Poor comparisons and rich ironies

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The Independent Online
IN THE week the Copenhagen beanfeast debated solutions to the problem of world poverty, an interesting and modest report on our native poor was published in Britain. Modest, because the principal expense was a couple of airfares as opposed to the estimated £40m cost of the UN's conference; interesting, because its two authors live in south India. By coming to the sad and impoverished housing estates of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, they reversed the usual traffic whereby the citizens of rich countries pontificate on the plight of the citizens of poor ones. What Stan and Mari Thekaekara found in Easterhouse and Moss Side amazed and horrified them. Their residents were financially better off than the Indian poor, but the degree of defeat and demoralisation (especially among men) was much higher.

As to causes and solutions, their report can satisfy both left and right. On the one hand: "We have seasonal employment, under employment. But not 20 years of a purposeless, meaningless existence." And on the other: "The poor in Britain seemed better off ... but [without state benefits] they'd be worse off than the poorest of our poor. In India people still take the initiative."

The Thekaekaras are not the first Indians to study the British poor. In 1842 Dwarkanath Tagore, a Calcutta entrepreneur, came to Glasgow and noted: "At present, some 300,000 people are out of employ, which poor devils are being roughly handled by the troops. They may talk of the starvation of the Hill Coolies of India, but I see around me still more distress." We can quarrel about relative perceptions of poverty, its cause and cure. What seems unarguable is that we have returned to that darker time when a large section of the population could be labelled as The Poor, with its Victorian ability to evoke both compassion and fear.

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