The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 6, 2002
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The American dream and the Third World reality
Manohar Malgonkar

POLITICAL leaders all over the world must envy people like Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela for possessing what can only be described as a ‘stage presence’, of being able to project sincerity which makes their listeners go along with their views and beliefs. And the one man who positively crackles with that quality is Bill Clinton.

Even now, as an ex-President, he remains a crowd-puller; and when he makes a speech, we listen with rapt attention, swept into his way of looking at things; not raising doubts or asking questions.

A few months ago, Bill Clinton participated in a drive to boost the economy of Third World countries. I don’t remember his exact words but he was deeply concerned about the living standards of ‘developing’ countries. He found it difficult to believe that there were parts of the world where people did not earn more than $ 2 a day. It was not merely a matter of regret, but also of shame. Those of us who heard him shared his feelings too, as though they themselves had somehow contributed to the miseries of the Third World.

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Then, only a couple of weeks ago, I happened to read the views of a British journalist who had just completed a tour of South-East Asia. While in Pakistan, he had been taken round a carpet factory. Here, most of the workers were boys of school age. They were paid $ 2 a day, and he gave it as his considered opinion that if they could only multiply the number of such factories which provided employment for children at $ 2 a day, it would greatly reduce Third- World poverty.

It was this quite commonsense advice that brought the whole thing into proper perspective. What seemed disgracefully inadequate by American standards, was a more than decent wage in the developing world.

In the USA if you were to tell them that $ 1 a day was the proper wage for a daily labourer in some lands, they just won’t believe you. It’s a crime, a sin to be punished by their standards. Inhuman!

The Americans live at the other end of the planet from ourselves. Their view of life in the Third World countries is not only vague and distorted, but jaundiced by their own affluence. In the US, anyone who earns less than $ 8,000 a year lives below the line". In India, that sort of money, Rs. 4 lakh, is a dream-come-true; it represents the higher ranges of what we pay our public servants and army generals. Our university professors would be happy to make even 3 lakh a year, or $6,000.

And that $2 a day which most Americans cannot even relate to a man’s daily income is, by our standards, a fair if not generous wage for a factory worker in upcountry India. In my own neighbourhood, which is made up of tiny villages where farming is the main occupation, the going rate for a man is Rs 50 a day, or $ 1, women labourers don’t even get that. Here, that much-despised $ 2 a day is what a skilled worker makes — a tailor, a carpenter, a mason.

Given these statistics, those school-age factory hands in Pakistan who make $ 2 a day — which is Rs 120 in Pakistani money — are to be envied more than pitied — indeed they should be lauded and held up as models for teenaged children in other developing countries. They’re earning good money, they’re contributing handsomely to their family’s earnings, by beavering away at a conveyor belt turning out carpets to cover the floors of middle-class houses in Europe or America.

In America, as in the affluent countries of Europe, the very thought of child-labour is intolerably repugnant. Children should be either attending to their classes, or playing games. To make them work is inhuman — oh, absolutely! Those who employ children as factory workers run ‘sweat-shops’. These sweat-shops must be stopped and their workforce liberated so that they can be free to do what American children do — go to school and play.

But in poverty-stricken and overpopulated lands, education is a luxury which only the well-to-do can afford. In India, while virtually all boys and girls are sent to primary schools, barely one in 10 of them are still at school after the primary stage. The others have done with education. The boys start helping their parents on the farms or are sent out to mind the cattle; the girls learn to help with household chores in preparation to their being married off, before they’re out of their teens. Most of them achieve motherhood before they’re 20.

The ‘developing’ world is also overpopulated, and unemployment is staggeringly high. Army recruiting offices are thronged by able-bodied young men trying to enlist. Perhaps one in fifty succeeds. At the height of the Kargil war, some one started a rumour that they were taking in a large number of men into the army. That rumour caused stampedes and riots which the police had to quell with strong-arm methods.

In the USA and in Europe, they find it difficult to entice young men to join the armed forces.

The answer, as that British journalist sees it, is to set up more and more of those factories to produce consumer goods like T-shirts, carpets, toys and shoes, of good quality for half of what they would cost to make in America or France, and for which they have inexhaustible appetites and you have that inexhaustible work force in your jobless young men and women.

Piling horror upon horror! ... scream the Human Rights activists in America ... to make school-age boys and girls work in sweatshops on what we see as below subsistence-level wages. Our children would spurn that sort of sums as their daily pocket money. We’re warning you. Shut down those sweatshops so that those boys and girls can go back to schools. Now! .. or else!

Or else what? .... that’s just it. On issues such as this one, the American view always prevails. After all, it is they who hold the pursestrings. They can stop their businessmen from investing in your countries and even influence banks not to give you soft loans. After all, the economies of such countries as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan depend on transfusions of American dollars.

That is what has happened in Bangladesh. Many of those sweat-shops have been stopped, and their work-force told to join schools. From being their family’s breadwinners, they have become students. The trouble is that there are not enough schools to take in all of them, and they as well as their parents will have to skip a meal now and then — no more $ 2 a day!


This feature was published on September 22, 2002