India & USA are often cited as exemplars of the democratic governance. However, there seems to be also a rather unfortunate common strain of social inequality that has come to fore alongwith each countries’ prosperity in the last century.
India, post liberalization in the early 1990’s, has seen an enormous influx of disposable income and the USA has prospered since its triumphs in the world war & far reaching foreign policy programmes. This wealth has however not trickled down to the lower echelons of the masses, those who have neither any economic support nor any access to healthcare. This section comprises of a large demographic of women and children. The cause of this is not just apathy from fellow citizens but also a lackadaisical approach of the governement institutions that were put in place to protect them.
In the above context, Prasoon (bB's founder) recounted similar experiences during his recent travels to both countries. When he travelled to San Francisco, a city to which he was returning to after 5 years, he was surprised to see the increase in the number of homeless people on the streets. These people were not only vulnerable themselves but were also considered dangerous by those around them. Social inequality affects everyone in its demographic spectrum as one of his colleagues warned him to be alert lest somebody tried to rob him of his posessions in the street. This was not the San Francisco that he was expecting. He could notice other changes too, which were a stark contrast to the increase in homelessness. New tall glazed constructions were sprouting up, ecological sensitivity was marketed through plaques declaring USGBC approved Platinum rated business headquarters, as San Francisco lived up to its liberal, ecologically conscious and progressive image.
The story is not very different in India – One has to only see the urban slums in India which paint a picture of social ineqality as they compete for basic amenities while being neighbours to swanky airports, multistoreyed residences of megalomaniac industrialists or the imperial legacies of the old British Raj. There does seem to be one significant difference though – In India, being homeless and poor is not considered a choice, the whole society seems to very keenly self aware of its follies that give shape to the economic inequalities. In the US, however, the general rhetoric typically amounts to belittling those who are homeless as a parasitic fragment of society who leverage their misfortunes to mooch off the law abiding taxpayers.
Countries such as India and USA today face a common enemy – Indifference. Indifference at a personal level manifests itself as a numbness to look away from the car windows when young beggars do everything possible to draw our attention to them, it is the same numbness that manifests itself into disdain for the war veterans asking for spare change as people coolly stroll by sipping their organic latte. Indifference to human conditions also make for the worst kind of governance in a democratic society – bureaucracy. Bureaucratic measures often de-humanize societal problems into a garble of statistics.
We must look into the eyes of those who call upon us for help; we must acknowledge their presence in this world. We must look beyond numbers and statistics and understand the issues in a more humane way, a more personal way. While a lot needs to be done to mitigate social inequality either in India or US, perhaps the first step towards helping those in need is to give them dignity by not looking away.
Abhishek Mathur, our guest blogger and author of this post, is an architect based in New Delhi. Having previously lived and worked in Singapore & New York, he won the 2012 Modern Atlanta Prize for his research on sustainable housing in the Great Lakes Region, USA.