Are Indians Still Poor?

I arrived in my project village of Ankanapura as part of a small group of UK and Indian volunteers, with very little idea of what to expect. Our brief was to improve awareness and knowledge of health, hygiene and sanitation.

For many, the £280 million granted to the Indian Government by its UK counterparts in 2012 and subsequent years is an inexcusable excess in a time of British austerity. That India boasts the world's third largest economy, and recently launched a successful space mission costing more than £600million, are often cited as validations of this idea. To counter this, a proportion of the public would consider British aid to India as a moral and historical duty, an altruistic obligation to help those less well off than ourselves. India, a country well known as one of extreme wealth disparities, still has major poverty issues. It is home to a third of the world's people living on less than $1.25 a day - more than all the poor in sub-Saharan Africa. The British Government announced an end to its aid to India from 2015, a move condemned as 'premature' by a number of charities, and described as an action motivated by 'short-term political pressures', by a group of MP's.

As a volunteer recently returned from a three month charity placement with Raleigh India in rural south-west India, I have experienced first-hand a region where 95% of a village's inhabitants had no access to a toilet, where the vast majority had no knowledge about the spread of disease, and where gender inequality is depressingly ingrained in every fibre of society. I don't claim to understand the entire picture of Indian poverty and culture in such a diverse and unequal society. I do, however, feel qualified to comment on the conditions I saw, the work I witnessed and undertook, and what the withdrawal of UK aid means for the people influenced by the DFID-funded charity with which I completed my placement.

I arrived in my project village of Ankanapura as part of a small group of UK and Indian volunteers, with very little idea of what to expect. I was aware of the progress India had made over the past decade, the same progress given by the UK government as the motivation behind ending aid to the country, but assumed we wouldn't be sent somewhere for three months that had no need of help. Our brief was to improve awareness and knowledge of health, hygiene and sanitation.

Progress with our awareness raising was frustratingly slow; turnout to events was often low, interest in many topics was equally marginal. We struggled on for six weeks, and whilst not disliking our presence, heard a number of people in the village questioning what work had we actually done? To a certain extent we felt that if they couldn't see it or touch it, the villagers didn't see something as progress.

This was confirmed when we finally struck gold: educating the villagers about the schemes they were entitled to, and building a successful relationship with the local government led to construction beginning on over 40 toilets in the village, the owners of which would be reimbursed by the Government upon their completion. Along with the securing of new street lighting for the village from the same authorities, this was greatly appreciated in Ankanapura, but was that all we were there for - to do something the Indian Government should be doing already?

Before the breakthroughs mentioned, I used to sit and think what we were leaving these people with, what would I say to be our biggest achievement? I came to the conclusion that it would be merely our presence, the sharing of our cultures and opening their eyes to other possibilities. Despite the thin veil of nationalism which I feel shrouds a lot of the country, the majority of the village's inhabitants spoke only Kannada, and not a word of Hindi - the official state language. The area has its own music and film industry and is culturally very different from other areas of India. In the UK we are blessed with a vibrant multiculturalism, my experiences opened my eyes to how receptive we are as a nation, to new ideas and new experiences. To the residents of Ankanapura, Delhi, let alone Europe, feels a world away.

In a society where arranged marriage still rules, where a girl had to stop attending one of our clubs once she became engaged, where only our presence stopped girls being forcefully removed from afternoon sports by their male peers, we showed an alternative to this attitude. The group contained four UK female volunteers, and it was their strength of character and resourcefulness which I hoped had showed the youth of the village that there was another way: that as in our group, girls and boys could operate on a level playing field of opportunity.

Whilst I'm sure great improvements have been made in India's recent history, and there potentially are more pressing cases for British aid, I feel there is still a case to be made for British help in India.

As shown by our experiences, the money is now available to provide physical improvements. Getting it done is another question altogether: would the local officials (or their husbands to be precise, as two local officials were actually female - but their husbands conducted all their business for them), have gone to Ankanapura and informed them of this money they were entitled to? Probably not.

I feel we opened eyes and minds to what could be, and if just one of those seeds planted, grows into someone willing to drive domestic change in a country undergoing a turbulent transition between the traditional and the modern - is that not money well spent?

Image credits: Tom Beetham

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