upward mobility

I have been working in the same slum(s) for over a decade now. In some more than a decade! I have seen the slow yet significant changes in the families I work with and of course in the environment. The story of upward mobility is not quite as we would imagine it to be sitting in the comfort of our homes. When we first began our work in Giri Nagar, the street where we worked consisted mainly of a series of mud houses with tin roofs, like the one you see in the picture and which was one of her classrooms. There only a few 'homes' which had a proper brick and mortar construction with roofing. What is now our secondary class was probably the only proper construction barring Rani's home. Ten years later our secondary class has shrunk in perspective as every single mud hut has become a proper brick and mortar structure of up to 3 stories, with proper roofs and often painted in bright colours: blue, brick, yellow, green even orange! Each Diwali, when houses are repainted the street looks lovely. A few geranium pots on the window sills, the sounds muted and you would think you are in a French village on the Riviera!

On the other side of the road you do not have the erstwhile brick structures that were the toilets. Those have been removed by the authorities and everyone now has a toilet within the home, however basic! In its place there are bikes and more bikes and even cars and vans. This change happened with the arrival of purchase on credit, something that was not there when we began. All this is kosher and well deserved. I agree. But there is one failing in each one of us and that is that we are never satisfied. And this unnecessary greed is copiously fed by the ad campaigns played with obsessive regularity on the idiot box. The other human weakness is our need for more and our propensity to waste  and nothing is more true in the upwards mobility saga.

I would  concede that the first generation migrants still retain some measure of discipline and thrift and often chide their younger ones for their wasteful habits, but they are ageing and the reins are now held by the second and even third generation who consider themselves, and quite rightly so, as city folk! So with the advent of credit purchases offered by shops and credit cards almost thrust down their throats by bank agents who often, for a few rupees, authorise the card even if the paperwork is not complete. This has enabled slum folks to become consumers and fall into the debt trap. I have seen many a cars vanishing after being parked for a few months.

Homes having spruced up, floors added and though all the construction as well as the space itself is illegal, bribes to the police and protection from politicians as these are precious and easily manipulated vote banks have bestowed a sense of legality and continuity to the settlements. And though the Damocles sword of being raze does hand loosely over their heads, slum folks know that there will always be a way out.

Within homes the women fold too have become hardcore consumers: mixers and grinders, juicers, toasters, fridges are seen in many homes. Many even have washing machines. I was surprised to know, and rather impressed when I could not but ask how certain women I know were able to buy new clothes as and when they wanted. The answer was breath taking. There are middle class women who buy clothes and other garments in large quantity, and you can buy them on credit. No card required. It  all works on trust and makes good business sense.

Upward mobility has come to stay. But it also has a flip side and one that can be scary. First of all the fact that these people have recently acquired the right to consume, they are absolutely unwilling and even vexed when you check them on certain matters, often relating to waste. One would think that food is not wasted in slum families. Not at all. Wasting food seems to have become a way to show that you have arrived. Even my staff wastes food! If you try and suggest to them that the packed junk food they give their kids is not good for them, they get ballistic. It is as if we (I mean the 'rich') were grudging them their newly acquired rights. If you tell them that the umpteen non degradable pouches they buy (multi national made goods: nescafe, jams, shampoo, shaving cream, you name it) is bad for the environment and dare to suggest that the good old soap bar is much better, it is the same reaction. What they forget is that we have experienced the ills of all these and do not believe that we are saying these things for their own good. You quickly learn to keep shut!

So you watch the lights kept on in empty rooms, the taps running, the 3 TVs blaring in the same home, often the same programme, the chips or gooey candy the two year old has for breakfast, and the sticky 2 minutes noodles that make up the lunch box of our children. It will take at least another generation to see the negative side. At present they are enjoying their newly gained social status. The best you can do is teach the children. Some respond quite well!

You watch them waste their money helplessly. One thing that the new status entails is a abhorrence of state run institutions. A government job is the only thing that is still coveted. Otherwise be it education or health, if you have arrived to have to shun them. This mean sound business for commercial education and hospitals. Even a pathetic private school that boasts of the words English Medium in its name is better than the local state run school. This in many ways, has spelt the doom of state run schools by lowering their social profile and freeing them of any responsibility.

Quacks are better than dispensaries, and private hospitals better than the big hospitals, however modern. Somehow taking your loved to a Government hospital would cast a shadow on your status. Private hospitals then take you for a ride and you land up paying tens of thousands that you often need to borrow.

Social mobility comes at a price!