The Ignominy of Being Poor in an Emerging Asia

Everybody's talking about Asia's meteoric rise, set against the apocalyptic backdrop of a crumbling Eurozone and the rhetoric of a done-for-good American economy, but why is it so hard to look behind the number-crunching banners of Asian economies that hide a worrisome reality.

One that speaks of a glaring socio-economic intolerance that stems from growing income disparities and which rocks the cradle of social inequities that Asia has become synonymous with.

Pepsi drinkers in India, today, easily outnumber those with access to clean, drinking water. Finding a working polyclinic in rural Indonesia, Thailand or Cambodia would be far tougher than procuring aphrodisiacs made out of crushed exotic animals. Paved streets are light years away in many parts of Asia. And those that exist have people pissing on them in the absence of access to proper sanitation. Travelers who have walked through the stinky lanes of New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Karachi and Islamabad, know exactly what I am talking about.

Everyday, thousands do it nonchalantly. No sweat at all.

But who cares? Asian politicians? Not at all. In fact Asian GDP junkies have learnt by now, how to manoeuvre their luxurious sedans through the stench of piling trash and human waste.

While it's true that emerging Asian economies have seen many cross the poverty line, a cursory glance still finds millions living a pitiable life. And as if living an undignified life was not punishment enough, poverty itself has been made an excuse by the 'haves' in Asia to disregard the 'have-nots'. To be poor in an emerging Asia is now an unspeakable misdemeanour, worse than it ever was. For countless Asians, poverty's curse is homicidal and far more embarrassing than any known Asian taboo.

There is an appalling tolerance among the noveau rich for social anomalies such as bribery, dowry, arranged and forced marriages, female infanticide, honour killings and child labour, but no place for the poor and destitute. Poverty's scorn in metropolitan Mumbai or Manila is boorish and the indignity, piercing.

For an impecunious person living under the shadow of absurd amount of foreign direct investments and scores of decked-up Asian headquarters of multinational companies, poverty puts a debilitating price on one's mere existence. One that enslaves the desperately poor either as domestic servants, dishwashers, rag-pickers or even as bonded child laborers.

Born and brought up in Asia, I have either lived in or visited Asian cities that have unfailingly displayed disdain and contempt for the indigent. Hiring a haplessly poor woman at ruthlessly low wages, to work as a domestic maid and clean toilets, is taken for granted in many parts of South and East Asia. No shame, no remorse at all.

And this intolerance for the deprived has only increased with every striking headline of the rising GDPs. On top of it, this economic intolerance of the poor has cemented all prevalent racial, religious, political, social and gender based prejudices and discrimination that plague Asian societies.

While I do see more Mercedes and BMWs on the streets of India as many news reports indicate, I also see countless sleeping inside sewer pipes and sniffing industrial glue to beat hunger. For the downtrodden, the story remains the same; whether it is Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, China or Thailand.

Poverty brings with it a disclaimer that robs the underprivileged of their basic dignity, respect and human rights. With a dismal human rights record, there isn't much hope for the victims of economic discrimination in Asia.

So we see mansions built by construction workers who retire at night to their huts made out of disposed plastic bags and packaging material, super-fast highways laid down by men and women who toil relentlessly, all for one meal a day, and state-of-the-art luxury hospitals erected by those who have no access to health care and are guaranteed to be shooed away from these deluxe hospitals the moment they become operational.

Wealth is being churned at a pace that shocks business journalists and titillates private fund managers; yet, it remains concentrated within a few iron hands. No wonder, despite amassing huge fortunes not many Asian multi-millionaires have come forth to share their bounty or create growth opportunities for their fellow citizens. The Li Ka Shings, Azim Premjis and Narayana Murthys are between few and far. Where have the rich and proud Indian and Chinese CEOs CFO's and venture capitalists gone into hiding?

It is estimated that over 100 million Indians, mostly urban middle-class families, piggybacked on India's rising fortunes and leapfrogged to a better standard of living. However, the remainder of over a billion are yet to experience electricity, drinking water, health care and sanitation. In interior mainland China, millions are yet to be a part of its remarkable growth story, despite their city cousins toting around with Armani and Gucci handbags.

The Indian rickshaw-puller, Chinese sweat-shop worker, Vietnamese paddy field farmer and the Indonesian mason are not at all concerned, whatsoever, with the disintegration of the Eurozone or the toxic debts of American banks. Not even with President Barack Obama's re-election bid.

If only they could somehow escape the indignity of being caught in the wealth gap just for one day, they could live that day of their life honourably.