India's Stories of Beating the Odds on Poverty
The Indian growth story is full of complexity. It is the story of the determination of individuals and collectives of people to attain a better life and secure better prospects for their children. These individuals struggle against all kinds of odds and make use of every opportunity that presents itself. Often, they suffer setbacks, but they rebound, equipped with new lessons. The struggles, setbacks and successes of individuals and their communities are stories of hope, strength and transformation, which is what Meera Mitra seeks to document in this book.
The indications of change and development are all around us - but so are the contradictions, ironies and conflicts. The inroads made by organised multi-brand retail threaten the small vendor. The woman who seeks birth control finds no suitable service provider. People cannot depend upon the huge bank networks of the public sector to access finance for their families or their small businesses. Cotton farmers use modern agricultural inputs but have limited access to modern farming practices, leading to devastation. Old practices jostle with the new in a dynamic relationship. When helpful, caste is invoked, when unhelpful, it is cast aside. Through this complex web of infrastructure and institutions, the traditional and the modern, and individual and collective endeavour and pragmatism, the overall picture of growth - or breaking through - emerges.
The book is divided into thematic sections dealing with shelter, health, education, livelihood, governance, microfinance and new collectives. Working with many grass-roots organisations, the author has met people and identified contemporary stories that exemplify the challenges, and changes, in each of these areas. The stories are often from Delhi, or Jaipur or elsewhere in Rajasthan, but also cover parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. As such, the stories are representative of changes sweeping across the country.
The stories include episodes from the School Choice Campaign of the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), vignettes from the Dalit enterprise movement led by Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dicci) and the Panchayati Raj movement under which women entered the locus of power at the village level. There is also lore from the urban street vendor Bill and its promulgation into law in 2012-2013, and from the Bt cotton saga.
The stories are insightful and written in an easy and fluent hand. There is, for instance, the story of Neel, a homeless orphan at age 11, and his journey from rented shanties to ownership of a "real flat" in Delhi. And of Santosh, whose repeated attempts to adopt birth control over a period of 10 years failed, succeeding only after she was already the mother of five. There is the story of Nazma, who changed her "destiny" to receive poor quality public services, and became a choosy consumer, evaluating private schools for her daughter.
There are stories of Dalit business leaders steering the community away from dependency on job reservation to thrive instead as employers, and of street vendors who seek no subsidy but demand legal status for their enterprise. We also read about the continued role of informal microfinance in urban clusters and of new institutions springing up among rural marginal farmers.
The stories have some strong similarities. One is the incessant drive of individuals and communities toward livelihood preservation, development and growth. The second is the continued tradition of community support. The third is the loosening of caste hierarchies and the fourth the transformation of gender roles and behaviours, especially where information, enabling systems and opportunities prevail. The fifth is the failure of public provisioning on several fronts, be it education, health or finance access. A sixth overarching theme is the commitment of people to enable their children, via education, to access a better life than themselves. None of the protagonists sought for their children the life they had led.
Above all, the narrative is held together by the common theme of adroit entrepreneurship through which men, women, Dalits, homemakers and farmers have been able to wrest a better life for themselves and their families and communities, in situations of scarcity, ineptitude or apathy.
Ms Mitra's book will be useful to all those who want to understand the process of change and growth that is defining India. The general reader, the sociologist, the policymaker and the bureaucrat will each find it a useful and insightful read.
The only jarring note in the 200-page book is the somewhat inconsistent editing that reveals itself now and then through peculiarities in usage, spelling or translation, and the author's needless repetition in each chapter of her claim upon the analysis presented in the book.
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