Some of you might have seen this brief article in last week’s Straits Times (August 10, 2010, Page A17; cited in New York Times) on poverty in India and how the country faces the challenge. I do not usually get to see much news of India, but when I do see something, I make it a point to read all of it, and if it is worth keeping I will keep a cut out of it. The sad thing about this particular news is not the poverty itself, but the way the country is dealing with it. Those who visited India will know that begging and beggars are a common sight in cities and towns everywhere. The article seems to give some well researched data on the issues related to the problem of the poor. It says that ‘India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty- an estimated 421 million- than Africa’s 26 nations, according to the recently released Multidimensional Poverty Index.’ This means 42% of children under five being underweight the poverty and hunger indexes in India remain real cause of concern. The question being raised is, ‘India’s ability to improve the lives of the poor will likely determine if it becomes a global economic power and a regional rival to China, or continues to be compared with Africa in poverty surveys.’
This is worrying for me, because I have been hearing for decades, at least from the time of Indira Gandhi , with different national and regional political parties their favourite slogan in Hindi, garibi hatao! (‘Eradicate Poverty!’), but none seemed to have succeeded with it in spite of introducing various charitable projects. Why is this so? Honestly, some of them were genuinely aimed at benefiting the poor, while quite a few of them were politically motivated and the pros and cons of the system of handing out material benefits have not been thought through. The result was a failure of the system leading to a repeat of the projects all over again. Sadly, the problem is not with the resources or the variety of the programs, but with the system that has been riddled with corruption and inefficiency. The above article notes that ‘70% of about US$12 billion dollar budget is wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs’. Added to the problem, money lenders who readily provide loans for the poor at high interest rates exchange their ration cards for unpaid loans and buy grain at subsidized rates at 2 rupees (six Singapore cents) per kilogram and resell it for six times as much. This is just one of the issues. The other problem is a proliferation of fake ration cards. Investigators discovered 3,500 fake ration cards in just one district (Jhabua) in Madhya Pradesh of central India which has some of the world’s highest levels of poverty and child malnutrition.
Would the local authorities be ignorant of this problem? Again the paper notes that an official overseeing a child development program was arrested on charges of stealing money. There were even serious allegation against politicians but so far politicians were rarely convicted. To quote one example, over decade ago the chief minister of Bihar was charged with embezzlement of huge state funds about US$1.6 billion dollars, and was imprisoned. But he was soon released on the grounds that there was not enough evidence for the charges. Then he won the next elections again and became a very popular Railway Minister of the Congress government for his innovative strategies to run the system without loss. I remember his visit to Singapore a couple of years ago as a guest of honour at some state or NGO’s program. So the issue is one of a systemic corruption where the government, vendors of other services, and even the beneficiaries themselves form part of the problem.
Now my point is how do we Christians tackle the poverty in the world around us? I think this can be addressed in two ways. First, Christians must not just be law abiding good citizens and faithful taxpayers, but also must actively engage, as salt and light, with the corrupt policies and systems of the governments and communities they live in. I suppose this is what impacting the marketplace would mean. As you know, BGST has been helping in this respect by equipping the laity and developing a Christian mind among those who engage in marketplace. This would also mean that we continue to work at increasing our number in the marketplace by winning others to Christ. We need not be apologetic about it. This is as important as engaging with the systemic evils of the society. One of the reasons why there is so much corruption, illiteracy, poverty and malnutrition in those eight poorest states of India could be, in my opinion, there is very little Christian presence (less than 1%) in them. Christianity is known for its pioneering efforts in education and medical services in India for the last two hundred years. But since the 1980s foreign missions have been banned in India by government not renewing the existing missionary visas and by not issuing new missionary visas. The result was a phenomenal reduction in foreign funds. And the national churches, while having little or no concern for missions, have been plagued by internal politics and corruption. In 1978 on a New Year’s Day a Church of South India bishop and his wife were stopped in their car and set on fire just because the bishop refused to allow corrupt practices in the church. While the bishop suffered serious burnt injuries, his wife died soon after the incident. This is just one example which cannot be hidden because of the nature of the case, but there are many corrupt practices which never come out in the open.
Secondly, by sharing from our own resources God has given us. For decades most of the giving towards charitable projects has been coming from the so called Christian West (i.e. North America, and Western Europe). But from the last decade or so this has been changing. With average income levels falling, poverty, unemployment, and personal and national indebtedness are on the increase while problems of global warming, pollution and depletion of available energy resources are growing worse. In spite of these alarming trends, Americans, according to a survey in late 1980s and early 1990s, spent annually twice as much on cut flowers, women’s sheer hosiery, video games, skin care, chewing gum, and pinball machines as on overseas missions; three times as much on swimming pools and accessories, about five times as much on pets, seven times as much on sweets, seventeen times as much on diet and diet related products, twenty times as much on sports, twenty-six times as much on soft drinks, and a staggering 140 times as much on legalized gambling. ‘And in 1995 worldwide expenditures for advertising, mainly to convince us that all these are necessities, amounted to US$385 billion’ (C.L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 19).
But when it comes to giving to charity, Americans with lower income gave more than those with higher income, and the most generous are the senior citizens while the ‘baby boomers’ are often heavily in debt, having less disposable income despite their higher overall earnings. This trend according one author suggests a reversal of John Wesley’s epigram, ‘Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can’, to ‘Money will solve all your problems, go with the flow to make the dough, and spend all you can’. I think the growing middle class in the developing world is not far behind this kind of trend. In my opinion, the church in Singapore is doing well in giving toward charities and missions, mainly because of a consistent and long tradition of its gifted and committed leaders. The resolve of the civil government to run the country free of corruption adds to the equation even though not many of them profess Christian faith. Can this happen to the church and state in India? Yes, it can, the LORD helping. Singapore has convinced me that a leadership committed to corruption free governance can eradicate poverty irrespective of their religious affiliations. So this should be possible with any country, including India. Such an atmosphere will be a bonus for Christian activities and their contribution to the community.