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Physics of Poverty : Relationships not Productivity?

Dr. Tara Thiagarajan
26th Sep 2011
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Dr. Tara

Physics of Poverty series by Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance Ltd.Some weeks ago I received a rather acerbic email from a reader lambasting me for my relentless focus on productivity. Life is not just about productivity, he said. It is about relationships. Have I thought about this? Maybe people don’t want to be working day in and day out in factories or offices. People derive happiness from relationships not money and being poor doesn’t mean being unhappy. Our country will suffer because of people like me who come with western ideas to spoil the fabric of our society. And as I have come to realize, this particular reader’s opinion is a fairly common one.

Last week I was going through the Kerala backwaters in a small boat with my kids and I almost could see his point. Life expectancy in Kerala is 78 compared to the 55-65 range in the rest of the country. Literacy is 100%. The villages we passed were clean and beautiful. What is it you would want to change about this scene? Is there some burning need for ‘progress’ here?

The people in the villages sat in front of their houses watching us go by. As we came back around a few hours later, the same people, still there, smiled and waved to us. I wondered what it would be like to live that life, sitting for hours every day, chatting with your friends and watching boats go by. And here is my answer – for many it would be boring and unsatisfactory because the human mind has the intrinsic property of seeking out novelty. To live in the same paradigm day after day, year after year, leaves little to talk about. Should the fabric of our society be idle minds? Even in these villages in Kerala with good health and fish, fruit and grain within arm’s reach there is urban migration. Few people go the other way.

When I talk about productivity it is not about mindlessly pursuing money but about engaging in creating and producing new value for the greater benefit of society. What is of ‘value’ is certainly debatable but what matters for the individual is if they feel what they are doing has value. There is pride and satisfaction in a valuable job well done – no matter at what level. And relationships are fundamental in this endeavour because we can create more together than each individually. In a productive society relationships don’t have to be less important but simply different in character. There is pleasure and happiness in productive relationships – the coming together of people to create value for society.

In India family relationships have long been designed to maintain wealth within a family and community and to provide a safety net for the many unemployed. However if more people were productively engaged in creating value, then resources would expand and societal relationships would reconfigure naturally. For people like my cook who supports his family, his brother’s family and his parents, I imagine this might be a relief. And his unemployed brother might actually be happier having a job than not. These relationships may actually be more enjoyable and less stressful. For the people who spend their days sitting in the beautiful backwaters of Kerala watching the world go by, they might just find a different kind of pleasure in doing something more. At least they would have more to talk about with their friends.

So while the pursuit of money or material gain for its own sake may not be the path to happiness, being productively engaged and valuable to society might do a better job. And if this is a western idea, so be it. A good idea is a good idea, wherever it’s from.

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