Poverty and the Final Solution: Part 4 of Volunteering
in Calcutta, India.
By Paul Sinclair (One World One People)
10 November 2000
Hello champions; how is everyone? Welcome
to the last of my emails from my trip to India. Yes, my
very good friends, I am now back in London and what a
week to end with! Special thanks to the kindness of all
my friends who firstly turned my humble few beers and
pizza (non-Indian food) into a party, then a leaving party
and then a magnificent event that only made Calcutta even
harder to say good-bye to.
young girl in a Calcutta slum
Well, what can I say, the fire has been lit in me, doused with
kerosene and set to burn and it will hopefully do its tiny part
in helping world poverty to come to a smouldering end. Once
again, I just can't describe most of my experiences this last
week no matter how hard I try. One smile from some of these
destitute people speaks a million words. This is something that
needs to be personally experienced.
I will briefly share with you all something that is hopefully
shaping to be special. It has always been agreed by people who
do station work, (tending to the destitute and the dying who
come off the trains or live at Howrah Station) that when they
come to leave they will find someone to replace them. Normally,
they find their replacements amongst the foreign volunteers.
I was, however, lucky enough to find a young Indian guy who
can't hear or speak. He survives by making friends with tourists
on Sudder Street (where I was staying) and then asking them
for money: just another type of begging. He is very good at
it too, because he is very popular and as a result makes enough
to always be buying new clothes. I originally asked the Sisters
at the Mother Teresa House if they could find him a job, because
I could sense a lot of good in this young bloke. He has a lovely
smile and uses it often and I felt that this could be used to
do much good amongst the needy. The Sisters informed me that
he was well known to them and that he came from a well-off family
and he had a home. They also said that they had already tried
to give him a job, but it didn't work out and that his integrity
had been brought into question. So, I decided to take him with
me to Howrah Station (where I work) to hopefully get him involved
with my work.
The results of this have been promising as he has really been
— even treating people's injuries unassisted and
helping out with the difficult work. My main reasons for wanting
him to replace me rather than another foreign volunteer are
quite simple. Foreign volunteers come to Calcutta to work usually
for periods of days, weeks, one month, three months, but very
rarely longer than that. My Indian friend, however, was born
and bred in Calcutta and is more than likely to remain in Calcutta
for the rest of his life. This makes him potentially a very,
very, valuable servant to the poorest of the poor. Also, I got
the feeling that the local people regarded anyone with a handicap
or major disability as worthless and useless. It would be nice
to know that he might continue to be a living example that teaches
people otherwise. So far, so good, but I know he was struggling
to resist the lure of the tourists on Sudder Street. I can only
hope in his future that as he will continue to get more and
more involved in the work; the result will be that his heart
will grow and he will slowly lose his interest in the tourists'
Anyway, as this is my final email from India, I wish to offer
to everyone what I have learned about world poverty and what
I think needs to be done to effectively pull on the boots and
kick it off the planet.
Here in India the causes of this poverty are numerous. The main
problem is over consumption or super consumption of resources
in the first-world countries. It is estimated that a person
in the first world consumes thirty times more resources than
an average person in India. Some estimates even put the figure
much higher than thirty. I personally have pledged to never
waste food unless it will cause me illness. I have been very
successful with this for a long time now. This invariably means
I have to be more and more careful about how much I cook or
order in the first place. I am also trying to simplify my life-style
by only buying the things that I really need.
The second reason why India experiences such poverty is their
caste system (the system that seeks to rank citizens in different
social classes depending on their birth). The highest classes
are the Brahmans (Priests).The lowest, considered to be even
outside the system, are the untouchables (poorest of the poor).
Everyone else, fits somewhere between these groups.The Great
Gandhi, a Hindu, described the caste system as an abomination
and a disgrace to Hinduism. He spent his whole life attacking
it at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it survived this Great
Man's efforts and is alive and well.
I see this when I tend to destitute people on the train platforms.
Normally, I get surrounded by great crowds of astonished spectators.
They are not blown away to see a poor person who is suffering
or dying. They are blown away when they see that someone has
stopped and is doing something about it. To some of them it
is improper to even touch one of these people, but I happily
demonstrate how to break all the caste rules by treating my
patients as humans and my equals. This helps to set a good example
and I am more than happy to explain to my co-workers that at
any time a future Indian leader may stop, see our example, become
inspired and years later from a position of power, institute
social policies that will end this situation.
The current government has virtually no social policies that
will help the poorest of the poor. I read in a Calcutta newspaper
that Howrah Station was suffering from an image problem and
needed much improvement. As a result, the Transport Minister
announced a plan to improve this problem: they are going to
spend millions of rupees on putting in a new musical fountain
near the taxi rank. Clearly, it would be a wonderful thing if
India was to revisit the teachings of its great spiritual leader,
Mahatma Gandhi, to help its people break the chains of its caste
system. There can be no spiritual or religious justification
for treating people as if they are less than animals.
One of the most common solutions people offer to help end world
poverty is education. They maintain that if they educate everybody
like in the west —
then that will help the impoverished to rise from poverty.
I think people need to be very careful with such an approach.
Literary education on its own can do far more harm than good
unless it also builds sound character. An educated greedy person,
for instance, can do far more damage to the world than an uneducated
greedy person. In India, westerners as well as wealthy local
Indians are known to buy up commodities such as rice from poor
farmers for next to nothing during prosperous times. They then
store it all in huge warehouses and silos until it's in short
supply such as when rice is out of season. Then they sell it
back to these poor farmers at much higher prices. This they
call capitalism and good business, but in reality it is a serious
misuse of resources. Education must encompass morality.
Another problem that we people in the west like to pick up on
are the huge populations and growth rates common with third
world countries. I am convinced that the reasons for these population
problems are clearly caused by poverty. For example, if you
live in the third world then you are most likely forced to work
very hard, very long hours and long weeks just to put food on
the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head. Very
little, if anything, of what you earn may be left over after
this, which may be fine until you start to age. As you get older
and older and your job seems to get harder and harder you might
start to think about how you might survive in old age when you
are just too old to work. The common solution in the third world
is to have children. One child, however, will struggle to look
after his or herself, let alone another person. So they have
many children so that the little amount each can put aside can
be collected together so that there is enough for the parents.
Add to that the high rates of infant and child mortality and
it becomes clear why they don't hold back on having large families
in the third world.
We need to understand the underlying causes of population problems
in poverty-stricken countries. By doing so, we can then understand
that implementing measures to control their populations through
family planning or contraception or whatever will have little
or no effect unless those measures directly help alleviate the
true nature of poverty.
Really, the main cause of poverty in the world is selfishness
in the form of greed. Therefore, the only way to properly solve
it once and for all is to remove world selfishness. What we
need is a world-wide spiritual revolution that will see people
replace materialism with spirituality as the most important
thing in life. We need to reconstruct society and change its
values so that character, and not possession of wealth, title
or birth, will be the true test of merit. We need a spiritual
revolution that shall define itself as 'unselfishness with aspiration
toward total selflessness'.
A few months ago, I saw a world news report in which some Indian
farmers were suffering a severe drought. They were suffering
this drought because they had cut down most of the trees in
their area. They were so desperate to feed themselves that they
cut down the remainder of the trees and sold them to the pulp
mills to buy food. Meanwhile, in the west we had millions of
tonnes of surplus food just sitting in silos and in factories.
You see, if the people in the third world countries continue
to cut down the trees then we will all be finished because the
planet needs lungs.
Currently four billion people out of the six billion people
who live in this world are impoverished. There is nothing more
certain in the future of humanity than that these people will
continue to try to improve their situation. They will do this
the only way they know how; by taking from and destroying the
natural environment. If they are not stopped then humanity will
So, the need for change in the form of a spiritual revolution
is already knocking on the door whether we like it or not. The
only choice we have in this matter is the degree we each want
to become personally involved. So, there we have it champions!
Thank you all for sharing in my adventures and I hope I have
done a satisfactory job in sharing the lessons I have learned
with you all.
Other articles in the series:
you are interested in volunteering in Calcutta or other homes
run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity please visit
website for volunteers.
Further information can be found in 'The
Lonely Planet Guide to India'
chapter on Kolkata.
lady watchs on as two volunteers
prepare for their work.