To go and come back from India without your eyes opened, exposed to, and made aware of poverty would be a feat possible only for the blind. In India poverty hits you full in the face, between the eyes, unavoidable and overwhelming.
It is difficult to even comprehend the sheer quantity and intensity of those impoverished. To try and put it into comprehensible terms, the international poverty line is defined as those who live on less than 1.25 US dollars a day.
According to this standard, 47% of India's population lives under this poverty line; this is 500 million people surviving on less than 1.25 dollars a day. 77% live on less than 2 dollars a day - that's 900 million people attempting to eat and drink and find shelter and provide for families on less than $2 a day.
And that's a modest estimate.
The numbers are numbing, yet driving along the roads of India, passing countless homes made from scrap metal and ripped tarps, thatched banana roofs and metal containers smaller than most American dumpsters, the numbers take shape in human form. And when you walk through the slums of Bangalore and watch the women straining at the rusty pump for water, not even clean, to nourish their children - those countless children who flock to us with eager smiles, crying out "Auntie, auntie!"- that's when the statistics become not facts, but the faces of fellow human beings.
This tragic reality is one that churns up our compassion, but is it one that we truly seek to understand? We bemoan the plight of poverty and pity those affected by it, but do we examine the complexities of the problem itself? Do we seek to discover the source of the issue and the factors at the root of it? Why is there poverty? And yet more importantly, what does it mean to be poor? What is the standard of poverty and how can it be compared between countries?
We've already looked at how poverty is defined in India, and examined the number of those who fall under that definition. Now let's look at the United States. The US poverty level for 2011 was set at $10,890 for the yearly income for one person (http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/11poverty.shtml). This calculates to 30 dollars a day, equivalent to the total amount that a person below the poverty line in India must survive on for 23 days. For that person living below the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day, their yearly income would be the rupee equivalent of $456. If the American living below the established US poverty level kept their same spending habits of 30 dollars a day yet received the mere $456 yearly income of a person in poverty in India, they would survive only 15 days.
How have our various perceptions of "poor" become so imbalanced, and how can there be such an inequality of wealth between these respective societies?
Not only the amount of money in the US, but what is done with that money, the consumerism that feeds off of wealth, stands in stark contrast to countries such as India.
The country of the United States of America is one-fourth the size of the country of India, yet the US on average consumes eight times more resources than India; the average US person consumes thirty-two times more than the average Indian.
How is it fair that a country with less landmass, a smaller population, and more capital devours an amount of resources that in contrast to its counterpart is disturbingly disproportionate?
It was Mahatma Gandhi himself who said "The world is enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed." Is that not the wisdom of him who saw the prevailing poverty of his own country in relation to the wealth of other countries, and wondered at the disparity between them?
Why is it that 900 million people in India live on less than $2 a day while I buy a chai tea latte at Starbucks for almost double that price, not because I need it, but just because I feel like it? Is it possible that my and your choices, and the choices of the collective consumers of the Western world, affect and perhaps even perpetuate the poverty of India and the rest of the world? Is our way of living depriving someone else of the right to live?
I cannot deny that I am disproportionately more wealthy than most of the world, living in a lifestyle of luxury that a majority of humanity could never even fathom. I cannot deny that while 900 million people in India alone are struggling to survive on less than $2 a day, I sit typing this on my $1,000 computer as I reap the benefits of a $40,000 education. I, and we all, cannot deny the ramifications that the consumer choices we make every day have on the rest of the world. We cannot feign ignorance merely to appease our own selfishness.
Ignorance is not a possibility anymore. Once we have seen, we cannot close our eyes. Once we know, we must act.