Misery and hunger in land of plenty

San Francisco Examiner September 25, 1991

Misery and hunger in land of plenty

Dwayne Hunn
Bombay sidewalk hutments.

“Buck sheis de do, shab?  Khanna mangta hai.  Boock laga  hai…” he said, as he tugged my hand.  He stood belt level and I  turned away after glancing at him.  He kept holding and tugging, as  the teeming masses of Indians moved beside us on the sidewalk.

“Boock laga hai, boock laga hai, tora khanna mangta  hai…” he said as he rubbed his stomach and tugged my hand.  I tried  to look  at him as we kept walking in the crowd.  In  training  they had  told us that we would have to decide how to handle  beggars.  In  training, they had told us that 1/2 of India’s  beggars  were purposefully maimed.

“How do they get a statistic like that, does the  government go around and ask, `Did you purposefully maim your kid?'”  I  had skeptically asked.

During  my first five minutes in the streets, I had  trouble starring into the face of this boy whose cheek had a whole in  it the  size  of a Kennedy silver dollar, ringed  with  pus,  sores, exposed  teeth  and ugly gums.   Ahead, curbside on  the  street, were skateboards that American kids careen around on for fun.  In Bombay  they  are used by kids without hands, ankles or  legs  to reach  the  car or taxi at the light, grab its  handle  and  beg, “Paise de do, shab…  Gorib admi, shab..”

The  homeless  and  poor seemed to be  everywhere.   In  the financial district of the city, where piles of garbage were  left to  be picked up early in the morning, I naively asked the  scavenger, searching the piles which the rats always worked,  what he was  doing.   A weak “Khana (food), shab,” was his reply,  as  he continued  slowly  searching the mounds of garbage.  On  a  train trip, I laid on my pack at a village station and watched a family with a pants-less child defecate diarrhea on the train  platform, and use his fingers to lick it.

As  a kid living on the poor side of Cleveland, I  met  only one  beggar, whose cut foot my mother cleaned after  she  brought him  into the house and fed him.  As a Peace Corps  volunteer,  I saw them maimed and crippled and begging all day, everywhere.

Of  course,  I got to see the Taj Mahal, Ajanta  and  Allora Caves and stuff a kid from a working class family would not  have had  the  vacation money to see.  Those tourist  sights  made  me develop  a simplified philosophy of why the India I knew  in  the late-60’s  had the human problems it had, and has.  To build  the palaces for the rich, and naturally cooled, hand carved caves for the  influential religious classes took a tremendous  number  of  manhours and resources.  Energy that was not spent on  irrigation systems, infrastructure and education.

Little  did I realize how some of those experiences  working on Urban Community Development in the slums of Bombay would  prep me  for  today’s America.  My first work site, the  Worli  Chawls slum had  water available for only an hour a day,  usually  with enough pressure to reach the 2nd story of the typical four  story tenements, from about 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.  If you lived on the third  or  fourth story, you bucketed water up to store  in  your water drums.

For  years now I have lived in affluent Marin County,  California,  where in recent years we were limited to 50  gallons  of water per day per person.  The I captured rain water in drums and saved shower water in buckets and bucketed it to some very  basic toiletry  needs.  Homelessness and  begging has become a  growing problem  in  Marin   and a bigger problem in  Big  Brotherly  San Francisco.

On a shrinking planet whose resources are limited and  whose population  is  pushing 5 billion  with an increasing  number  of homeless and hungry, there is little justification in doing  more Taj  Mahals, even if we had powerful S&L financing and  visionary Trumph leadership.  There is obvious justification for increasing irrigation systems, infrastructure and education worldwide.

My  two  years of oversees work reinforced  my  belief  that there is a tremendous need for expanding the Peace Corps overseas and  its  resultant  educational benefits at  home.   Working  on affordable housing and land use problems in the North Bay of  San Francisco for almost 9 years continually exposed me to  opponents of  affordable housing, whose view of the world is  dominated  by preserving what they got and only allowing more palatial  estates to  be built.  How their relatively powerful actions play on  the stage the rest of the world must live on matters not.  They  fail to  see  how the use of our land to support  and  provide  energy efficient transit modes and affordable ownership housing  impacts not only those near their county borders but those oceans away in our  shrinking and ecologically fragile planet.  The NIMBYs  (Not In  My  Backyard)  elect NIMTOs (Not In My Term  of  Office)  who usually produce LULUs (Less than Useful Land Uses) by doing DECME (Density Erasers Causing Million Dollar Estates) projects  rather than meeting the working people’s and the environment’s  housing, transit and community development needs.

The  Maharajas’  produced  Taj Mahals by edict.   We  do  it through  a  more democratic process of meetings that  produces  a veiled but often similar result.  To a Peace Corps volunteer  who has seen and sensed what wasted hours and resources can do, it is hard  to fathom why people would fight to add another 2%  of  Marin’s land to the 88% which is already in open space, agricultural preserve and parks; rather than support a rail oriented development that would provide affordable housing, child care and less car-dependent communities.

Failing  to  comprehend  such logic, I often  fall  back  to thoughts Kishore Thakar, an Indian friend, left me.  Referring to his own caste-and-class riddled society he said, “People need  to walk a mile in other peoples’ sandals to understand the toil  and misery that goes into living the life of those who struggle.  For those  who move about easily,  the blisters developed  from  that walk  remove both the calloused perceptions some have  of  others and the scales that blind their view of what their actions do  to others.  It would do the world good if more people who move about easily  served a few years doing what you Peace Corps are  trying to do.

“Buddhists believe that each life should bring more enlightenment  and less need for selfish desires.    If in this life  we do  not become enlighten over what our actions cause  to  others, then  our reincarnation should be to walk endless miles  in  the sandals of those upon whom our actions stepped most heavily.”

Dwayne Hunn is a Mill Valley free lance writer.


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