World Poverty and the Final Solution: Part 4 of Volunteering in Calcutta, India.

By Paul Sinclair (One World One People)
10 November 2000

Hello champions; how is everyone? Welcome to the last of my emails from my trip to India. Yes, my very good friends, I am now back in London and what a week to end with! Special thanks to the kindness of all my friends who firstly turned my humble few beers and pizza (non-Indian food) into a party, then a leaving party and then a magnificent event that only made Calcutta even harder to say good-bye to.

A young girl in a Calcutta slum

Well, what can I say, the fire has been lit in me, doused with kerosene and set to burn and it will hopefully do its tiny part in helping world poverty to come to a smouldering end. Once again, I just can't describe most of my experiences this last week no matter how hard I try. One smile from some of these destitute people speaks a million words. This is something that needs to be personally experienced.

I will briefly share with you all something that is hopefully shaping to be special. It has always been agreed by people who do station work, (tending to the destitute and the dying who come off the trains or live at Howrah Station) that when they come to leave they will find someone to replace them. Normally, they find their replacements amongst the foreign volunteers. I was, however, lucky enough to find a young Indian guy who can't hear or speak. He survives by making friends with tourists on Sudder Street (where I was staying) and then asking them for money: just another type of begging. He is very good at it too, because he is very popular and as a result makes enough to always be buying new clothes. I originally asked the Sisters at the Mother Teresa House if they could find him a job, because I could sense a lot of good in this young bloke. He has a lovely smile and uses it often and I felt that this could be used to do much good amongst the needy. The Sisters informed me that he was well known to them and that he came from a well-off family and he had a home. They also said that they had already tried to give him a job, but it didn't work out and that his integrity had been brought into question. So, I decided to take him with me to Howrah Station (where I work) to hopefully get him involved with my work.

The results of this have been promising as he has really been involving himselfeven treating people's injuries unassisted and helping out with the difficult work. My main reasons for wanting him to replace me rather than another foreign volunteer are quite simple. Foreign volunteers come to Calcutta to work usually for periods of days, weeks, one month, three months, but very rarely longer than that. My Indian friend, however, was born and bred in Calcutta and is more than likely to remain in Calcutta for the rest of his life. This makes him potentially a very, very, valuable servant to the poorest of the poor. Also, I got the feeling that the local people regarded anyone with a handicap or major disability as worthless and useless. It would be nice to know that he might continue to be a living example that teaches people otherwise. So far, so good, but I know he was struggling to resist the lure of the tourists on Sudder Street. I can only hope in his future that as he will continue to get more and more involved in the work; the result will be that his heart will grow and he will slowly lose his interest in the tourists' money.

Anyway, as this is my final email from India, I wish to offer to everyone what I have learned about world poverty and what I think needs to be done to effectively pull on the boots and kick it off the planet.

Here in India the causes of this poverty are numerous. The main problem is over consumption or super consumption of resources in the first-world countries. It is estimated that a person in the first world consumes thirty times more resources than an average person in India. Some estimates even put the figure much higher than thirty. I personally have pledged to never waste food unless it will cause me illness. I have been very successful with this for a long time now. This invariably means I have to be more and more careful about how much I cook or order in the first place. I am also trying to simplify my life-style by only buying the things that I really need.

The second reason why India experiences such poverty is their caste system (the system that seeks to rank citizens in different social classes depending on their birth). The highest classes are the Brahmans (Priests).The lowest, considered to be even outside the system, are the untouchables (poorest of the poor). Everyone else, fits somewhere between these groups.The Great Gandhi, a Hindu, described the caste system as an abomination and a disgrace to Hinduism. He spent his whole life attacking it at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it survived this Great Man's efforts and is alive and well.

I see this when I tend to destitute people on the train platforms. Normally, I get surrounded by great crowds of astonished spectators. They are not blown away to see a poor person who is suffering or dying. They are blown away when they see that someone has stopped and is doing something about it. To some of them it is improper to even touch one of these people, but I happily demonstrate how to break all the caste rules by treating my patients as humans and my equals. This helps to set a good example and I am more than happy to explain to my co-workers that at any time a future Indian leader may stop, see our example, become inspired and years later from a position of power, institute social policies that will end this situation.

The current government has virtually no social policies that will help the poorest of the poor. I read in a Calcutta newspaper that Howrah Station was suffering from an image problem and needed much improvement. As a result, the Transport Minister announced a plan to improve this problem: they are going to spend millions of rupees on putting in a new musical fountain near the taxi rank. Clearly, it would be a wonderful thing if India was to revisit the teachings of its great spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi, to help its people break the chains of its caste system. There can be no spiritual or religious justification for treating people as if they are less than animals.

One of the most common solutions people offer to help end world poverty is education. They maintain that if they educate everybody just like in the west then that will help the impoverished to rise from poverty. I think people need to be very careful with such an approach. Literary education on its own can do far more harm than good unless it also builds sound character. An educated greedy person, for instance, can do far more damage to the world than an uneducated greedy person. In India, westerners as well as wealthy local Indians are known to buy up commodities such as rice from poor farmers for next to nothing during prosperous times. They then store it all in huge warehouses and silos until it's in short supply such as when rice is out of season. Then they sell it back to these poor farmers at much higher prices. This they call capitalism and good business, but in reality it is a serious misuse of resources. Education must encompass morality.

Another problem that we people in the west like to pick up on are the huge populations and growth rates common with third world countries. I am convinced that the reasons for these population problems are clearly caused by poverty. For example, if you live in the third world then you are most likely forced to work very hard, very long hours and long weeks just to put food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head. Very little, if anything, of what you earn may be left over after this, which may be fine until you start to age. As you get older and older and your job seems to get harder and harder you might start to think about how you might survive in old age when you are just too old to work. The common solution in the third world is to have children. One child, however, will struggle to look after his or herself, let alone another person. So they have many children so that the little amount each can put aside can be collected together so that there is enough for the parents. Add to that the high rates of infant and child mortality and it becomes clear why they don't hold back on having large families in the third world.

We need to understand the underlying causes of population problems in poverty-stricken countries. By doing so, we can then understand that implementing measures to control their populations through family planning or contraception or whatever will have little or no effect unless those measures directly help alleviate the true nature of poverty.

Really, the main cause of poverty in the world is selfishness in the form of greed. Therefore, the only way to properly solve it once and for all is to remove world selfishness. What we need is a world-wide spiritual revolution that will see people replace materialism with spirituality as the most important thing in life. We need to reconstruct society and change its values so that character, and not possession of wealth, title or birth, will be the true test of merit. We need a spiritual revolution that shall define itself as 'unselfishness with aspiration toward total selflessness'.

A few months ago, I saw a world news report in which some Indian farmers were suffering a severe drought. They were suffering this drought because they had cut down most of the trees in their area. They were so desperate to feed themselves that they cut down the remainder of the trees and sold them to the pulp mills to buy food. Meanwhile, in the west we had millions of tonnes of surplus food just sitting in silos and in factories. You see, if the people in the third world countries continue to cut down the trees then we will all be finished because the planet needs lungs.

Currently four billion people out of the six billion people who live in this world are impoverished. There is nothing more certain in the future of humanity than that these people will continue to try to improve their situation. They will do this the only way they know how; by taking from and destroying the natural environment. If they are not stopped then humanity will face extinction.

So, the need for change in the form of a spiritual revolution is already knocking on the door whether we like it or not. The only choice we have in this matter is the degree we each want to become personally involved. So, there we have it champions! Thank you all for sharing in my adventures and I hope I have done a satisfactory job in sharing the lessons I have learned with you all.

Take care, bye now.

Click here to view images from Calcutta

Other articles in the series:

Volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest
of the Poor in Calcutta, India Part 1, 16 October 2000
Volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest of the Poor
in Calcutta, India Part 2, 23 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta, India Part 3, For the Benefit of all My Brothers & Sisters Who Survive by Begging, 31 October 2000

See also:

How to successfully remove violent and oppressive regimes by non-violent means; and how you can help to spread peace in the world
Satyagraha and the mysterious power of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violence
Paul Sinclair's charity fiction book Shanti the Grass-Eating Lion: a popular tale of non-violence and forgiveness. This family book is especially useful for children and young people.

If you are interested in volunteering in Calcutta or other homes run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity please visit their official website for volunteers.

Further information can be found in 'The Lonely Planet Guide to India' chapter on Kolkata.

An elderly lady watchs on as two volunteers
prepare for their work.

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© One World One People, 24 January 2002
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