Welcome to India, part 1

October 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Just finished watching BBC2’s “Welcome to India, part 1.” I think the BBC’s description of the documentary fits well (read it here). The programme’s portrayal of how India’s poor survive is unsentimental and refreshingly unpatronising; it is not presenting victims, it is showing appropriate respect for their ingeniousness and determination to find ways to survive and improve their lot.

Certainly more could be said, different stories could be told. One thing I was reminded of was a conversation I had with a wealthy man in Bangladesh a few years back. He was family of a close friend, and as we drove through the streets of Dhaka he praised the poor (rather in the way this review does at the end) on the basis that despite all their hardships, “they survive.” My response was to say that yes, some of them do. But that fact should not blind you to the fact that many do not survive. They don’t survive until adulthood, or they die early.

Nobel Prize Winning Economist Amartya Sen captured the point I am making here in his famous comparison of life-years lost in India and China in the second half of the twentieth-century. He observed that India and China had “similarities that were quite striking” when development planning began 50 years ago, including death rates. “But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India” (in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: “India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame,” 1958-1961 (Dreze and Sen).

So? So it’s all in how you tell the story. I think the way “Welcome to India” chose to tell the stories of its protagonists was very respectful towards them, and I appreciate that. But I also think it makes their situation look far rosier than it is. To give one example: the process of “turning dirt into gold” that the programme portrays involves mixing mercury with the gold and then heating it to burn off the mercury. Mercury is incredibly toxic, causing a wide variety of internal and skin disorders. In the programme the workers gripe about this work but, they say, it’s just part of the job. Yes, but that’s only half the story. The other half of the story will come years down the line, when the handling of mercury and breathing of mercury vapour will catch these men, and they will become more names in India’s skeleton-filled cupboard.

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