Who Are India's Urban Poor?

Gayatri Jayaraman's 'Who me, Poor?' fails to understand that the difference between the 'urban poor' she talks of and the real urban poor is that the former have a choice.

Gayatri Jayaraman has written about a set of young people, mostly in their mid-20s, who move cities in pursuit of a better life. We know these people. We may have even been these people – constantly trying to juggle the challenges of rent, figuring out food, spending far too much on socialising – for fear that they may be left out or not leave a good impression.

Those transitioning from small towns face even greater difficulties because they have to first understand the big city game. Or as one person in Jayaraman’s book tells us, they don’t even know ‘what a cappuccino is’.

It is easy to understand the fears of a young person, out with their ‘cool’ office crowd, not knowing the answer to whether they want a cappuccino or a latte. It is also interesting to read about their concerns and get a glimpse into the minds of millennials. In that way, Who Me, Poor? is readable.

The problems of the book are real and need to be highlighted. Our brightest young minds are under tremendous pressure, created by corporates selling them a skewed concept of an ideal life. I congratulate Jayaraman for bringing up this vital issue, except, she does a disservice to the people she profiles by giving them the ‘urban poor’ peg.

“I was already paying Rs. 8,000 (rent) for the privilege of work experience,” says Kavita Kumar. “On the first day of work I was told that I will need my own laptop.” Kumar, who started on an unpaid internship in Mumbai, eventually had to return home to Delhi because she couldn’t afford it. The sympathy she deserves is lost because the reader reads her story through the ‘urban poor’ lens. If you can afford Rs 8,000 a month without earning, are you poor?

This is the first of two fundamental flaws that make the book really problematic.

Gayatri Jayaraman's book Who me, poor

Gayatri Jayaraman
Who me, Poor?
Bloomsbury, 2017

The biggest problem is this: Jayaraman confuses the people who have the money to spend – and spend it on bad decisions due to peer pressure, addictions or otherwise – with those who don’t have the money to spend and no choices.

It should be easy to tell the difference. The urban poor live in urban villages – more generally, slums – that skirt the neighbourhoods of the better-off, having migrated from their native villages to cities in search of a better life. They have little or no access to sanitation, earn minimum wages if they are lucky and sometimes sleep under flyovers because they can’t afford to pay rent. Their friends don’t have houses either. The ones who do the best can afford a television or a fridge, and they are the ones who work in the houses of the better-off and earn Rs 3,000-5,000 a month.

A good example of the urban poor is in this little video by the UNFCC. Unlike the people profiled by Jayaraman, they do not spend Rs 35,000 on drinks one night and leave their mobile phones behind as payment. In fact, the real urban poor, as the short video clip shows at 2:00 minutes, are the rag pickers who dismantle e-waste for a living. The only time that they handle mobile phones that once cost that much, are when they take out broken ones from the trash, while scavenging for parts.

India’s per capita GDP is $1,850 (Rs. 1,20,000) or approximately the price of two iPhone 7s. More than 650 million Indians earn less than that in a whole year. Most of these people are not classified as poor by the World Bank, which sets $2 (Rs 130 a day or Rs 47,000 a year – less than one iPhone 7) as the poverty line. The government of India thought this was too generous and in 2011 decided that if you earned more than Rs 32 a day (Rs 11,680 a year or less than a quarter of the cost of an iPhone 7) in urban areas, you were not poor.

The very least we can do to respect the misery that so many of our fellow citizens face is to try and appropriately use terms like “urban poor”or “migrant workers”. These should not be used carelessly to describe educated, smart, young people with a host of opportunities. If they choose to buy a Rs 35 lakh car “against all advice” with the money they don’t yet have, sure, it’s their life. No one is judging their compulsions. In fact, Jayaraman does a good job in helping us understand – if not necessarily sympathise with – their compulsions to an extent. But calling them ‘poor’ reveals an appalling lack of understanding of what it truly means to be poor in India.

This brings me to the second flaw. The author interviews several people who are in similar circumstances – their needs and desires are so similar that it could be one person a hundred times over. Not only does this make you want to know the thoughts of other kinds of people – surely not everyone lives to please their peers? – it also makes reading similar testimonial after testimonial downright boring. The sample doesn’t seem representative even of the category of people the author has chosen to profile, and is clearly chosen in an attempt to prove the premise.

The testimonials of the few people who do say things that do not go with the author’s premise, such as Kalki Koechlin and author Samit Basu, are headlined deceptively to indicate otherwise. (Yes, among the ‘urban poor’ interviewed are Bollywood actors and bestselling authors.)

Some of the things the author says are astonishing. “Whether you have the money or not and whether your husband is yelling bloody murder or not about the finances, you go home, pull the Rs 4,000 out and fork it over,” says Jayaraman, writing about a time in 2000 when she had to spend on an expensive outfit because her boss thought she should. In another place she says: “Reality is the sound of a credit card being declined”.

I’m sure it is, I cannot imagine the horror and misery, but is the author aware that the urban poor in India do not have credit cards? Only about 21 million Indians do, which is 1.6%, truly our elite, and while they too have their tragedies, it is hard to call those the tragedies of poverty.

If that is bothersome, some of the things the ‘urban poor’ of this book say are just hilarious.

Gayatri Jayaraman

Gayatri Jayaraman. Credit: Twitter profile

“The best way to manage your economy,” says Soma Bhattacharjee, “is to increase your salary and not the expense. I call it smart living. At least that’s how I survived.” (But, quite meanly, she does not share how to increase said salary.)

Neeti Sharma shares her story of ‘poverty’. They don’t have a television so her top concern is that her brother couldn’t keep up with football. “He now manages by streaming it on his mobile phone,” she says. (Poor chap).

In 2014, when his salary was Rs 45 lakh (are you thinking what I’m thinking?), Ashvin Kumar, says he bought a luxury car under the company car programme at Rs 35 lakh”. He soon got laid off and had to give up the car and was in debt for a while. Are we supposed to feel bad for him? Perhaps I would’ve tried if he hadn’t then gone on to say: “Have I learned? Maybe not. Probably a genetic defect.” (If only one could buy a car with a genetic defect.)

A truly awe-inspiring quote comes from Manan Bhatia, who says, “I had not spent money on anything you’ll call frivolous: not on booze, not on clothes, not on clubbing with friends, etc. I just racked up lakhs of debt playing poker.”

His hopeless addiction to poker is really disturbing and one feels for the chap and his family. But to call such people ‘urban poor’ is ridiculous. The recent altercation between the household help and the house-owner in Noida has brought to light the state of India’s urban poor quite clearly. Zohra Bibi is an urban poor, not Ashvin Kumar or Manan Bhatia.

It is absurd to call such people ‘poor’, so the author chooses to put the hunger spin on things. Jayaraman claims that it doesn’t matter what results in hunger, all hunger is the same.

No, all hunger is not the same. Choosing to remain hungry because you want to buy an iPhone or a car is not the same as the hunger of the daily wage labourer or an auto-wallah who did not eat because he didn’t earn any money for days on end during demonetisation. They don’t have a choice. Choice is the key factor separating those who are poor and those who choose to go without food because they get satisfaction out of spending the money on something else.

To counter this glaringly obvious point, the author says, “It’s not a choice, it’s an investment in fitting in”. Does she mean to say that there is no ambition, desire to acquire things, among the poor? Do they not want to “invest” in a television because the neighbour got it? Do the children of the urban poor not want a smartphone? Don’t they want to fit in? The young urban poor would love to, I am sure, skip a meal and buy that pair of designer shoes but you see they have to skip meals even without that pair of shoes – designer or otherwise.

How can someone live in India and not understand this?

There really isn’t much to say on the subject, which is why the book goes off into tangents, sometimes discussing the problem of sexual exploitation at work, sometimes talking about the unprofessional work culture in India, but these issues – while big problems for the same set of people – have nothing to do with the premise of this book.

A lot of time is spent trying to prove the premise and not sounding illogical. Jayaraman doubts herself and keeps repeating “they are poor, they are poor” as if still trying to convince herself. She keeps asking the same question in several different ways: Does owning a Rs 63,000 phone mean you are not poor? Is buying a car a crime? Do they have a choice but to go out and drink? She answers them herself, saying no, no, no. But denying a truth doesn’t make it go away.

After Manan’s story, quite surprisingly, Jayaraman asks, “Is his ambition of poker any more foolish a risk than the personal loan-funded second-hand car evaluation app service built out of a co-working space in Bengaluru?” I’ll let the word ambition slip by, but do we really have to answer this question? At this point, you begin to wonder if you’ve given the author too much credit by even reading this book.

The more comparisons the author makes, the worse it gets for her. Your eyes start glazing over the repetitive stories that try to make self-indulgence a virtue, or worse, a poverty issue.

Quite amusingly, the author ends the book by suggesting ways to rectify or address some of the issues these people face and that part makes the most sense in the book.

In the last section, Jayaraman tells us of her dog-walker, who works an extra shift from 5 am to 7 am, and manages to earn an extra Rs 12,000 per month. He uses that to indulge himself, instead of whining about not having enough money left over after buying a car, a smartphone, eating out for Rs 3,000 every other day and buying designer clothes.

How a person wishes to spend their money is their choice and we are no one to judge – except if you classify them as a people with no choice. ‘Who me, poor?’ asks the book, and the simple answer is: no, not you.

Kalyani Prasher writes on food, travel, people, books, cinema and all the other little things that make life worth living.