Reflecting on human rights in India

My last visit to India was 34 years ago. At that time I was convinced the country was on the brink of collapse. There were so many people and so much poverty, I thought the only reasonable solution was communism in order to force a redistribution of wealth. But India didn’t go that way. Instead it embraced capitalism and this has made some people very wealthy and has added many people to the middle class. Although the economy continues to grow, millions of people still live in abject poverty. As Canadians, should we have a response to extreme poverty in India?
From the comfort of our homes in Canada and the business of our lives, poverty is a remote experience. It is something that happens to someone else, somewhere else, and for which many of us have no emotional or physical touchstone besides the odd encounter with the homeless fellow in front of the grocery store or the subway.

In India, this is not the case. Poverty is up close and personal, and multi-faceted. Poverty is visible as soon as you step out of the house, or go on any short drive. One can witness a mother brushing her young daughter’s hair on a small island surrounded by a variety of honking polluting auto-rickshaws, cars, and buses; or a brother and sister banging a drum near an intersection where the traffic slows down, trying to get the attention of the well-to-do for a few rupees. A drive through any village is an introduction to malnourishment and lack of basic sanitation and hygiene.

In addition, home help lives at home. The notion of personal autonomy is blurred. Help is part of the family. The relationship is master and servant, not employer and employee. Servants are generally uneducated people who have left their villages at a young age to create better lives for themselves and their families. They cannot relate to the order and manner in which they are instructed to do things. As a consequence, the focus of both parties is on the happiness of the master and not the quality of the work. This system has existed for centuries and is woven into the Indian way of life, as well as the economic structure of the country.

Further, there is a problem of scale. With a population of 1.2 billion, the number of poor uneducated people is in the millions. While public education exists, poor children are more vulnerable to disease and issues at home that impede progress. While labour can be cheap, the quality of the work can be poor, which creates numerous oddities and inefficiencies. No problem is a small problem.

In talking with young Indians, it appears the solutions to the problems will lie with them. Unlike their parent’s generation, many young Indians, through study abroad or work with and for multinationals, have travelled abroad. The older generation is tightly bound to tradition and tends to see the problems of the poor as a question of choice.

Many young Indians are well-educated, well-travelled, and sophisticated. They have seen that things can be done differently and are motivated to make a difference at home. They are interested in change and see themselves as agents of change and understand their country far better than we do. There are now approximately 50,000 non-governmental organizations in India working on a wide variety of social and human rights issues including gender, health, poverty, and the environment.

While the government has many challenges on its hands including widespread corruption, it has made a massive effort to support change through this year’s national census. It recognizes that census data is crucial to the determination and design of social programs and policies. To encourage people to co-operate with the 2.7 million census enumerators, the government made a concerted effort to show the importance of the effort with President Pratibha Devisingh Patil being the first person to be enumerated and other high-ranking politicians following. The prime minister publicly stated that it is the “national duty” of Indians to be enumerated.

Considering the complexity and scale of problems in India, and our general ignorance of Indian languages, history, and culture, I am generally skeptical of the encouragement and glorification of volunteerism that is being marketed to our Canadian youth. While it is certainly a good thing for young people to travel abroad and to understand their privileged position on the planet, I have deep reservations about the lasting value of volunteer opportunities for the impoverished themselves.

Like so many of our development activities, we end up being the ones that become enriched. Perhaps our best contribution can be towards helping more young Indians attain post-secondary education as there are limited seats in India. We can also do much more in our own schools to educate our kids about the role of Canadian economic and corporate policies in relation to development issues in order to move the focus from the personal to the political.

Sonya Nigam is the executive director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa and sent this month’s column from Jaipur, India. She can be reached at [email protected].

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