Magazine article New Internationalist

Calvin Klein and the Tea Pickers. What Exactly Is Poverty? [Comparison of Effects of Poverty between Scotland and India]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Calvin Klein and the Tea Pickers. What Exactly Is Poverty? [Comparison of Effects of Poverty between Scotland and India]

Article excerpt

'ARE you rich or poor?' my 11-year-old daughter Tahira was asked by her British cousin Leila. 'We're not exactly poor,' Tahira replied hesitantly. 'But we're not rich either.'

'That's silly', Leila persisted, 'you must be one or the other.'

'Compared to the adivasi (tribal) kids at home we're rich,' Tahira explained, 'but compared to our cousins in America we're poor.'

The conversation that followed was even more intriguing.

'Do you have a car?'

'No. But we can use the project jeep if we need it.'

'Do you have TV?'

'No. But my Gran does. We watch hers.'

'Do you have Calvin Klein jeans?'

Tahira didn't know much about jeans then. But she had fairly smart hand-medowns from her American cousins.

To little Leila, the entire thing was bizarre. In her mind, the divide between rich and poor and absolutely clear. There was no middle path.

Throughout our visit to Britain, our concepts of wealth and poverty continued to be challenged, juxtaposed as the trip was with our experiences of ten years of working with adivasis in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu.

Years ago I heard a Frenchman say 'I'd rather be poor in India'. And I thought: 'What utter crap.' How typical. Romanticizing India, poverty and all.

Then, in 1994, as part of a North-South exchange, my husband Stan and I came to Britain, to visit housing estates in innercity England and Scotland. The idea was to bring over ideas about social change in India and also to reverse the usual stereotypical image of a Northern aid worker coming to help the Third World.

We were told that Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow is considered Europe's worst slum. We thought this was ludicrous. These people had assured housing, electricity, hot and cold water, refrigerators, gas or electric cooking ranges. By Indian standards this was middle-class luxury. At the back of my mind, I could see anaemic, emaciated adivasi women carrying water in pots from half-a-kilometre away. Huts without electricity. Women searching for firewood every day, thankful if they had a kilo of rice to feed their families every evening. But then, suddenly, it hit us. Most of the men in Easterhouse hadn't had a job in 20 years. They were dispirited, depressed, often alcoholic. Their self-esteem had gone. Emotionally and mentally they were far worse off than the poor where we lived, even though the physical trappings of poverty were less stark.

We'd fallen into the trap of looking at poverty only from the point of view of material benefits. The Easterhouse people looked better off than the Asian poor. In reality they suffered as much social deprivation. The Easterhouse men who'd been jobless for 20 years felt far more hopeless than people in India who scrabbled in garbage heaps to sell scrap metal, paper and rags to feed their kids, though both groups were at the bottom of society. This was considered an absolutely outrageous suggestion by critics of our report.

We met young people who struggled to get a job knowing their addresses and accents were not exactly an asset. Women who couldn't fill in forms and were ashamed of the fact. In Dudley, social worker Viv Taylor helped a youngster get a decent jacket, the only really suitable outfit he possessed, to go off for an interview. He'd been ashamed to tell her this so his mother had secretly called Viv for help. It was heart-warming to hear about his jubilation when he actually got the job and set off for work. But the story reminded us of our teachers finding clothes for adivasi kids who had nothing to wear and so couldn't go to school.

We didn't encounter hostility or racism from the poor of Easterhouse or Dudley. Nor in Matson in Gloucester where Stan later spent a month as part of an Oxfam programme. But we did run into massive criticism, both hostile and racist, from the local press. 'Can Oxfam spot the difference?' ran one press clipping showing a skeletal, starving African child juxtaposed with a bunch of healthy British kids. …

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