Life is India is just remarkable! Every day we witness an unthinkable and diverse set of experiences that if we decided to pause our routine and think about them, we would never move beyond the first experience in the morning. That’s probably why most of us do not pause, and quickly bury any question that comes up out of natural curiosity or more often, out of empathy. I used to do the same. Until recently, when faced with a new dimension of Life, I decided to flip my brain and enter the realm of pausing and thinking about some of the questions that I had buried inside for a long time.
You too may have asked similar questions to yourself at some point:
- Why does my servant spend so much money on some meaningless tradition instead of nutrition/education for her children?
- Why do poor people have so many children? Are they really not aware of how fertility works or is this a conscious decision?
- Should I give money to a beggar whom I can clearly tell is unable to work?
- Why can’t a 9th standard student from a government school read or speak a proper English sentence? Why does she suddenly pass in English if my mother invests a few hours a week in coaching her?
- When I observe the parents’ of all my friends’, why do I find that those parents who have only male children (usually 2 sons) have not planned their retirement finances as well as parents’ who have at least one daughter? Despite all of them being from the educated middle class and only one generation earlier, the gender bias shows in their planning and savings.
- Why does my servant return from sick leave with the same story – ”took an injection”, when I don’t remember the last time I took one for similar problems.
- Why do I get upset when I see a poor person being lazy and not taking advantage of something that I or the government has provided? Are rich and poor people really that different in behavior? Don’t we all break resolutions, procrastinate, avoid hard work? What makes the rich take preventive measures whereas the poor always seem to be in a reactive mode to life?
- Would I study or would I drop-out of school if I was not born into a well-to-do family?
- Which NGO should I donate money to? On what factors should I base this decision?
Although NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and social activists work closely with the poor to design appropriate solutions, they may not always tell you about their experiments, their learnings, or their methodologies. They talk about the big picture – “we’re building more schools”, “we’re giving out food”, “we’re holding free vaccination camps”, etc. But “why” will this work or “how” the poor perceive these solutions is rarely discussed.
Why can’t there be a demand problem even in the overpopulated, under-served poor segment in India? Is the answer as simple as giving vaccines or building schools? Do they all really want to go to school? When they don’t go, should we assume that the poor are just not smart enough to make good decisions, or there are just so many poor people that supply is always limited!? That’s how I used to think – that charity provides more resources, and hence provides more supply. Since I did not understand or identify with the thinking of poor people in India, I could not distinguish between social ideas that have long-term promise of eradicating poverty vs. those that are masking poverty with temporary measures.
My search for many of these answers recently ended when I found the right places to search: “Poor Economics” (buy the book) by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the work of two renowned economists at M.I.T, and the acclaimed Poverty Action Lab. I am immensely grateful to them for writing about their work with such simplicity and honesty, that even a mere thinker or questioner like me was able to imbibe their ideas.
I believe that having answers to these questions is crucial to changing thought patterns in the richer sections of society. Today, I am less judgmental of my experiences and the people I encounter in my daily life; I am also more keen than ever before to take the plunge to solve some of these problems, especially now that I know that it’s not hopeless or impossible once I approach these problems with a creative mindset rather than a biased mindset.
My first step was to ask questions, and start looking for places where I can find some answers. I hope I have encouraged you to do the same.