The Gold Standard | ‘Feel guilty’ non-sense

The editor of THE HINDU might have changed. But, its editorial policies have, presumably not. On February 11th, its Op-ed. pages carried a ‘Feel guilty’ non-sense by the ‘famous’ Harsh Mander because the newspaper does not bother, at the end of the article, to provide more information about the author, to its readers. All that matters, I suppose, is that his heart bleeds for the poor. Apparently, the hearts of THE HINDU readers are made of iron and hence, as most of these types do, the article sets out to make the reader feel guilty and ashamed about eating good food.

The articles uses the story of two youngsters who chose to live life as poor do in India to experience poverty first hand. I applaud them for what they did. There is no way that one can truly appreciate what another person goes through without living their lives. However, that too is only and more often an attempt in vain. Even the same physical experience can elicit different intellectual and psychological reactions and leave different residues in human beings – even among family members.

Similarly, it is not possible to experience what the poor go through as most of the poor might not feel that sad as the youngsters felt because they knew what it was to have a sumptuous food. The poor are not necessarily unhappy. Poverty is not synonymous with unhappiness just as material affluence is not synonymous with happiness.

Second, even when they had choices, they preferred instant gratification. That is what the book, Poor economics’ by Abhijit Sen and Esther Duflo, based on actual conversations with the poor across the world, told us.

It goes against the romantic notions of poor as good and worldly wise that we like to believe in or, more precisely, as the NGO world would like to have us believe, to accentuate our guilt so that we part with more money.

When they come into money, they do not buy protein or calcium rich food. They even borrow to buy colour TVs. They do not borrow to ensure that the whole family is immunized for a year against preventable and communicable diseases. Nor do they invest in mosquito nets.

It is not a criticism. It is a statement of fact about their priorities which are not dissimilar to ours. We too do not prioritise well. They do not, either. That is where some amount of rightful intervention and forcing them to do certain things which are in their own long-term interests is essential (through a mix of incentives and penalties). It is very similar to how you would try to make your children learn good habits. It is the same thing with the poor.

I doubt if the two youngsters really thought that their ‘experiment’ would be misused and abused by the NAC types. I do not know what they think of it or if they have been co-opted. I shall leave it at that.

Enacting laws to ensure food and nutrition would not deliver them out of poverty. If mere paper laws are adequate to make India a materially developed nation, India would already be one.

Being able to walk on the streets of the national capital is a fundamental right of every woman. Is either the Delhi Government or the Federal Government able to ensure that? Instead, we have the Delhi Police Chief advising women to dress modestly. Similarly, enacting the Right to Food and Right to Nutrition are not going to give them nutritious food.

We have our misplaced priorities in consuming and owning things that we do not have to. The poor make similar mistakes. My feeling guilty is not going to get them out of their poverty trap. [There is no need to feel guilty; only a bit embarrassed about living a life based on standards set by our peers who, in turn, do the same perpetrating a vicious circle of frivolous, wasteful and garrulous consumption – yes, garrulous. We talk about them too a lot and more than the half the things we do are because we want to talk about them to others].

All that the State can try and do is to keep working at creating an enabling environment wherein opportunities for education, good health and employment are not denied to them because they are poor.

The State (the government) can give them money and give them information on what constitutes nutritious food and its importance for our long-term health. Let us see if the nutrition gap is closed.

Some unwarranted and unsolicited advice to the boys: Having done their little thoughtful and romantic experiment, they would be better off re-joining the UID project and ensuring that the Government of India sent all the monies directly to the poor by identifying them correctly, instead of starting an NGO or joining the NAC staff).

The full article by Mr. Mander is here.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.