Physics of Poverty series by Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance Ltd.
As I write this column Pongal is being celebrated with fervour around Chennai. Pongal is a giving of thanks for the harvest, a celebration of the cow and a renewal of hope. For most of India this is not an abstract symbolism of a bygone way of life but anchored in a day to day reality. Yet I wonder about the joy of Pongal when crop yields are among the lowest in the world, our milk yields lag most Asian countries and farmer suicides are constantly in the news.
Where does the hope come from? On the first day of Pongal – Bhogi Pongal – it comes from worshipping Indira in the hope that it will bring good rains in the next year. The second day it comes from the worship of Surya for an abundance of crop and the third day is a dedication to the cow that gives so much of itself. And then of course let’s not forget the hope of the free Pongal bags and bonuses given out by the State government. After thousands of years of these prayers, and decades of government freebies, it appears to me that altogether this strategy is just not working.
When my father was alive, long before I got involved in microfinance, I would accompany him at times to the villages where he would gather people just to share his point of view. As a child my father spent his holidays in his native village. He was also the first of his family to travel to the United States for graduate study. The contrast gripped him. He would tell the villagers about the American pilgrims and how they got together and took responsibility for their own progress. How they built and ran their own schools and hospitals. They didn’t wait for the Gods, or the government.
So in 2003 my father started a project he called ‘Village Mission’, the idea being to galvanise villages to take responsibility for their own progress by providing seed grants and management guidance for services (such as a small clinic and vocational training centre) that they would run in an operationally sustainable way. The economics worked out on paper. When I inherited these projects in 2004 I spent hours in the two villages where the pilot was in progress talking with the village head and various key people. Yet they would not take responsibility for it, even though they all agreed that these were essential for the village and had come up with their wish list themselves. ‘You build and run it.’ they would tell me. ‘Our people will worship you as a God.’ The pilot failed.
In thinking about this failure I realize it’s not that people are lazy but that so much of our cultural ethos as a country is built around waiting for God and government. At the extremes our village folk take vows of hardship and expend tremendous energy in the desperate hope that their wish will be granted; going so far as to roll in the hot sun for hours or put hooks in their backs and drag stuff around. No surprise when our mythology and tales revolve around elusive Gods granting boons for sacrifice and penance. And our news revolves frequently around announcements of government subsidies and freebies.
Contrast that to the classic Americana that carries the legacy of the pilgrims. Bob the Builder exhorting to eager toddlers ‘Can we build it? Yes we can! Can we fix it? Yes we can!’, and past President John F. Kennedy urging its citizens to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’.
Culture matters. It’s what determines the nature of conversations that take place and what gets done – the system dynamics. And the jury is out; a culture of waiting for God and government is not a culture of progress.
So maybe it’s time to change our stories and create more role models of progress. And instead of a frenzied worship for rain and good yield and a celebration of the fruits of our physical labour, perhaps it’s time to begin celebrating the fruits of our minds.