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Who me, poor? New book chronicles stories of ‘urban poor’

Rekha Balakrishnan
7th Aug 2017
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Gayatri Jayaraman’s 'Who Me, Poor? How India's Youth are Living in Urban Poverty to Make it Big', explores in detail the lives of the ‘urban poor’ and the reasons for their poverty.

In May 2016, Mumbai-based editor and writer Gayatri Jayaraman wrote about a new social phenomenon, ‘urban poverty’ - common knowledge but hardly acknowledged. She referred to a specific group of young professionals (mostly 20-somethings) who would rather starve than deprive themselves of a cool, hip lifestyle. They spent too much, were mostly broke, but definitely on trend. Thus, the term ‘urban poor’ went viral.

Social media was both agog and aghast. Some Twitter users came out in support of the anecdotal piece published on Buzzfeed, but it was largely mired in criticism. They argued that it ‘trivialised’ poverty, thus spawning a series of ‘urban poor’ jokes, which started trending.

The author Gayatri Jayaraman

Despite the backlash it generated, the piece struck an emotional chord and resonated with the millennials. The need for acceptance, keeping up appearances and the disconnect from reality was explained with the help of different examples – a young marketing executive who bought a car with her first salary and now sleeps in it, or a journalist who sometimes starved the whole day, and when she had money would rather visit an upscale café than eat affordable meals at the office canteen. The demographic does exist; it’s not a myth.

This year, 'urban poor' has found its way into a book, Who Me, Poor? How India's Youth are Living in Urban Poverty to Make it Big, in which Gayatri Jayaraman expands the term by illustrating case studies of young Indians, typically in their first or second jobs, migrants to major Indian metros and the reasons for their poverty.

In an interview with YourStory, the author speaks about the whole 'urban poor' controversy and what the book is all about.

YourStory: What prompted you to explore this subject in detail?

Gayatri Jayaraman: As I began research I realised more young people than we know live with hunger, homelessness and face difficulty even getting to work. Many live like this in isolation and depression, thinking they are alone and not seeing themselves as part of a larger pattern. This phenomenon needed to be documented and analysed.

YS: The use of word ‘poverty’ has enraged some who have called it ‘opportunistic’. What is your response?

GJ: ‘Opportunistic’ would be pushing an agenda for personal gain. I’m neither a policy maker nor an analyst and do not have the government’s ear. Nor do I run an NGO that profits off the poor. I am a writer chronicling a social phenomenon. Also, I believe several being rattled by the questions raised in the book are those very invested in a specific definition of poverty. 'The poor' are not attached to calling themselves that. They are trying to rise above their circumstances and leave that label behind. Attachment to the label lies elsewhere. All poverty isn’t absolute. I question the idea that poverty is inclusive enough in its definition.

Economists like Abhijeet Banerjee, Robert Schiller and Amartya Sen have made this observation many times before. There’s nothing new about it.

I’ve just extended the lens to a different class where the observation hasn’t reached. Disempowerment occurs in pockets even in wealthy homes where women or the elderly are denied spending power, sexual and financial independent decision-making powers. What I'm hearing from the objections is that poverty is only applicable when people look a certain way, dress a certain way and live in certain spaces. It facilitates the 'us' and 'them'.

That a samosa seller's son may aspire to IIT and we will all RT that, but should, god forbid, someone from that same background aspire to and gain themselves a career in fashion or a startup, they should be magically equipped to cope with the environment that comes with it. That's not how it works. Anyone who thinks poverty disappears just because someone suffering from it has been given more money doesn’t know how poverty works.

YS: You have tapped into a feeling, an emotion that, till recently, went unacknowledged, but one that resonates with a lot of young people.

GJ: The reason is it still exists and is more prevalent than we are aware of. Many suffer silently and stay in debt to keep up appearances. That is the nature of the affliction. Some of the counter emotions probably come from possible perpetrators of the willful blindness that allows this to exist.

YS: Can the lack of money due to bad financial choices actually come under the purview of ‘urban poverty’?

GJ: Nowhere do I attribute it purely to bad choices. In fact, my book says it is less of a choice than it may outwardly seem. The tag of ‘bad choices’ is something those who view the situation from a privileged lens impose on those making the choice. To a lot of young people, it’s not a choice. They do it to keep earning what they earn, and to improve. To those who do have a choice - and some clearly make a conscious choice to put themselves in debt - it’s a conscientious borrowing from the future.

I don’t label that as ‘bad’ either. It falls under poverty because these young people are victim to a class and economic pressure, there are deficiencies in urban development, infrastructure, planning, affordable housing, public transport, and employment practices that allow it to thrive. These are studied for lower income classes but it is assumed these have no impact on the higher income classes. They clearly do.

If these were resolved, even those making these seeming choices wouldn't have to compromise health and nourishment to achieve their goals. These can be resolved with some concerted effort. What remains after would be outside the purview of poverty.

YS: Do you feel that an aggressive and exploitative workplace and unrealistic expectations have contributed to ‘urban poverty’?

GJ: Yes I do. Post-liberalisation, with the disbanding of labour unions, the workforce has no real voice. With the abundance of human resources, the policy of most companies put the onus on the employee to perform, even sometimes without resources and the advantage of capital. Employees are told they are privileged to have jobs at all. Our salaries are not among the best in the world but our spending patterns in a booming consumer economy are. In that gap, this kind of inequality rises. We are sold a certain kind of success that requires us to participate in this economy in a specific way. Not everyone has the confidence to counter that, especially not those coming from small-town India, breaking out of deprived circumstances and seeking to participate in all that India has to offer.

YS: What subjects does the book explore in detail? What among these stories touched you the most?

GJ: Every story is special because it is someone’s personal struggle with hunger and debt. Nobody should have to deal with those kinds of days and it’s been quite hard for many to open up to a stranger about them. Struggles with hunger and the loneliness involved in maintaining this facade moved me the most.

Gayatri Jayaraman is a Mumbai-based editor and writer. She has over 19 years of experience in journalism, working on an intersectional study of social trends as impacted by politics, economics, and culture. This is her debut work of non-fiction. The book can be ordered at http://amzn.to/2eZAk7K

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