Jan 26, 2007

'Bloody Slum Dwellers' - Taking a Free Ride???

Recently, I overheard a group of people in a local train talking about slum-dwellers. There were four of them, two ladies and two gentlemen, all senior citizens. They were in the ‘oh-what-has-this-city-come-to?’ mode, reflecting how Mumbai was such a great place to live in before these ‘dirty’ slum-dwellers came and squatted on every inch of land.

Here is the general tone of the conversation… (Gentlemen 1 & 2, Ladies 1 & 2)
GM1: “These bloody slum dwellers, they are a scar on the face of our beautiful city.”
L1: “Yes, every morning when we travel, we are greeted by the sight of naked men along the tracks. It’s so disgusting. Why can’t these people use toilets?”
GM2: “You know, they constitute a major vote bank and hence, even the politicians support them. Whenever a Khairnar comes along to demolish these illegal settlements, these politicians come out and stay the proceedings.”
GM1: “And, even when the Government comes out with a rehabilitation programme, and gives free houses to these bastards, they rent out those pucca houses and come right back into the slums in the hope of getting more such benefits.”
L2: “And to think, we pay for it all. These people get electricity free, water free, houses free, and it all comes from our tax money. These people run small, unorganized businesses and never pay a single paisa of tax.”

And so on and on, it went…

Now, I am no great supporter of slums or illegal squatting, nor do I particularly admire the sight of naked male buttocks on early morning train trips. I do, like so many other ‘self righteous middle class people’ think that the Government is not fair in giving away free houses to squatters while we sweat it out to get a roof over our heads. In fact, not too long ago, I used to cheer whenever news reports came that Khairnar and his ilk had demolished yet another illegal settlement.

That is why I almost fell out my seat in surprise when I heard the term ‘poverty premium’. Poverty premium is defined to be the differential between the "real cost" per unit of a commodity paid by the urban poor and the formal market price paid by more affluent residents.

A study reveals that the poor pay more than you and me and the self righteous middle class for amenities as basic as electricity, water, medical facilities, sanitation, education, credit… you name it…

Contrary to popular belief, the poor do not automatically draw power from the lines passing overhead. Nor do they get water by making holes in the pipes passing underground.

I personally know of banks refusing to issue a credit card, if one’s address is in Dharavi. These people borrow from money-lenders at rates of 5% per month (yes, you read it right, 60% a year). The Government puts millionaire farmers under priority sector lending at concessional rates, but no one cares for the driver, maid or plumber living in Dharavi.

I have personally seen the condition of the public toilets in slums. No water, no proper drainage, and you can see shit actually floating during the monsoons. Believe me, once you have stepped inside one of those, you will feel shitting in public view along the tracks is heaven.

Another common accusation is that these people are not actually poor and they have TVs and ACs in their homes (if you can call a 10x10 box in which 8 people squeeze in a ‘home’). Now, how many of us have actually visited a slum, taken a proper sample before jumping to this conclusion? And, who said owning a TV makes a person ‘non-poor’? A second-hand TV costs 6000 bucks, the smallest house in Mumbai might cost 6 lakhs…

So, the next time some pompous, tax-paying, middle class bugger (who, btw gets a subsidy on gas cylinders, education and God knows what else) moans about slum dwellers getting a free ride, I am going to ask him, “If you think they get such a wonderful deal, why the f*** don’t you go and stay there?”


Jan 12, 2007

How My Mom Created God

When I was a little kid, my mom decided that she would prefer an honest kid to a dishonest one. I don’t know the reasons why she decided so, and can only presume that her mom had decided for her and so on for generations too far back to remember. Now, like any normal kid, I was also curious and stubborn and wouldn’t obey instructions too easily. A normal conversation would go like this:
Mom: “Don’t copy during exams.”
Me: “Why not?”
Mom: “It is a bad thing to do. If the teacher finds out, you will be thrown out of the class and they will fail you.”
Me: “But, I can copy when the teacher is not looking.”
Mom: “Even if the teacher is not looking, God will be watching.” (Message: God is omnipresent. He can watch the actions of billions of people, not to mention other animals, birds, insects, bacteria etc.)
Me: “So what if God watches. He can’t throw me out of the class or fail me.”
Mom: “God is all-powerful. He will punish you if you do wrong.” (Message: God is not only omnipresent, but also omnipotent. Moreover He punishes people who copy during exams, apparently because He wants children to memorize stupid facts, and not rely on each other for the same).

So, I believed my mom, and vowed not to copy during exams. The next day, I saw a group of students freely exchanging papers among themselves while I struggled to remember when the Battle of Plassey had taken place. I went to the supervisor after the exam and complained. She rebuked me saying that I should concentrate on my paper and not teach her how to do her job. (Of course, I did not know at that time that the girl who I saw copying happened to be the daughter of one of the wealthiest persons in town, and the supervisor had no intentions of getting in the wrong books of such people).

I came back home, and told my mom, “I saw people copying today, and God did not do anything.” And, so the conversation continued:
Mom: “God doesn’t punish everybody immediately. He allows them a chance to ask for forgiveness. If they continue doing wrong, He sends them to Hell. They will be born as lowly reptiles in their next birth”. (Message: God deals in decades and centuries, not in days like you and me. Besides, God is tax-compliant in his accounting for sins, and hence follows the mercantile system of accounting, where sins are carried forward to be written off against future good deeds. If you continue sinning beyond the ‘carry forward’ period, God, like the taxman, will put you in a very hot jail, called Hell).
Me: “But, they will get good marks now, and God will punish them in their next birth?” (Message: Doesn’t God understand that justice delayed is justice denied)
Mom: “Marks are important, but being honest is more important. I would rather that you failed without copying, than getting the first rank by copying.”
Me: “But what do I get for not copying?” (Message: What’s in it for me?)
Mom: “God (or was it Chitragupta?) will keep an account of all your good and bad deeds. Accordingly, you will go to Heaven because you have not sinned.” (Message: Heaven is a nice place with sweets, chocolates, ice-creams, toys and no stupid teachers who hit you. The Headmaster of Heaven will admit you based on whether you have done good or bad, and not based on whether you can recite the English alphabet or say your Papa’s name like they asked you in your current school).

Thereafter, the message was reinforced whenever possible.
“Mom, I’m afraid to go into the dark room.”
“Don’t worry, God will protect you.”
“Mom, I have bad dreams when I sleep.”
“Say God’s name, and you will sleep peacefully.”
“Mom, the exam paper was very tough.”
“Pray for good results.”

And so on…
Thus, I grew up with a firm belief in God, and always turned to Him when I was in trouble. Then, I grew up some more. I saw students copying, policemen accepting bribes, politicians lying blatantly, underworld bhais living in comfort and said to myself “God will punish them one day”…

Then, I read about young boys in some madrassas being taught that to kill American infidels will lead you to heaven. (pls note, I have nothing against any religion – Hinduism, Christianity or Islam… since to my limited knowledge, all of them convey the same message).
I began to wonder, “If by some roll of dice, I had been born in Afghanistan… would I have been handed a gun, and told to shoot at some white man, to win a passport to Heaven?” “Or if I had been born in US, would I have been given a B-52 bomber, and told to drop some bombs in any oil rich country to get an admission to Heaven?”

How come the Headmaster of Heaven admits young kids who do not copy in exams, and also allows young kids who shoot at others. Is there some reservation system in the schools of Heaven too?