few moments.
Swirling somewhere in the maelstorm were these thoughts: laborers in Thailand are well-muscled and look athletic in comparison to the often puffy-sized laborers of America and the rail-thin Indian laborers, the Times of India statistic that revealed that American NRIs incomes are equivalent to 10% of India’s GDP, that my juice cost about a third of their daily income, the sacrifices these laborers must make on daily basis to live on Rs 70, the injustice of making someone labor to install high-bandwidth fiber optic cable or even a sewage system when the prospects of them enjoying those services are on the outer fringes of realistic, the sweat on my chest from walking a hundred yards, making digging more efficient, wondering how this work in this sun without much food accelerates your aging while stunting your growth, noticing that these laborers were barely sweating, the conflict between wanting to know what it feels like to be them and not doing anything that injures myself. So much ego to still get past. I’m still such a prick.
If these people weren’t digging on the side of the road, they might not eat that day. On balance, are they better off burning all those calories for the Rs 70 that allow them to eat a couple of marginal meals a day? Probably, or they wouldn’t be doing it, but that doesn’t mean that they or the society that benefits from the broadband or sewer system is better off in the long run for giving them their measley buck-fifty. Forget the loss of human potential in using humans to do what animals or machines could do better. And forget the cost of killing that part of you that needs to die in order to not care about them. The economic costs of keeping them financially poor are far higher than the costs of giving them a more reasonable life. Their poverty is repeatedly the base for costly public health emergencies where diseases start out by affecting them only to later ripple across the city at large (like the dengue fever that’s currently the most-feared scourge popping up around Ahmedabad, but more commonly malaria, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid). Their lack of education is repeatedly both a reinforcing factor for public health emergencies, and a cause for more public health problems as they do things like burn dioxin-rich (carcinogenic) plastic when they run out of sticks to cook with, or simply become a part of the cause for municipalities to spray the environment with bleach (to kill germs) as officials trade environmental disaster and future health for immediate crisis. Pollution and the prospects of vomitting and diarrhea on vacation keep tourists away, hurting the middle- and upper-class citizens who could benefit from those dollars and euros. Ragged citizens and polluted cities drive away investors, particularly foreign ones, again hurting the pocketbooks of the middle- and upper-classes. Both of these are huge costs to the world as well with average people missing out on the rich culture and solacing spirituality of India, while investors miss out on their God too: profit. Keeping these people uneducated and poor amplifies all of these problems moving into the future as their children similarly lack prospects, and tend to outnumber their parents.
Many years before this trip, I’d been imagining ways to use animals to reduce human labor in the developing world. Its very environmentally friendly, and can get the job done in a superior way. Today had given voice to some of those concepts in a chat with Mark. Crazy but simple things like elephants in spiked shoes to rip up streets instead of people with picks. Figuring out the right way to do that could be a bit challenging, but there is a huge need to research methods of construction suitable for India that aren’t costly and damaging to people and the environment.
Even so, our challenge boils down to simpler things: how can we assist economic development in a way that doesn’t parrot, and therefore inherit the problems of, the West? How do we use our immense resources and influence to create balance between the virtues of East and West, first in ourselves and then in our countries?
The answers are simple. And difficult. If not simply difficult.
Utopia must spring forth in the private bosom before it can blossom in civic virtue, inner reforms leading naturally to outer ones.
Of course every problem I see in the world is a reflection of a problem within me. Meditating problems away is one approach, and working myself raw to do something outside myself is another option. A better solution is to balance meditation with activity, working from a space of peace and detachment to results while vigilantly maintaining that balance.
My “outer” solution would start by hiring staff to cook three balanced and nutritious meals a day for them and their entire immediate family. I’d give them basic protective equipment. Then I’d hire a doctor who could give them and their immediate families medical care and counselling free of charge. I’d pay for their children’s education and related costs through high school as long as they were making satisfactory progress, then I’d offer the kids loans and grants for higher education in return for using that education to uplift society through social or public works projects while also committing to sponsor and mentor 5 other kids. Next, I’d look for ways to use oxen, camels, and elephants to do things that make a laborers job easier or lower environmental burdens of their work (Why can’t an elephant be fitted with a spiked steel shoe and tear up the road in an hour? Can’t an ox and pulley save you from breaking your back lifting that load all day?). Then I’d build aesthetically pleasing housing that had on-site, eco-friendly, grey-water and organic waste management systems (built by these people’s own labor) where these laborers could live at rent subsidized by higher priced and more luxurious units in the same building. I’d have a bus to take them to and from job sites. I’d give them a 12 hour workday where they had 1pm-4pm (the hottest part of the day) “off”. Half that time “off” would be free-time and the other half would be mandatory classes. I’d give them an option to attend classes teaching other skills free-of-charge before and after work, and when the skill related to my business, during working hours. Even if I paid them Rs 30 a day, I think they’d be a lot happier in that situation, and that society would be FAR better off in both the short- and long-run.
This will happen one day. By me, if someone doesn’t beat me to it. For now, sitting a half-world away in America, I’m working on the flip side of the balance that is at the core of our challenge.