Poverty and its brutal consequences

Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters (Church Corner). New York, NY, USA, c.1889.

Poverty invokes different kinds of reactions and responses from different people and it has many dimensions. That makes it a very fascinating topic for researchers, philosophers, religious teachers, philanthropists, writers… It can incite brilliant intellectual expositions, economic, karmic or systematic explanations, petty rhetoric or emotional outbursts. But from those who are victim of it, a mention of word poverty, often incites visceral responses which are triggered by the memories of going to bed hungry, backbreaking inhuman labour to earn their living, helplessness of seeing infants struggle to get the basic care. A large number of books have been written about the impact of poverty and what it does to its victims.

However, study and researches keep on throwing surprises. This article, a brilliant narrative by CHRISTIAN H. COOPER someone who experienced poverty and overcame it, provides the biological dimensions of poverty. It aptly describes poverty as a disease.

I am summarizing some of the key points of the article but entire article is a great read.

1. Poverty has  biological effects and these effects can last for more than one generation.

“First, that the stresses of being poor have a biological effect that can last a lifetime. Second, that there is evidence suggesting that these effects may be inheritable, whether it is through impact on the fetus, epigenetic effects, cell subtype effects, or something else.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

2.  Poor people are from the outset at disadvantage in most of the merit-based systems and yes, poor people are not poor because they deserved to be poor.

“What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

3. Those who overcome poverty are exception. And, escaping poverty is a matter of chance, and not a matter of merit.

”Did I show initiative? Sure. And there have been many people who have interpreted my escape from poverty as a confirmation of some foundational meritocracy that justifies the whole system. But the fact is hillbilly country is full of people just as desperate to get out as me, and taking just as inventive a set of measures. Yes, I am the exception that proves the rule—but that rule is that escape from poverty is a matter of chance, and not a matter of merit.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

Bihar: A Glorious Past and An Uncertain Future

As I walked past a small hut the chorus of ‘ek duni do.. do duni char.. caught my attention. The sound was coming from the hut on my left. I took  this route many times, but never stopped to have a second look on the hut. It was so commonplace in a village full of huts. I stopped and so did a couple of people who were with me. One of them was a visitor from Japan.

There were around 20 kids in the hut, swaying back and forth and reciting  do ka pahada (table of two). Some of the kids seemed too young to be learning tables.  The teacher was nowhere to be seen.  Yes, this hut was one of the several centres under Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The kids spotted us, some kids stopped their recital and took stock of us. Soon, they realized that we are some random visitors making them victim of our stupid  curiosity. Soon a young lady, barefoot, hastily covering her head with pallu walked in to the hut. She was the teacher. Suddenly, there was more enthusiasm and participation in the recital.

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

There was a sudden onrush of mixed emotions. Nostalgia, pride, frustration, helplessness, happiness and hope were all mingled together. The kids were oblivious of the odds against them. Uncertain of what lies ahead of the hut. Many of them may were there because their parents sent them to get free food there. And, many of them will dropout after this school. But some of them will surely defy many odds to achieve what their parents never dreamt of.

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

It was very ironic. We were in Vaishali: birthplace of Lord Mahavir, workplace of Budhha and the capital of the glorious Licchavi clan. The hut was on our way to Ashokan piller and Abhishek Pushkarni : two reminders of our glorious past. Every person that you will meet from this area will not forget to highlight our past glory. I too, do it without fail when I meet someone who wants to know more about my home state. Often, this helps when I am not keen to discuss the embarrassing present and uncertain future.

A few meters away from that hut, one can find the world peace pagoda and several other palatial Buddhist stupa and temples. These stupas and temples are constructed by several Buddhist countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan etc. Every year a horde of tourist visit this place to experience and appreciate the work of Budhha and Mahavira.

I look at these temples and stupas which are meant for celebrating the teachings of our enlightened souls and several questions pop up. Would  kids there in the hut be able to enjoy and celebrate the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira? What if there were a few schools also built along with the stupas? What if there were enough schools here? What if teachers were inspired by  selfless services of Budhha and Mahavira?

Killer in the kitchen

Several news articles highlighted the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and its impact on health. Many of my friends and colleagues started contemplating options that can save them from air-pollution. They discussed options ranging from buying masks and air-purifiers to shifting to a city with better air quality. These frequent news and articles about air-pollution made them really concerned.

Mainstream media has an unparalleled capacity of influencing our priorities. However, mainstream media is very stubbornly selective in what it chooses to highlight and what it chooses to ignore.
One such issue that never got duly highlighted by the mainstream media is the impact of household air pollution (HAP) on health.

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

Annually more than 4.3 million deaths occur due to HAP. The deaths are caused by HAP from household cooking. HAP is a silent killer in many households. The majority of victims are women and children from economically backward rural population. These households use solid fuels such as wood, crop-residue, dung, charcoal etc in their traditional cookstoves, often made of three stones put together. There are more than 3 billion still dependent on solid fuel for their cooking energy needs (see here for more info).
These lives can be saved if these households shift to cleaner cooking fuel such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity; or improved biomass cookstoves which can be used with solid fuels but emissions are within the permissible safe limit. In fact, improved biomass cookstoves make a very good case for replacing traditional cookstoves. These can be used with locally available fuel and are considerable cheaper (cost USD 10–70) than LPG. Sadly, moving from traditional cookstoves to clean cooking devices is not an easy transition.
LPG is expensive and access to reliable and affordable electricity is limited. Furthermore, households have limited budget for cooking fuel and stoves. Many households build their own cookstoves and collect fuels at nominal or no cost. This makes them reluctant to spend a significant sum of money from their limited resources. Households are also not aware of the extent of health risk. Most believe that smoke is just an irritating inconvenience associated with cooking. In some areas, LPG distribution network disappoints many of the households that aspire to get LPG.
There are behavioural challenges as well. Households have been using traditional cookstoves since generations. The traditional cookstove is central in many of rituals and festivals. Switching to a new cooking devices often requires changing the way a person cooks or compromising the convenience of their age-old cooking methods. Improved cookstoves are also not seen as aspirational as LPGs or induction cooker. Several households also do not feel comfortable paying the upfront cost of improved cookstoves despite its economic and health benefits.
All of the above challenges are surmountable. But the issue itself has not got its due attention from policy makers and most importantly from the users of traditional cookstoves. Households do not feel the need to move from life threatening inefficient traditional cookstoves. They have limited awareness on its ill-effects and fail to see the benefits of clean cooking devices in context of its cost.
Creating mass awareness about the ill-effects of emission from traditional cookstoves, and need for switching to a clean cooking device is essential in solving this problem. Our media can play a monumental role. I hope more main-stream media houses start highlighting this issue so that it goes up in the priority list of policy makers and households.