Walking from Calcutta to California: Poverty in Perspective

In Climate Change, Development, Economics, Life in India, The Big Picture by Vijay Jayaraj0 Comments

Walk in the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and you will barely find space to move. Walk in the streets of some cities in California and you will barely meet a soul on the road. Two completely different worlds, with a simple reason for the difference—poverty and wealth.

My first week in San Jose, CA was rather amusing. Unlike the cities of Vancouver and Norwich, in which I previously lived, the outskirts of San Jose had limited public transportation, which is understandable given the high reliance on cars for transportation.

More often than not, I would be the only person walking down the street, and the only person waiting for a bus—actions for which my fellow Millennials must think I’m crazy. Why don’t I use Uber or Lyft they think? Only a week earlier, I was in the crazy streets of India where walking space was premium, and owning a car is considered a luxury for many middle class.

In fact, nearly 80 percent of people in India’s metro cities travel on foot every day for distances up to half a mile. In some cities, people walk up to 6 miles for work, spending almost 4 hours of their day walking to and from their office.

One of the major factors is the affordability of private and public transportation. While most cities in India have affordable low-cost public transportation, two of its metro cities were ranked among the top ten least affordable public transportation systems globally.

The situation is, of course, worse in rural areas. Worldwide, nearly a billion people walk more than a mile to access clean water. India is no different, with severe droughts forcing rural women to walk many miles to collect water.

Data released in 2014 by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) show that 54 percent of rural women had to travel up to three miles daily to get drinking water. Even worse, 300 million Indians live in extreme poverty, without any source of stable income, and unable to afford enough food to stave off hunger.

The major factor for this glaring difference is the economic state of the respective countries.

San Jose is a wealthy city, in a wealthy state, in a very wealthy country, benefitting from the fruits of the Industrial Revolution which made the United States of America the superpower it is today. Calcutta on the other hand represents a typical under-developed city in a developing nation that is struggling economically.

It should be straight forward to think that India would have the same expectations of economic growth that the West so enjoyed in the past century, especially since without it the country will not be able to rise out of poverty.

Unfortunately, environmental alarmists, the Obama Administration, the United Nations, and many Western Powers disagree.

Restrictive energy policies are being forced upon developing nations, like India, in the name of climate change mitigation. These anti-fossil fuel energy policies will consign billions of poor people to continued poverty and death, even while the science behind alarmist claims is proven to be less and less reliable.

Places like California or Washington D.C. can’t understand the poverty and economic struggle developing countries face. In fact, the very definition of poverty is different in California and Calcutta. Imagine trying to explain absolute poverty to someone who thinks it’s a terrible day when their cell phone isn’t working properly.

While the poor in California may not be able to afford a car, the middle-class in India often can’t afford even public transportation, let alone a car. Western nations have no right to tell countries like India what it can and cannot use to fuel economic growth. Westerners are not dying of starvation and exposure to the elements, we are.

Cars are great. But Calcutta, and India as a whole, needs more rapid independent economic growth that would save those who are at the brink of poverty and death. Maybe one day, her citizens can dream about travelling in a car with their family, but right now, many of them just dream of food.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.S., Environmental Science) is the Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He currently lives in Udumalpet, India.

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