Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.


Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.


Yoga: beyond physical well-being

The PubMed biomedical literature database reports a spurt in #Yoga research in recent years but > 90% of it relates yoga to health conditions.

In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Yoga (In search of yoga: Research trends in a western medical database) Marcy C McCall reports that while the first recorded yoga article in western medical research dates to 1948, authored by E. Abegg, there has been a surge in academic interest post-2007, with an average of 200 articles being added every year in recent times.  The article concludes by stating, ‘Systematic reviews and yoga trials are increasing, indicating a potential increase in quality of evidence. Three conditions show consistently high correlations with yoga research: stress/anxiety, pain, and depression. A significant rise in the number of cancer publications suggests an area of emerging research.’

Yoga has been described ‘as a safe and effective intervention to increase strength, flexibility and balance, and treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression, stress, and potentially asthma’ by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and by the National Health Services, UK.  It is less known that yoga seeks to align individual health with social health, which is in line with WHO’s definition: ‘Good health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the object of living, and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities.’

The Bhagavad Gita (verses 5.23 and verses 6.20 to 25) tells us that yoga helps us reconcile our aspirations with the outcomes, tolerate agitations that arise from desire, and recognise that expectations and disappointments are par for the course for sentient beings as long as they live.

The path of Yoga suggested by the Gita provides for the inescapable reality of expectations.  It also grants that it is natural to feel frustrated when these expectations are not met.  However, it counsels us to show forbearance in the face of such disappointments.  Yoga, says the Gita, helps us cultivate an endurance to the psychological pain akin to the fortitude with which we learn to bear physical pain.

Refining ‘reservations’ with a weightage matrix

It is an unequal world – there can be no two opinions about this. However, every civilised society commits itself to provide equal opportunities for all its citizens. The commitment would be reduced to pretentiousness if no effort were made to address the inequities or inequalities that are inherent in this world. Whether you call it reservation or affirmative action, some kind of headstart has to be provided for people who come from a position of disadvantage when compared to their peers. However, we have to be conscious that disadvantages are of various kinds. Besides physical and mental disabilities, there are historical deprivations, geographical, cultural, and material deprivations as well as deprivations for reasons of gender.

When we talk of socially deprived classes of people, the criteria generally used is a person’s caste, race or religion. Increasingly, there is recognition that economic deprivation cuts across social barriers and there could be poor in even the so-called ‘forward’ classes. In addition, those who hail from remote and rural locations are also deprived in many ways. Their exposure to technology and many aspects of modernity – such as use of the English language – could fall short of their more urbanised or mainland counterparts. Cultural capital, acquired by virtue of being born in a particular social milieu, gets compounded over generations. A first-generation learner, thus, could be at a far greater disadvantage than a second generation learner; a child growing up in an academic environment – say on a university campus, would probably be able to take to lectures and books like the proverbial duck to water; a person born into a family of traders may be a natural fit in an MBA programme, and so on.

Having blanket reservations for certain sections of society, hence, may not serve the larger purpose of providing equal opportunities for all. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in a recent Washington Post article  Finally getting it right on affirmative action, such reservation has the potential of ‘exacerbating group antagonisms, stimgmatising minority achievement and … damaging promising minority students by turning them disproportionately into failures at institutions for which they are unprepared’.

Under the circumstances, it may be pertinent to re-consider the discussion on the use of a weightage matrix, which has been mooted, off and on, as a potentially more justified attempt to provide equal opportunities for all. The matrix would have several components, with differential weightages that would, when seen in totality, help assess the extent of deprivation in a more holistic and equitable manner.

Socially backward sections of society can be given weightages based on the present classification based on schedules of castes and tribes as well as minority religions. However, there would also be weightage for other components such as extent of economic wellness, educational history of the family, and gender, with greater weightage in each class being given for a first-generation learner. Thus, for instance, a well-off first-generation learner from a scheduled tribe would get a greater weightage than a counterpart who is a second-generation matriculate, but could be on par with an economically backward first-generation general category candidate. The geographical distribution component – educated in rural, semi-urban or urban area, in a backward district or metropolis, in a progressive state or a state lower down on the development index, etc. – would also be an important marker of a candidate’s disadvantaged position vis a vis her peers as would the nature of employment of the candidate’s guardians.

As the number of factors that result in inequalities have multiplied in modern societies, it may be more equitable to invest thought in the creation of a matrix that better reflects the ground realities. Passively continuing with systems that were intended for a different age could result in a skewed kind of equality that leaves individuals better-off, while the opportunities remain as unequal as ever for the larger society.

‘The social harm inherent in discriminating by race’ that Charles Krauthammer warns of is a note of caution we too would benefit from heeding, and using, to work out solutions that would serve our society well, and in the long run, sustainably – that is, do the best for the present generation while at the same time ensuring we do not jeopardise the chances of future generations of our nation’s people and scar the national psyche.