When the urban poor beggar our economy

There was a time when the poor of our land were rich. Not in the way that the wealthy are rich, but in a more qualitative way that beggars description. They had the ear of policymakers, the heart and mind of a concerned society, and a helping hand from philanthropists. Today, they get the cold shoulder of politicians, grey goods and grey looks from half-hearted business-minded charities, and the opprobrium of the respectable middle classes - and just to add injury to insult, the heavy jackboot of a martial bureaucracy under orders to clean up the big city…

About time that someone did something about the poor of our land. Maybe evicting them from house and home in the larger interests of beautifying Greater Colombo is not the ideal recourse. But at least it has helped to rouse up civil society to a plethora of issues surrounding the stinking garbage pile that is the way we treat our erstwhile slum- and shanty-dwellers.

Firstly, that we treat them like dirt when we want to spruce up our cosmopolitan image. The irony is that at the best of times we hardly notice that some of our citizens are having the worst times of their lives. But come international commercial, sporting, or entertainment happenings - and the gecko drops from the ceiling into the rice porridge with an audible plonk and kersplat. Of course, something must be done… so that our distinguished and dignified foreign visitors will not notice - as if New York, New Delhi, and New Timbuktu had never before seen poor people living in squalor amidst more urbane environments. And just when it gets boring to transport our urban poor in and out of town and country, or housetrain them to impress gawking guests of government, some mandarin goes and invents the outwardly mobile poor… those unfortunates who are here today, gone tomorrow. Moved lock, stock, and barrel from city frying pans into country fires.

Secondly, that they are less than the dust under our chariot wheels when we want to tidy our streets and neaten our suburbs. They may have lived sub-civilized, substandard lives all their years; but these are not sub-humans - rather, priceless treasures in jars of clay whom we insist on awakening rudely and uprooting mercilessly virtually overnight. The trauma of their translocation is not ameliorated by the manner and courtesy of their eviction. Their makeshift homes may be health hazards, but no one with an ounce of common sense - leave alone a smidgen of compassion - would dream of accusing these vagabonds of volunteering to pitch their tent in places of excrement and effluent. Do we dare require - nay, demand - a tad bit more gentleness and understanding when dealing with their frustration at the radical (to them) challenges posed by Growth, Development, and Progress? A GDP they do not know, could not care less about, and blame it all on would-be time-servers who offer up an already lost generation of scavengers on the altars of alleged globalization!

Thirdly, that their relegation to the ash heap will cause not so much as a micro ripple in the middle class tea cups of the sanctimonious aesthetes from whose sophisticated presence these blots on the landscape are removed. There may be lucrative offers and numerous free lunches literally placed on the table when it comes down to a deal to secure prime property from influential interest groups and thriving upper class enterprises. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the so-called compensation packages are not worth the cheap paper they are signed on when the property to be moved happens to be a slum or a shanty town and not a prestigious private club. Bring big business into the picture of national infrastructure development and there will be a brouhaha that spreads from Hulftsdorp Hill to the houses of moguls where more than monetary considerations exchange hands. Because money talks to every stratum of society, the heads of households who are taxi-drivers - and not the carpetbaggers who often pass for captains of commerce and industry - the poor will always be the voiceless underclass underfoot. The misunderstood ill-represented nobodies that everybody who is somebody will gladly forget because it is a hassle to stand up for them and to speak out on their behalf as if they mattered.

This intolerable state of affairs will persist as long as governments are more generous with their growth plans than their constituents, profit is more important than humanity, and you and I write and read and turn the page as if nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark.

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