Wednesday, May 30, 2007

India, Brazil and the US…Similar and Different?

I try to go for a walk most mornings, and I have noticed a phenomena ever since I started this habit. All over my neighborhood, in the city of Bauru, in the heart of the Brazilian state of São Paulo, can be seen people pushing huge carts full of cardboard, aluminum cans, and other recyclables. They push the carts themselves, or, if they can afford it, have a horse that pulls a makeshift carriage for them, which they load to the top with potentially profitable refuse. And you can see these people everywhere; they are almost a part of the scenery. Almost a caste.

I say almost a caste because every one of these “scavenger-hunters” of a sort come, invariably, from the poorest neighborhoods, or even more likely, favelas, of Bauru. They pay no taxes for their finds, receive no benefits for their toil, and are, in many ways, outside of society. They exist, but are, in many ways, throughout Brazil, invisible.

Which brings me to another invisible people, the untouchables of India. I will not go into detail describing the lifestyle of one of these outsiders, the lowest of the low in the caste-based society that is India. What I thought of today was this: how different is India from Brazil with regard to the poorest of the poor?

I recently read that the largest and most powerful state in India had just elected an untouchable for its governor. This is, in many ways, a monumental and stunning achievement and change in Indian society. Twenty years ago, as the New York Times article pointed out, this event would be unthinkable. However, India is modernizing, and although poverty is still horrendous throughout the country, some barriers are finally being overcome. One of them is the stigma that class brings to a people, especially the people traditionally considered dirty and pariahs.

Coming back to Brazil, I began to wonder if this type of sea change could ever occur in Brazil. I remember my mother telling me about a former maid that became a Congresswoman a few years ago. I, myself, have never heard of a favelada or slum-dweller, ever making it to federal politics. It just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, the same families seem to produce the political class. And the cycle continues. So, can Brazil call itself a democracy, where every individual has a voice in government? I have to answer a resounding no.

Turning to the US, my country, I would have to answer the same resounding ‘no’ to the same question: is The U.S.A. a democracy, and can anyone play a part in the governing of the country, no matter what class they come from? Just take a look at how many millionaires are in the Presidential race.


Kid Radical said...

Thanks for this post, Dan. It teaches and provides a perspective not seen in America. Keep it up.

philasurfer said...

Very interesting perspective, I really enjoyed reading that post.

The Economist had a really good feature on "Cities" a few weeks ago. It talked about "slum dwellers" all over the world. India, Africa, South and Central American. It was eye opening, both the level of poverty and the greed of some members of society who benefit from the existence of slums.

Interestingly, they pointed out that the slums are actually, in some capacity, not sad and tragic places. The people are generally happy and content. (thats coming from the economist, I don't know how true it is)

I also like the idea of an army of recyclers attacking a city, albeit out of necessity. It reminds me of can collectors, who I happen to think are living a somewhat noble existence.

Great post Dan.

Daddydan said...

Thanks guys for the comments. I do think that thre is a lot to learn from the "slums" of the world. i look forward to reading Planet of Slums by Mike Davis when I get up to the US in July. And meeting up with you guys to talk at length about all of these ideas we discuss.

Kid Radical said...

Hey Philasurfer,

Never thought of can recyclers like that? They are providing quite the environmental service. They have stopped going through our garbage since Nicole is such a recycling obsessor, but good point.