23 Dec 2018 05:55am IST
Fr. Dr. Elvis Fernandes, sfx
For many people, Christmas is a time of exchanging of gifts, hanging stockings, lighting up the windows, sending greetings, having dinners and shouting of “Merry Christmas”. Is this the true meaning of Christmas?In fact, Christmas season has to be a time to celebrate the birth of the Messiah who revealed His priority for the poor and the powerless – the shepherds. This concern for the poor and powerless is the true spirit of Christmas that need to be celebrated everywhere.
Concern for the poor and the powerless has been reiterated at several summits by world leaders and by international and multi-lateral organisations. These Heads of State from time to time come up with plans to alleviate poverty, but with little impact. It is like, ‘the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’. They would like to do something to eradicate poverty but their lack of political will is perpetuating poverty.
Seventeen percent of the world population lives in India and a large number of people live below the international poverty line ($ 1.90 per day measure of the World bank). Why does India have millions of people who are poor? What keeps the poor always poor? One reason is the growing inequalities between the rich and the poor. There is a galloping gap between the rich and the poor. A 2018 report by OXFAM INDIA, an NGO working to reduce poverty and injustice, shows that there is high-inequality in India and it is among the most unequal in the world.
Their data on wealth-distribution shows that inequality in wealth has increased sharply since 1991. It stated that super-wealthy (1% of the Indian population) pocketed the 73% of the wealth generated in 2017, while 67 crore people who make up the poorest half of the population saw just 1% increase in their wealth. The number of billionaires in India is increasing and the wealth held by them increased by almost 10 times over a decade. The total wealth held by them is 15% of the GDP of the country. This report shows that the economic growth in India benefits only a miniscule super-rich of the population. It is crystal clear that these billionaires have accumulated vast fortunes from crony capitalism, rather than innovation or the rules of the market. The present economic system only increases the number of billionaires while the poor continue to embroil in a web of poverty.
Another reason for economic inequality is the fraud in government schemes meant for the poor. The funds allocated for projects to bring the poor out of poverty are pocketed by the powerful rich. As a result, the intended beneficiaries, the poorest of the poor are cheated.
Social and Educational Inequalities
According to the UN document on Sustainable Development Goals (2015), limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion and lack of participation in decision-making are also some of the manifestations of poverty. These socio-economic inequalities continue pushing the poor to the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Analysing the unique nature of the inequalities in India, Nobel prize winner Dr. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book “An Uncertain Glory of India: India and its Contradictions” (2013), write that “India has a unique cocktail of lethal divisions and disparities’. Mutual reinforcement of multiple inequalities creates an extremely oppressive social system leading to disempowerment of those at the lowest rung … It can be seen that the same people, often enough, are poor in income and wealth, suffer from illiteracy and bad schooling, work hard for little remuneration, have little influence on the administration of the country, lack social and economic opportunities that would allow them to move forward, and are treated with brutal callousness by the class conscious police” (p. 242).
In India, the victims of multiple inequalities are the Adivasis, Dalits, daily wage workers, marginal farmers and a large number of Muslims. These people are economically poor and face much social discrimination. They have lower levels of literacy and education and lack basic amenities such as accessible hospitals and functioning schools.
A dominant finding of the Indian Exclusion Report (2016) by Centre for Equity Studies (CES) claims that the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and persons with disabilities and age-related vulnerabilities are the most severely and consistently excluded from provisions of a number of public goods. With regard to provision of agricultural land as a public good, the rate of landlessness was highest among Dalits (57%), Muslims (52%) and women-headed households (56.8%). The quality of land owned by the Dalits was very poor. Fifty-eight percent of the land had no irrigation facility. Although majority of the tribals have land, forty percent of Adivasis were displaced due to large scale deforestation caused by “developmental activity”. Deforestation is progressively decreasing the productivity of the land and causing soil erosion and drying up of the water sources and water bodies.
Quality Education will root out inequalities
The dual system of education in India is the root cause of inequalities. The rich can avail of good quality education through private schools, while the poor who can’t afford to pay have to enrol in the government schools which often have poor quality of education. The 2017 Annual Status Education Report (ASER) exposes the quality of education imparted through the government schools in India. The reports states that 40% of the students (14-18 years) interviewed from rural schools across 24 states were unable to tell the time from the image of the clock. Fifty-percent fumbled at basic math while 25% failed to read fluently in their own language.
The Government should bring a radical change in the lives of the poor and bring them out of the cycle of poverty by shunning the dual policy of providing good quality education to the rich who can pay for it and poor quality education to the poor. In this regard, the church, which is the body of Christ, has to be proactive in manifesting its preferential concern for the poor and powerless. The church should see that its unaided English medium schools reserve a large number of seats for the disadvantaged children. The preferential concern for the poor and powerless has to be inculcated in the minds of church leaders involved in the educational apostolate. Values of compassion to the poor and the needy, accepting and respecting the poor as equal, and readiness to share one’s resources with the less privileged have to be instilled in the students for transformation of attitude and mind-set. In doing this we would be celebrating Christmas in the real sense.
(The writer is a member of the Society of Pilar. He is a counselling psychologist and the Editor of “Fr. Agnel’s Call”, a month mission and youth magazine)