Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Closing the Wealth Gap: A Lesson from India

Sunrise in Southern India

India is a fascinating place.  I think it is really difficult to understand this country without seeing it for yourself and experiencing the culture in the first person.  Though I have only been on the ground for a short period, I have witnessed enough to convince myself that I made the right decision by coming here.  Before arriving, I heard varied opinions:  "India is beautiful with a spiritual wonder about it;" "India is home to the poorest people in the's a sh*t hole and you will go once and never go back;" "India has an entrepreneurial quality about it...there is so much totally works for me;" "First suggestion about India:  DON'T GO (said to me by an Indian-American living in NYC)."  I actually have a bet with a naysayer friend in Hong Kong about whether I will return to this country after my first visit.  Nevertheless, I believe I will be back many times and he will lose the bet.

Rural village in Tamil Nadu
Some people believe India has already drowned in its own squalor and despair and will never have a meaningful voice on the world stage. They feel India's bureaucracy will further induce a snail-like climb out of poverty and the country will lag behind the widespread advancement and burgeoning growth that the rest of the emerging world is experiencing (particularly that of its neighbor China).  I am beginning to take a step back from this argument.  India's bureaucracy and dated ways of conducting business may prove to be its saving grace. Pardon

To put it into perspective, India's economy (in terms of GDP) is a tad smaller than Canada's, and its GDP per capita is about the same as Iraq's.  It is a country with a population that is 4 times that of the United States in a space that is one 1/3rd  the size.  In today's world where economic growth is a necessity fueled by lax monetary policy and irresponsible credit expansion, India has marched to the beat of a different drum.  Their Reserve Bank is far more strict and less accommodating.  Their value system and work ethic is strong and they do not lean solely on exports the way the rest of Asia does.  India has real domestic demand (something quite foreign to Americans)!  They also have their own music (ranging from the ancient period of the Mughals to the modern age of A.R. Rahman), movie stars (Amitabh Bachchan is a combination of George Clooney and Robert De Niro…a legend here), sports teams and you can be sure that they will not be airing their own version of MTV's "Teen Mom" anytime soon.

So what is the point?  Despite some of the positives I mentioned above, India is the world's poster child for economic inequity and social inequality.  Some estimates state that 40% of the population falls below the poverty line (which is an income of about $1.25/day).  I recently spent some time interacting with Dr. Abraham George about the dynamics of this country and it led us to the impetus behind him founding Shanti Bhavan, a school located in Tamil Nadu, India.  The school aims to educate the children of India who come from the most dire conditions (these children come from the 'untouchable' caste, the lowest class of society that is highly discriminated against).  His belief, which has become mine too after having spent time at his school teaching the kids, is that in order to combat the widening gap between the wealthiest whales and the poorest paupers, one must introduce quality education to those who need it most...and this is precisely what he is doing.

This school is a model that can be applied not only in India, but anywhere in the world where the concept of "the rich get richer" is becoming a tiring reality.  Sound familiar?  Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Albania, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and eventually the United States, can all afford to take a critical look at education for the poor (and even those who are slightly above the poverty line).  These countries want change right?  The voice of change can be found within EDUCATION.   
6:30 am: I come to class and find the 12th grade like this
Dr. George’s attempt to strike at poverty is worth exploring on a deeper level as there is something very unique about it.  He begins with the poorest youths.  The children are selected at the age of 4, based on their level of poverty and their intelligence quotient.  They receive an education at Shanti Bhavan absolutely free of charge.  There are 200 children here between ages 4 and 18 who are willingly participating in an intensive curriculum that would make most American college students blush.  All the kids go to school for 6 days a week and the older students frequently attend classes from 6:30 am until midnight.  The children are humble and respectful and almost all of them have career goals. They don't bully, they are well-mannered, extremely cultured and are knowledgeable about current world events (their teachers come from all over the globe).

Their fluency in English and social etiquette are head and shoulders above the children in the villages where they come from, making them celebrity equivalents back home.  If their performance lacks and they do not show improved effort, the kids can be asked to leave the school.  This is not a good outcome, of course,  and it happens to very few of them. These kids do not have any other viable options - receiving an education at Shanti Bhavan has saved their lives.  Many of them would have never been sent to school by their families who are trapped under the heavy thumb of destitution.  Without this opportunity, many of the kids would have been forced into hard labor at a young age or even worse, been victims of physical abuse.   Shanti Bhavan pulled them from the grasps of enduring ignorance and gave them the chance to live their lives another way - devoid of poverty, full of hope, and one step nearer to closing the gap.

For more on how you can get involved in Shanti Bhavan (they need volunteers to come out and teach everything from accounting to music) please visit their website (HERE) and read the personal statements of some of their upcoming graduating class (HERE).  If you would be willing to make a donation, you can find the orange DONATE button on the left hand side of this blog.  As you can see, we have had a number of donations so far and we appreciate your support...these kids appreciate it even more.  

If education in Africa is also of interest, check out our friends' organization called PROJECT A.B.L.E, dedicated to promoting literacy for African youth.

(This posting has been edited by Shilpa Raj - 12th grade student at Shanti Bhavan and future author and journalist...any mistakes are Justin Golden's fault :)