In my previous post, I presented my initial thoughts after reading Katherine Boo’s recent book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. I have maintained an active academic and professional interest in public interventions related to urban poverty and slums in cities of the South ever since my undergraduate days in India. Katherine Boo’s book was therefore more than of mere sentimental value to me. I found it a rich source of information on a number of policy arenas – corruption, urban poverty, urban land and labor markets, electoral politics, education, public health, policing, slum resettlement, rural-to-urban migration – just to name a few. Let us take the issue of corruption as an example.
The book describes several instances of corruption in different forms. The most common forms are abuse of power (policemen, doctors in public hospitals, loan officers of banks etc. soliciting bribes in return for favors) or in misuse of public resources (government transfers for education, donations to orphanages etc.). The author describes public offices as markets where favors are sold for a price and to the highest bidder. But the book also describes some more nuanced forms of corruption – for instance, how a shrewd resident of Annawadi – Asha, without any official title, has made a career in mediating conflicts among her neighbors or mediating exchanges between the residents of Annawadi and the state apparatus (the police, banks, schools, elected politicians), all for a fee.
One blog post by Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, draws policy lessons from the description of corruption in the book by suggesting removing the middlemen who are currently acting as gatekeepers of charity or subsidies for the poor and instead directly giving cash to the poor.
But singling out residents’ financial condition as THE cause of their misery misses the intricate web of causes that Katherine Boo so remarkably manages to document. If all else remains the same, direct cash transfers might not necessarily improve the lives of the residents but will increase the price of goods and services they consume (including bribes at public institutions such as the police or the public hospitals). Corruption will be shifted to those agencies who determine eligibility for recipients of such cash transfers. Moreover, cash transfers do not address within-household differences in opportunities – between men and women, between children and adults and between adults and elderly. People have different capabilities. Abdul was capable of making money despite police harassment, lack of education and religious and regional bigotry of the local politics because of his diligence, supportive family members and ability to stay out of trouble. The same was not possible for the family of the 15 year old girl, Meena who commits suicide by consuming rat poison in a state of hopelessness. So putting “x” amount of cash in the hands of Abdul is going to yield much more than giving the same amount of cash to Meena. The problems of injustice presented by the author need more profound norm shifts in the society in general, usually not achieved by mere charity (and in some cases aggravated by charity).
Instead of trying to think of specific policy instruments, I want to highlight two very broad observations that can inform public interventions on urban poverty:
1) Things that seem to be working despite the bleak picture
Among the descriptions of hardships and vulnerabilities in Annawadi, I was struck by somewhat hopeful depiction of two government institutions that have potential to have a slow but positive effect on improving the lives of slum residents. First, the one institutional pillar that seems to still enjoy sufficient trust of the people of the undercity is the judiciary. The courts are presented in somewhat better light than the other public institutions – the police, public hospital, orphanages, schools, public works, electoral politics etc. Even though the judicial process in India is extremely slow, judges generally are perceived as honest. The book’s depiction of the courts suggest that the poor in India generally trust them to deliver justice (i.e., when you are able to afford a lawyer and not depend on the public defender or the public prosecutor).
And the second is the effectiveness of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that allowed the author to gather the information that was needed to make the book so compelling. The gap between the version of events that get recorded in official documents (testimonies recorded by the police, causes of death recorded by mortuaries etc.) and the version reported by the poor is where much of the policy challenges lie. Of course the RTI Act on its own is useless unless it is cleverly used by journalists and researchers to document this gap between the two versions. But before the RTI Act, this gap was conveniently hidden and there was no official recognition of the problem. The hope is that with more scrutiny (such as this book) public services like healthcare, education, public security etc. will eventually become more accountable and less corrupt in the future. This also has the potential to gradually force broader societal norm shifts to occur that are necessary for any meaningful change to happen.
2) Lack of collective action
The book does not dwell on the vast inequality in income among those in the overcity and those in the undercityas a primary cause of the miseries of Annawadi residents. In fact, in many instances in the book, those causing harm to these poor residents of Annawadi are their own neighbors. It describes an uncertain sense of community in Annawadi where people competed with one another more than they cooperated in finding solutions to their common problems. The author does describe the privatization of grievances and lack of collective action as follows.
Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slumdwellers of making the city filthy and unlivable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slumdwellers complained about the obstacles the rich and powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators – human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world’s largest cities. (Page 20)
How do you deal with this? Is it the poverty that causes the vulnerability that in turn causes the cut-throat competition to survive? I am not very sure of this causal chain. But increasing trust among neighbors might allow for collective action among the residents to address some of their common challenges (negotiating better resettlement deal when Annawadi is bulldozed, for instance). Savings groups among women slumdwellers in other parts of Mumbai (organized under what is know as the Mumbai Alliance) have managed to build trust within small groups of neighbors using the savings as the glue that binds them. It is possible to improve collective efficacy in the slums if trust among people can be nurtured through innovations like these.
Policy interventions are often expected to yield results in a couple of years. But it needs to be realized that the norm shifts that are needed to ultimately absorb and integrate the undercity will take several decades. Absence of role models in the community also presents itself in the book. But not everyone in the slum has not lost hope and some are willing to commit to a set of rules that have longer term pay-offs. Abdul decides not to buy stolen goods for recycling and Manju runs her school in the slum with a greater sense of duty and purpose than her mother who receives government funds for the school but does not devote time to teach. Policies to recognize such individuals within the community and rewarding them can help create positive role models among the residents.
[On June 15 2012, Bill Gates posted Katherine Boo’s responses to his questions from on his site: http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Topics/Development/QA-with-Katherine-Boo-Author-of-Behind-the-Beautiful-Forevers ]