It’s bad reasoning, not human nature, that blinds us to the predicament of the poorby Amartya Sen / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Slum children scavenge in a dried-up creek in Mumbai. More than a third of India’s population survives on less than a dollar a day.
© Reuters/Arko Datta
For a person born in India, persistent encounters with poverty are inescapable. By the time I was nine, I had come to see poverty as a fact of life, even though I had not yet fully grasped how appallingly nasty extreme poverty could be. It was in my 10th year that the Bengal famine of 1943 erupted—four years before the end of the Raj—and the streets were suddenly full of dying people. Along with that came the inhumanity to which the famished destitute tends to descend.
I came from a middle-class, academic family; we were stretched but not endangered. I was allowed to give a small amount of rice to anyone who came to our door, but felt very sad that we could not give more. Seeing the starving men and women quarrelling with each other for their own share was as demeaning as it was disturbing. I remember an occasion when I was able to give a banana to an extremely emaciated woman with a severely skinny child on her lap. After peeling the banana, she instinctively put it into her own mouth, and then immediately pulled it out, and burst into a piercing cry, bathing her emaciated face in tears, as she gave the banana to her child. She looked at me, confused and lost, and said, “We are no longer human beings—our instincts are now worse than those of animals.”