Are the poor in Meghalaya lazy?

From our sisterly website Shillong Daily

Some years ago, during an international conference organized in North Eastern Hill University the then Governor of the state was invited as the Chief Guest. During his speech he regaled the audience with a story which according to him reveals the typical nature of the people of Assam (and by extension of the people of North East India). There was an Assamese man who would catch fish every day to take them back home to his family. He would catch just enough fish for his family and then return home. One day a foreigner arrived and saw the fisherman engrossed in his daily activity. The foreigner approached the fisherman and suggested him that by using a bigger net the fisherman would be able to catch more fish. On being asked by the fisherman as to what would he do with the extra fish, the foreigner replied that he could sell them. Then the fisherman could use the money to buy a bigger net and catch some more fish. Then what, the fisherman asked. Then, in a satisfactory tone the foreigner explained, the fisherman can use the profit from the sale and lead a comfortable life instead of catching fish every day. The fisherman replied that he is already living a comfortable life. By catching only what he requires he gets a lot of free time which he uses by spending more time with friends, family and doing what he likes. He may not be rich but he was happy and comfortable. The foreigner got frustrated and left bemoaning the lack of initiative and fatalism of the fisherman. This attitude of the fisherman was termed as lahe lahe (laidback attitude) by the Governor which is typical of the Assamese people and by extension the people of North East.

A few weeks ago I was in a conference which was attended by some artists from Shillong which also included some politicians and incumbent government officials. During the discussion one of the former politician explained to the host about the unenterprising attitude of the local people and dependence on handouts is the reason for the lack of the state’s economic development. Changing this attitude was touted as the main obstacle for improving the status of the people.

This perspective is similar to the one expressed above by the former Governor, i.e., people are basically lazy and do not want to put any effort to improve their lot. What it also means is that people are poor because of their own laziness; it is their fatalistic attitude of depending on the government which keeps them in their wretched condition. To summarize, the poor people are their own enemies. However, my recent experience tells me otherwise.

Poor people do not enjoy being poor and they make every effort to improve their conditions. One such group in the State are the street vendors and hawkers especially from the rural areas. Braving sunshine, rain or cold they come out every day to sell their goods on the footpaths. The money that they earn is used to send their children to schools and provide for the daily needs. Some vendors come every day from their village carrying the fruits and vegetables that they grow in their farm. Some come barefoot while many are shabbily dressed.

In their villages there is a lack of proper school, medical facilities or even decent road connection. In spite of all this, they would toil hard in their fields with whatever they have and travel to the city to sell their produce. The vehicles (buses/sumo) in which they make the journey is always overloaded and the mass of people cramped in a small space makes the journey arduous. Few years ago, I remember going to one such village in a bus which was full of supplies. I had to sit on top of a rice sack till I reached the destination. Another time I sat with 20 people in a sumo meant for 10-12 people. Life for these poor people is not easy and they work very hard for maintain their meagre existence. If they were lazy, they would have starved to death a l

ong time ago. The poor in spite of their poverty cannot escape the revenue collecting machinery of the Government.

The urban poor also come into the street vending business because like the rural poor they have to make a living for themselves and their family. During the meeting in which the street hawkers/vendors or Shillong decided to organize themselves to fight for their rights, I met one young man who, like the others had been chased by the police from doing his business on the roadside. He told that currently he was earning only ₹ 3000/- per month which was not enough to meet the daily needs. By previously selling men’s inner-wear he had been able to send his younger brother to college. He wanted to return to his old business as the current pay was very meagre. People have since returned to their old spots and I am sure he must be selling his goods somewhere along the footpaths at this moment. His story is shared by many of the urban poor as well and he was definitely not lazy.

But then why make this argument of laziness when poor people are actually working very hard. The answer is very simple: the government can then relieve itself of its responsibilities and put the blame on the common people. In fact, instead of helping the people, the focus is on taking away their livelihood and impoverishing them further. The onslaught against the street vendors by the State Government machinery was not an aberration but borne out of a mentality which considers poor people as being at fault. This was blatantly displayed when the DC of Jowai accused the street vendors of their attempt to avoid paying ₹ 20/- as the reason for them not going to the designated markets but selling on the footpath. Again the poor people are at fault. While the street vendors in Shillong have fought and won their right to livelihood, those in Jowai have suffered a temporary setback.

So what would satisfy the powers-that-be and how can the poor people give up their laziness. By working longer hours for them at low wages is a good starting point. During the ninth conference of the Meghalaya Bank Employees Association was held here on 27thAugust, 2016, one of the delegates lamented at how MSP (minimum support price) was still not provided to the farmers in Meghalaya. The talk of living wage is an anathema to many of the politicians of our State. Our respected politicians would fly regularly to Delhi to ensure their personal ambitions but would hardly visit their constituencies. Projects meant for the poor run into delay and salaries for workers are delayed indefinitely or their service discontinued (like the recent retrenchment of malaria workers in Meghalaya). The favourite excuse of the government being that the state is low on finances. This is a very interesting argument since the country’s GDP and the state has been increasing at a regular basis, irrespective of the rate being lower or higher. It means that more value is being produced in the economy than in the past and population growth has slowed down at the same time. How is it that as more value is produced, the finances of the government has continued to decrease at the same time? Where does all this value go if not into the coffers of the government or the pocket of the general masses?

The poor in spite of their poverty cannot escape the revenue collecting machinery of the Government. It doesn’t matter if they lack all the basic amenities, the fact that they live under a legal jurisdiction obliges them to contribute to the finances of the government. However should they demand for the money to be spend on improving their living condition, that’s asking for handouts and a sign of their inherent laziness?

There is no greater tragedy than the argument of poor people being lazy and asking them to be feel ashamed of themselves. However, this is exactly what ensures that people are kept dependent on the political class for meagre benefits which comes around every election. If they were empowered, then the political class wouldn’t be able to lie to them anymore. Destroying the myth of laziness of the poor is the first step in the long struggle for respect and a decent living.

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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

One Comment

  1. Rimai
    September 22, 2016
    Reply

    Of course we are poor when we compare with others….but it’s the fact too that the government just don’t create opportunities for development

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