Kolkata: My Impressions of Poverty

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When we chatted to friends before our trip to India, we were cautioned that the extreme levels of abject poverty would hit us every time we ventured out of the hotel. I know how much I’m affected by seeing people experiencing hardships. So I was concerned that my visit to Kolkata would be overshadowed by my response to the poverty.

Yet, walking round Kolkata I didn’t get a sense of abject poverty. Please don’t think I’m trying to say that it wasn’t there – it was. But it was nowhere near as bad as the images I’d conjured after the warnings.

What I did experience was the reality that people in Kolkata would find innovative ways to earn even a small wage to contribute to their family’s survival. We passed countless informal shops selling everything under the sun. We passed people shelling pistachio nuts and selling them. And we saw people selling street food off banana leaf plates. It felt like almost everyone was engaged in some form of work, no matter how seemingly menial – to stay alive.

Yes, every now an then we encountered beggars, but we only came into contact with two. And I’d been led to believe there would be beggars surrounding us at every turn. A child caught hold of my arm as we were queueing to visit the Victoria Memorial. And a woman tried to separate Craig and I as we navigated our way through the crowds entering Eden Park for the IPL cricket match. Those were the only beggars I encountered.

Yes, I’m aware that my blindness may have protected me from seeing more of the poverty, especially since Craig knows how sensitive I am to the suffering of others. So it’s entirely possible my perception of the situation’s flawed.

When I checked online to see what the stats would tell me about my impression of the poverty in India, I learned that unemployment in India in 2018 was a mere 3.53%, compared to 27.2% in South Africa (2018) and around 6% in both USA and UK, although these last figures are now 6 years old.
I know employment doesn’t automatically equate to wealth, but I do feel that the statistic is interesting when placed against the comments we heard before our trip. I wonder how many of those comments were made based on movies like Shantaram and Slumdog Millionaire? I guess I’ll never know for sure.

What did almost break my heart was the number of unhealthy malnourished stray dogs that seemed to be everywhere we went. We even passed one curled up asleep on the stadium steps during the IPL cricket match. I’m sure he managed to find himself a good meal from scraps left behind by the 90 000 cricket fans after the match. I’m just amazed he was able to sleep through the noise of the game, but it didn’t seem to worry him one bit. Which made me smile despite feeling heartsore at his condition.

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