Philosophy of the Poor

Mar 14, 2010

"They may be non-philosophers, but they too are philosophers. Only they do not know that they are."

A grieving mother said to me, "My daughter always asks me for a new pair of shoes for the festival. I could do nothing. So I took a pair of shoes from the garbage, washed them, and patched them. I went begging to get sausages for my child to celebrate the feast."

"I had come to Mumbai 10 years ago. I lost my two children due to lack of health care. Saddened by their deaths, I came over to Pune. The contractors don’t pay me well. My aging parents are in my village. I cannot visit them as I have no money. I stay in a tin house in Viman Nagar (Pune)," says Ashok, a mason.

George Boyston calls our world "The Hungry Planet," describing the widening gap separating the 450 million well-to-do inhabitants of the globe from those one and a half billion who are deprived of basic necessities.In India about 300 to 400 million people live below the poverty line. There are 15 million living exclusively in the slums. More than 40% of slum dwellers are illiterate, with women, tribals and scheduled castes most affected, said a BBC survey. One quarter of the world’s poor is in India. Maharashtra itself accounts for 60% of Indian slum dwellers, with almost 71.5% living in houses, 1.8% under sheets, 0.7% in huts and shanties and 71.7% without electricity. The world’s largest slum is in Dharavi (432 acres) in Mumbai.

Recent analysis says, 13.6 million and more in India are poor or getting poorer. There has been a 2.1% dip in India’s GDP growth, meaning that there has been 2.8% increase in poverty figures compared to 2004-08 data.

Being poor, or poverty, is not a major preoccupation of hundreds of public officials, state ministers and social workers. It is the voluntary groups and social welfare agencies who have sought to provide opportunities and methods to remove poverty. One-fourth of Indians earn less than 20 rupees a day.

Poverty = economic inequality

"When the rich wage war it is the poor who die," said Jean-Paul Sartre. They seek re-humanization. But their grievances curtail their hope to liberty. Industrialization has a great say in the state of affairs of a country. The less-developed areas of most nations (including India) contain 2/3 of the world’s population. In this set-up there are two approaches to the problem:
1. Industry – gives money directly into the hands of the needy, through meaningful employment.
2. Government – increases limited resources to satisfy the needs of all, through taxation of the rich.

To combat poverty is not easy. The shoemaker, the auto-driver, the vegetable-seller, the construction-worker and the slum-dweller tend to stagnate or remain where they are. Life on earth seems to improve only for the affluent. "The poor are traumatized for life. They are laughed at. They experience shame, blame, hunger and pain," says Franz Fanon. "It is an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage."

My four-month stay in the slums gave me an opportunity to be with these people. That gave me a desire to write about them. I realized their rich philosophy. I began to have a renewed outlook towards them, having shared their aspirations and anxieties and I wish to share and appreciate the rich philosophy they have.

Now I know, that in order to understand the philosophy of such people, one needs to personally know their own feelings and experiences. Paulo Freire, referring to such simple people, says, "They may be non-philosophers, but they too are philosophers. Only they do not know that they are." They actually have a very good critical sense.

Have we ever realized what a poor person feels? To understand how they perceive themselves in the world and in history, is to understand their struggle for social change. We need to understand their fears, dreams, anxieties and worries. Intellectuals must humble themselves to experience the struggle for social change, by taking a stand alongside them. All that the poor hope for is justice and solidarity.
We need to go where such people are – merging with the governmental and non-governmental organizations which are involved in working with them.

No one is pre-destined to be poor. All are called to humanization. Humanization is seeking to "be more," not "have more" said Gabriel Marcel. Actually the oppressor is dehumanized by dehumanizing the oppressed. Today there is a great need to understand the philosophy of the poor in order to be able to work with them effectively. We must give the poor a chance to live their own philosophy of liberation, to dare to be.

The main problem today is power which curtails change. Postmodernist Lyotard rightly pointed out that mini-narratives cannot express themselves fully in the struggle for superiority. We have a challenge before us – to listen to the unheard voices of the voiceless.

When I speak of the poor I mean slum-dwellers, construction workers, pavement dwellers, daily wage-earners, dalits etc. Do the poor have a philosophy of their own? Are not the Ambanis, Birlas and Tatas getting more limelight and say in the governing of our nation? Are there people who dare to stop and listen to the philosophy of the less privileged ones, the poor?

Who are the poor?

The Poor’ is a label that is attached to the lower income group of a region. Poverty is defined as insufficiency of basic needs to live an average life of survival. They experience severe economic deprivation. The poor are those millions who suffer daily, due to a lack of justice.
To understand the poor is to feel what they feel, their fears, anxieties, dreams and aspirations. They perceive reality different from us.

The poor perceive the OTHER as similar to themselves at the human level. They feel at home with those who care for them. They express solidarity with those who voluntarily share their suffering. They expect help from the powerful and well-to-do. They seek harmony and peace. They feel insulted when evicted at regular times from their shanties by the government. Lack of education cripples them when they meet others. They feel inferior.

The outside world seems challenging and beyond their reach. They feel that it is unjust. They feel deprived of basic necessities by the rich from whom they have to literally beg. They do not have easy access to hospitals in times of ill-health. They feel deprived of basic happiness by the rich. They demand better facilities from the government. They have high respect for guests and visitors. They even sacrifice their own food to make a guest feel at ease. They wish that one day the world would come to accept them and realize the pain and sorrow of hard living.

Their Perception of God :

In spite of their state they believe in a just and caring God who sustains them in the midst of misery. They feel that God is not allowed to bring prosperity to them because of the hard-hearted rich. They do not actually blame God for their misery, but the well-off. They accept everything in life as God’s will. Prayer and faith in the providence of God helps them accept life one day at a time. They do not worry about tomorrow for they know that God will provide. Festivals are a time for them to forget their grief and renew their hope. They never forget to perform the traditional rituals, for they believe that these bring them solace and peace.

Their Perception of Work :

Work is life for the poor. They work hard daily with the hope that they will one day live independent happy lives. Everyday labour and low wages make them curse life. They work hard and with sincerity. They try to win the trust of the landlord and the employer. They feel that substantial income can come from having more earning members in the family. Women feel diminished when exploited at work. Strenuous work leads to ill-health.

They have great love for virtues. The little they have makes them appreciate kindness as a great virtue. They feel privileged when asked for help. They feel insulted when branded as lazy, robbers and good for nothing. They experience simple joys from time to time. They are open-minded in sharing their struggles. They inspire us through their perseverance.

Addiction plagues their family life. Alcohol looms as a means to escape their battle with hardship. They have to sometimes sell their bodies to obtain food. Due to their low income they find it difficult to educate children. They find it difficult to save money. More money in hand is spent lavishly. They find saving money as a meaningless activity.

Pioneers in their philosophy :

A great number of people have striven to understand the condition of the poor by unearthing their rich philosophy. Karl Marx tried to attack the cause of poverty; Che Guevara tried the rebellion animated by love. Martin Luther King Jr. worked against the effects of discrimination. St. Peter Claver showed us one of the effective ways of working for their upliftment by being one with them. Mother Teresa sought to help cast-off the effects of unjust society. Amartya Sen analyses politics and economy to seek justice to the poor.
The experience of the poor is unique. Their strength lies in their generosity, spirituality, equanimity, open-mindedness and spirit of service. But at times they struggle because of their family size, location, addictions driven by frustration, low wages, female-headed families, physical disabilities and lack of average education.


Sharad Joshi in his article, "The Great India-Bharat Divide," said that there are "refugees from Bharat in India." But have we ever realized that it is these Bharatiyas that make our living easy? A renowned hard head, Lord Bauer, in 1961, in his first book, "Indian Economic Policy and Development," commented that beggary on the streets of India and Pakistan is not a proof of poverty.
‘Poverty’ needs to be meaningfully tackled. Humans are the most developed of all, but how many live at that level? Why is there so little concern for others? The longing, of the poor today is to be responded and helped. They long for meaning and healing.

Among the poor, a small number are very successful in escaping from poverty, on their own but never completely. Yet the vast majority remain as they are, reports the Commission on the Income Maintenance Programme. The social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom, it must grow everyday towards more humane values.

The community development approach to fight for rights seems very fruitful and effective. Self Help Groups (SHG’s) are of great assistance to the poor, for they re-vision them to saving money for their upliftment. We need to be with them and raise them up, with their own gifts and philosophy, help them discover their rich values and restore their lost dignity and respect.

But without understanding the philosophy of the poor this will be counterproductive. Their view of the OTHER, World, God, Work, Values and Money must help us feel their struggle for justice. The non-verbal language of the poor reveals marvels about their abilities and disabilities. To be with the poor involves leaving our thrones of power and comfort, to help build another possible world, to tune our ears to the unexpressed murmurings of their hearts.

Today we are called to be (4 P’s) – Prophetic Proclaimers Pioneers & Partners in living the pedagogy of the wretched.

It is also worth to recall the words of US President Barack Obama, "Change we can, change we must and change we will." We have to open our eyes to accept the fact that the poor, too, are humans with the same feelings and aspirations as ours.

The episode of the poor widow and Ezekiel in the Bible, is relevant here. No one, except she, offered a meal flour to the prophet. In the same way, the poor are known for their generous offerings.....We have great things to learn from them.

Poverty is not just the struggle of one section of society but must become the struggle of all. Poverty is not the problem; the problem is rather the fact that the rich have power to control policies that affect the poor. They, in effect dehumanize the poor in order to enjoy the major benefits of society.

We need to be re-humanized. Remember, the oppressor is dehumanized by dehumanizing the oppressed. There needs to be a transition from socialism to selfless love. The philosophy of the poor speaks to us of fruitful living, not just misery and pain. It is up to us to be one with them and understand them. We must seek the well-being of others by ‘being more’ rather than ‘having more.’ Their dehumanized cry needs to be heard.  We need not be able,  bold  and radical as Sr. Rani Maria, Fr. A T Thomas SJ, Archbishop Oscar Romero or Bishop Helder Camara. Each of us needs to discover or invent a personal effective approach that our heart in dialogue with the spirit, according to the needs of the time.Let us respect the poor.

Lancy Fernandes - Archives:  


by Lancy Fernandes - Pune
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Comment on this article

  • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

    Wed, Mar 17 2010

    Mr. Shahnawaz Kuttikatte, you always wrote very rational
    and thought provoking comments.
    I do agree with you that hunger
    and conversion are two subjects
    apart. All religions teach about
    charity. Religion has cuased more
    bloodshed than any other ideology,
    and the politicians are too smart
    to use "religion" for promoting
    their political game plan.

    We are faced with a serious
    problem of hunger, and masses of
    helpless people are in front of us.
    Mr. Lancy Fernandes writes articles
    from time to time to expose the
    deplorable conditions of the
    poor. God is giving us Sun light
    and rain, and God has appointed
    each and every one of us to
    help the helpless in some capacity,
    so that the will of God can be
    put into action. As you have
    stated in one of your comments,
    let every religious follower read
    their sacred books. If they read from top to the bottom, then they find where
    they can help the needy. If the
    rich can sacrifice a little bit of
    their waste and unecessary
    consumption, that amount is far
    enough to help the helpless people
    by the millions.

    Adam's son Cain got jealousy towad
    his brother Abel, and slew him.
    God knew it, but asked Cain
    "where is Abel thy brother"?
    The reply was very sarcastic
    "Am I my brothers's keeper? If
    we believe that Adam is the forefather of humanity, then we
    have an obligation to watch for
    our brothers and sisters.
    If we can nail our ruthless selfishness, then we can
    help many, and it is so simple

  • shahnawaz kukkikatte, dubai/udipi‏

    Tue, Mar 16 2010

    Conversion is not the solution to eradicate poverty.

  • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

    Tue, Mar 16 2010

    Mr. Sridhar, I do agree with you
    that we must give opportunity to
    the poor to work and to make them
    self-sufficient. To the vast
    unemployed and disabled people of
    India, how that is possible? Neither
    all the suffering people are capable of working, nor they are
    getting any opportunity to
    work. If we help a healthy person
    and if he is not interested to
    work, leave him or her alone. We
    are talking about the totally
    helpless people. If we don't
    help them, who will help them?
    God has appointed us to help them,
    and if we fail do to so, we are
    missing the opportunity of service
    and blessings.

  • Edward, India

    Tue, Mar 16 2010

    Corporates should be allowed to sponsor towns and cities like providing basic educational facilities as per prevailing rules, organise medical facilities, power, drinking water conduct career guidance/ vocational training etc as they have lot of experience and resourceful and staff who have great knowledge in their fields. This will result in some sort of advertisement for the Corporate and at the same contributing to a social cause.
    Our educational system should be more practical oriented and our children need better awareness/vocational guidance from the experts.

  • umar`, Abu Dhabi

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Really very nice and intresting article. has to be appracited. Inian government has to work on it,

  • adshenoy, mangloor

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Its the rich who thrive on the poor by making a cetain segment of the society poor and remain poor. There is enough wealth to feed all if the rich are not greedy.

  • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Dr. Bob Pierce was a camera man for NBC (National Broadcasting Co). He was in Korean war as a reporter, and when he saw the suffering of Korean war in 1953, he prayed a simple prayer " Jesus, let your eyes be in my eye sockets to see the sufferings of the people as you could see". A small organization was started, and later on it became the largest Christian humanitarin organization, "The
    World Vision".

    Taking the first step in any adventure is the hardest step, but the rest of the steps are easy to
    take. As Mr. Max Sequeira has stated, let us help the people just across the street who are in
    dire need of a good meal, a pair of clothing/sandals to the needy.
    I have found that when I give to the needy, I get the greatest joy of life.

    When I came to the U.S. as a student, I used to collect used clothings and mailed to people in
    my village. Even though I couldn't do much, several hundreds shirts were shipped. Later on in life,
    I met the top person of a national shirt company, and he has given me more brand new shirts as free
    since 1975.

    When we serve the poorest of the poor, we have two promises from God. We will be spiritually
    blessed through the joy of giving, also as we give, we receive from God, because God is not a debtor
    to anybody. When we buy 10 pair of fancy clothings to our son or  daughter, buy nine for them and
    give one pair to somebody who is poor, then see the miracle behind it. God's promises are true.

  • shridar, mangalore

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Give a person fish and you feed him for a day but teach him to fish you feed him for a life time The best way for the upliftment of the poor whom is mentioned of having only 20 rs per day would be to provide job which is in plenty in almost all the southern states where on an average a person can earn above 150 rs /day.
    right direction training and leading them to this would be the best thing anyone could do

  • L Fernandes, Mangalore

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Thought provoking article. Keep it up Lancy.

  • Max Sequeira, M'lore/Bahrain

    Mon, Mar 15 2010

    Excellent article. now that we understand who poor are and what they expect from us, it is time to act. we get opportunities everyday to help the poor. there are people come for help in cash or kind, we must take these opportunities and help as much as we could. you may not get such opportunites if we keep it for tomorrow because no one has seen tomorrow. Also let us make time to search who needs help. it is easy if one makes a habit of visiting slum areas, orphanages, old people's homes, villages and even hospitals where people are desperate for help. We have so many churches in India and these are the ideal places from where we can offer help.

    A charity fund for people in need can be opened and people who are in dire-straight can reach these centres easily. If we turn our churches into devotion and charitable centres, atleast some help can reach the poor. Our churches began with these values but are fast losing the importance of being charitable. the only other option is to join the NGO organizations and doing the best that we could.

  • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

    Sun, Mar 14 2010

    It is an interesting article, and
    those people who have a heart of
    compassion can ponder the matter
    seriously, and do something about it.

    When I went to visit the slums of
    Delhi, I have witnessed what is
    suffering and real hell on earth! Delhi alone has more than 3 million
    people living in slums. The slum
    house is 12x15 or 9x12, and a colony of hundreds of
    houses joined together. They may have
    a tube well for thousands of people
    of that slum. The filth and smell
    will create nauseating feeling.
    Calcutta may have the largest
    slum in India and in the world.

    While travelling by train from
    Pathankote to Delhi (8 hour journey) by train, I could witness
    hundreds of small slums by the
    side of the train track, and they
    are not counted in the list.

    India is growing as a economic
    power, but the poor people of the
    slums are pushed back from the
    mainstream, and they are totally ignored. Until, the compassionate
    hearted people make an earnest
    effort to help one person at a time, we can't solve this problem.
    I have cried most the time while
    watching the suffering of those
    people, it is indeed heartbreaking.

  • Lavina Pinto, Dubai/Mangalore

    Sat, Mar 13 2010

    Well written article!! Only pray Almighty to open our hearts and be generous to needy people. Let our selfish motive be removed forever.

  • Antony D'Cunha, Permude/Muscat

    Sat, Mar 13 2010

    This article is an indepth analysis of ground realities and perhaps an eye opener for all of us to start contributing for the well being of down trodden.

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