Friday, April 6, 2012

The Object of Ideologues’ Outrage –The Poor

By M. Ulric Killion


[Photo Source: (Random House) - “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo; Shashi Tharoor, Book review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ by Katherine Boo, Washington Post, February 10, 2012].

What follows is a book review by Arvind Subramanian (Peterson Institute for International Economics) of Katherine Boo’s new book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

While Boo’s book focuses on China and India, and the trials of globalization and transformations within their respective economies, it also offers a lesson for Americans, especially those who would deny the “very poor” an escape from the dire lack of sympathy of the uncaring.

In the way of an example, and why this book is both revealing and speaks to a growing crisis in America of the uncaring, an excerpt from a recent writing of Sowellread seems appropriate. As observed in his article titled, Who Killed Compassionate Conservatism?, and quoting a brief excerpt from his article, he writes:

Stick a fork in compassionate conservatism, because it’s done. The Bush-era formulation was always more of a marketing device than an actual philosophy — just ask New Orleans about that vaunted compassion — but the past few months have been particularly cruel. Already on its last legs, Republican compassion took a serious hit in the September 12 primary debate, when the crowd seemed to cheer the prospect of an uninsured 30-year old dying on the street. Ron Paul, who denounced the “welfarism and socialism” of government-sponsored health care and maintained that “freedom is all about taking your own risks,” was asked by host Wolf Blitzer whether “you saying that society should just let him die.” The audience erupted into cheers and shouts of “yeah!”

Coming on the heels of a debate in which the audience jeered a gay soldier and cheered at the mention of the death penalty, this was perhaps not a surprising reaction. Viewers shaking their heads at home could at least chalk up the response to an auditorium packed with Florida Tea Party members. But blaming the lack of empathy on the redneck wing of the GOP will only get you so far, as last week’s Supreme Court arguments over the Affordable Care Act demonstrated.

The latter lack of sympathy by conservative republicans, tea party conservatives, or perhaps even a following of “severely” conservative republicans, strongly resembles the trials of India. This is because, in India, they typically treated the “very poor” as a collectivity, and as the object of ideologues’ outrage.

What Boo’s book does for all of us is present the marginalized “very poor,” or the collectivity of the poor and the object of ideologue’s outrage, as human. In other words, and many of us need to learn this lesson, she humanizes the poor.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Katherine Boo,  and quoting Shashi Tharoor (Washington Post),

Katherine Boo, a New Yorker staff writer who won a Pulitzer Prize while working at The Washington Post, spent three years and four months (from November 2007 to March 2011) following the lives of some of Mumbai’s most deprived citizens, the dirt-poor residents of a squatter slum on the periphery of its international airport. Annawadi, in the shadow of luxury hotels, is “a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one third of the planet’s poor.” Built on swampy land abutting a sewage lake, it is home to a motley collection of marginal Indians desperate to make a living out of the detritus of the city’s economic boom.

With that being said, a synopsis of Arvind Subramanian’s book review follows.


“Katherine Boo, India, and China”

By Arvind Subramanian, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Op-ed in the Business Standard, New Delhi
March 28, 2012

Katherine Boo's new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers—which explores the generalized economic dynamism of life in a Mumbai slum—can be interpreted as a warning against a serious misreading of China's phenomenal growth experience. Growth-addled India is in danger of overlooking the colossal costs to the poor of deteriorating Indian governance. A collective action trap condemns the poor to coping with, rather than having any chance of reforming, India's institutions. "Instead of uniting, poor people competed ferociously with one another for gains as slender as they were provisional," Boo writes. Within China, all the preoccupation is with the need for reform and the rollback of the state. That is entirely appropriate because China's state continues to be an economic drag and a political yoke. What distinguishes China is that in the Communist Party, it has had a resoundingly effective state/public institution, better than in any other part of the developing world, with regard to delivering certain essentials for development: social stability; rule of law; basic services such as health, education, and sanitation; and enviable physical infrastructure. And these essentials have protected those citizens who are most in need while facilitating transformational possibilities for them. What the poor of India need is basics from the state, as in China. Provision of these basics would make life at the bottom of the scrapheap less nasty, brutish, and short.

Read the Full Review here: Op-ed: Katherine Boo, India, and China

All Rights Reserved by M. Ulric Killion, 2012.


  1. Brilliantly written, the book focuses on the lives of those who reside in a small settlement within the shadows of deluxe five-star hotels. As the narrative unfolds, we meet Abdul - an enterprising garbage picker who lives with his tubercular father, sharp-tongued mother and siblings in Annawadi. Unlike most of his neighbors, they are barely making it, and things get a whole lot worse when an off-balance one-legged neighbor immolates herself, blaming the family for her suicidal actions.
    We also meet spirited Asha who will do whatever it takes to survive and give her "most-everything" daughter a chance to thrive...and we meet Sunil and Kalu, imaginative young friends who use finely-honed ingenuity to keep on...keeping on.

    All of them exist in a society where life is cheap and justice is cheaper. With little to spare, just the basics of life are subject to extortion as the poor turn against the poor. This is a place where a waste-picker's life bleeds out of him as people step over him to go about their workday; where a once-lively teenager drinks rat poison to liberate herself from her daily misery while her mother just shrugs; where a one-legged woman sets herself on fire and the craven justice system tries to finger Abdul and destroy his family.

  2. I totally agree with you. This book is a must read. Otherwise, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments.