A Literary Diagnosis of Urban Poverty in Mumbai, Delhi and Beyond
Tackling urban poverty has been on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda ever since he came to power in 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Tackling urban poverty has been on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda ever since he came to power in 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

A Literary Diagnosis of Urban Poverty in Mumbai, Delhi and Beyond

Tackling urban poverty has been on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda ever since he came to power in 2014. Schemes are routinely announced, but outcomes have been tardy.

The challenges of urbanisation – including inequality and unemployment – are extensively documented in journals, research analyses, and theories. However, literature can provide other insights.

Arvind Subramaniam calls literature and economics mutually reinforcing, with the former being a medium to understand development. Books act like magnifying glasses made up of words, revealing the underlying socio-economic dynamics of their time and place.

Thus, capitalising on the forces of literature and economics, let us explore aspects of urban poverty through excerpts from Mridula Koshy’s novel Bicycle Dreaming, and juxtapose them with ethnographic observations from Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

The similarities are stark, as there’s more reality to imagination than what meets the eye.

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Urban Predicaments

Bicycle Dreaming, set in New Delhi, revolves around 13-year-old Noor Saidullah who longs for a green bicycle so that she can be India’s first ‘kabadiwali’ (female junk/scrap dealer). The book describes a tumultuous year in her life, riddled with family frictions, fights with her friends, and school troubles.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is based on Boo’s ethnography of migrants in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. It tells the story of quarrelsome families, young trash-pickers, slumlords and corrupt officials, and the means through which they all keep afloat.

Through the books, our understanding of unseen urban predicaments is widened.

Fact Meets Fiction: Aspects of Urban Poverty

Life on the margins:

Delhi and Mumbai alternate between ranks 1 and 2 in urban area growth (2001-2011 census data). Here, the urban poor are ubiquitous: they sweep roads, clean houses, and carry garbage.

Noor describes her neighbourhood:

“Landfill was the wrong word for it. This was no modest depression at the edge of a town… nearly indistinguishable from the less compacted grey soot of the horizon. It was mirage-like, but not in the distance; it was right here in the city.”

The landscape of Boo’s work is similar. The Annawadi slum abuts an airport:

“Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys... Annawadi was nothing special in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.”

Hence, despite their proximity to the arteries of the city, the urban poor live a marginalised existence, far removed from the postcard images of these cities.

Socio-economic realities:

Amidst the teeming population in cities, migrants are housed in slum dwellings or one-room occupancies, employed in unskilled jobs in the informal sector, and dependent on inadequate public infrastructure. Yet living in the city serves as a mark of prestige.

Noor recounts her struggle in Delhi:

“…The ‘kooradan’ (dumpster) and the ‘naala’ (sewer) in the area are filling up with garbage… discarded [here] for lack of any other place… The richer neighbourhoods employ people from [their] neighbourhood to haul their garbage away to the cement kooradan, which fills up as fast as it was emptied of the previous day’s haul.”

Boo narrates comparable capricious temperaments:

“[The] age of global market capitalism… blunted a sense of common predicament. [Poor people] competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional... And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”  

Thus, the urban poor are almost stagnant in the face of inflation, unstable income, and no/low safety nets, all of which trigger the domino effect of inequality.

Positive correlation between urbanisation and poverty:

Poverty and inequality as development issues are vicious rather than virtuous. As urbanisation increases, poverty (and consequently inequality) rises. For example the case of land in Bicycle Dreaming, :

“The elderly were astonished: Why? Who wants the land? For how much? It was land that had nearly wrecked them in its refusal to yield rice, wheat and vegetables they planted with hopeless obstinacy. What could Delhi want with their bit of parched desert? But the land yielded to Delhi, as it had not to their hands. It yielded buildings paned in shining glass rising up at such speed that many a building teetered, searching for balance… in time [they would] seed new crops of buildings and highways... It was a mystery how one person could make this much from worthless land and another far, far less.”

Boo echoes this downward spiral of poverty, “A decent life was the train that hadn't hit you, the slumlord you hadn't offended, the malaria you hadn't caught.”

While urbanisation helps to reduce overall poverty, it does little for urban poverty specifically. Consequently, for someone to gain, someone else is necessarily made worse off.

Corruption as opportunity:

Corruption is accepted as the norm, and those who don’t adhere to it are perceived as peculiar. In Bicycle Dreaming, children cheat in examinations to get ahead, kabadiwallas pay their contractors to keep their routes, and the police are bribed for the perpetuation of underground activities.

Boo explains the situation: “In the West, and among some Indian elite, ‘corruption’, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”

The urban poor continue to have few economic options, and even fewer alternatives to corruption.

The Power of The Narrative

Bicycle Dreaming closely mirrors the realities portrayed in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Together, they shed new light on urban poverty.

Beyond the phenomena of scarcity, crime, and pollution, there are larger plots at play: garbage dumps and the lifestyles that account for the trash, the rampant conversion of farmland to tall glass buildings, and the systemic thwarting of children who aspire to futures different from those of their parents.

It cannot be gainsaid that for the urban poor, shelter needs to be more permanent and affordable, basic amenities like water and sanitation require attention in terms of quality and quantity, and safeguards are necessary against economic, environmental, and political shocks.

Economists say the same thing in different words. But while economics adopts a cause-effect verdict at the aggregate level, literature focuses on the particular and puts a face to various growth challenges. And the better people can identify with a problem, the quicker they are to address it.

The allure of literature lies in the power of the narrative. Both Koshy and Boo realise its importance. While it is unclear why some storylines are more ‘contagious’ than others, it is evident that the very nature of parable is more influential than a set of equations and graphs.

In fact, Robert Schiller recently made an impassioned plea for economists to master the art of storytelling in order to spread their ideas. Only then can policies be ‘major vectors of rapid change’, with positive economic impact.

(Kadambari Shah is a Senior Analyst at IDFC Institute, a think/do tank based in Mumbai. Prior to this, she studied at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics and English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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