Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Faith in the city


“Being hungry sucks.... Woke up today little disoriented, hungry and irritated. Was not a nice feeling – fell asleep again shortly after breakfast. And this is when my lifestyle otherwise is sedentary except for the evening run. Can only imagine the ordeal of someone who has to do hard labor on an empty stomach!”
--Blog entry on September 26, 2011, in http://rs100aday.com/ maintained “by two friends (Tushar Vasisht and Mathew Cherian) trying to bring to light the concerns of the average Indian through firsthand experiences”.

They were People Like Us who were born in middle class families, valued academic excellence and landed dream jobs. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Tushar Vasisht, as their website says, was an investment banker with Deutsche Bank in San Francisco and Singapore. Mathew Cherian holds degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Johns Hopkins University, and has experiences in hardware design, educational technology, and the Semantic Web. 
The duo met at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) project, and two years ago they embarked on a daunting initiative to find out for themselves what it was to live on Rs.100 a day for three weeks in Bangalore and Rs.32 a day for another week at Karukachal in Kerala.
Living on Rs.32 a day? Remember, the Planning Commission had given an affidavit in the Supreme Court on September 20, 2011, that Rs.32 was the limit for poverty line calculations. There are lakhs of people in India who do with even less.
Tushar and Mathew chose Rs.150 a day as the budget for the Bangalore experiment considering the mean national income of India at Rs.4,500 a month. They fixed Rs.100 a day after deducting one-third of that budget that would go for rent. It was goodbye to many things that they had been used to until then—car, maid, air conditioning, washing machines, refrigerator, meat, milk or milk-based products, soft drinks, and so on.
“Needless to say, the experiment was highly challenging for us – personally and professionally. We lost 2.5 kg and 6.5 kg of weight, respectively, during the month and found ourselves bound by various constraints and challenges,” they wrote in their blog.
To those of us who try to find the path to salvation through Lent fasting and philanthropy, the findings of their report would be an eye-opener. For instance, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the recommended daily intake for an Indian is 1,776 calories. But the young men could only consume anything between 1,300 and 1,600 calories with the resources they had. “As a result, we were lethargic, even without putting our bodies through the rigor a day laborer subjects his to.”
Other challenges they faced included the breakdown of social and professional networks (“missed calls” were all they could afford mostly) and lesser mobility (limited to a 5-km circle, walking everywhere as bus fares were unaffordable). Other economic necessities like the repair of a pressure cooker or medical expenses were unthinkable.

Daily bread 
India is home to a large number of the world’s hungry people. According the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2012, after a small increase between 1996 and 2001, India’s GHI score fell only slightly, and the latest GHI returned to about the 1996 level. This when India’s gross national income per capita almost doubled. Why do people still go hungry to bed even as incomes have doubled?
The fact is that the benefit of economic growth is only for a few. Our cities have grown unimaginably and so have the gap between the rich and the poor.
So, “making sure that food can be accessed by all the people requires that they have the purchasing power to buy the necessary food, which, in turn, means that employment, remuneration and livelihood issues are important” (‘The Political Economy of Hunger in 21st Century India” by Jayati Ghosh, Economic & Political Weekly, October 30, 2010).
A re-reading of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) will help us understand the social and economic implications of having a job, a living wage and the money to buy food. In short, the prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is for the provision of resources to everyone (us) and not an individual (me or my family) and protection against everything that hinders from enjoying them. Or, the onus is on the entire community to combat poverty and hunger.

Church and the city 
More often than not, we resort to prayers and charity (tithing) as the easy way out. Charity, obviously, is to relieve the suffering of a person in need. But it is no substitute for justice. Jesus himself said (Matthew 23:23): “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” The key here is justice and mercy.
Sometimes we are quick to offer simplistic solutions. The other day someone told me there would be no poverty in our State (Kerala) if everyone there stopped drinking. That stems from a lack of understanding of the causes of poverty.
Poverty is not the failure of an individual or group to be successful individuals; rather it is inflicted on them by a lot of factors. The class or caste one is born into determines his or her life’s chances—access to food, good education, decent housing or medical facilities. 
This ‘structural violence’ is so institutionalised that it is seldom recognised as violence. The Church has a role to create awareness about this structural ‘sin’ and get involved in the struggles for economic justice and food security.
In the 1980s, amidst growing poverty in the British inner cities, a Special Commission of the Archbishop of Canterbury was established “to examine the strengths, insights, problems and needs of the Church’s life and mission in Urban Priority Areas and, as a result, to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation: and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies”. 
Its report, Faith in the City: A Call to Action by Church and Nation, created new awareness of the emerging gaps in British society. The report became controversial for its criticism of the economic policies of the government of the day for the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
“Faith in the City began a movement which was partly political (with a small p), partly theological and partly spiritual. In all three senses, it was a beacon of hope to a lot of people: local authorities felt that the dilemmas that they faced with limited resources in the face of overwhelming deprivation were being recognised; the churches on the ground felt that the rest of the Church was waking up to the realities of inner city ministry; and, most important of all, people who were locked into the poverty trap of deprived inner city communities began to feel that perhaps there could be a national understanding of the paralysis which gripped them. Faith in the City began a discussion across the nation and a movement within the Church. It showed that our common concerns could be harnessed in the common good,” said the Very Revd Graham Smith, The Dean of Norwich, in 2005.
How do we make our city good?

Youth and the city 
Some years ago, at the end of a three-day Yuvajana Sakhyam centre camp in one of the towns in Kerala on the theme ‘Whatsover you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it for me (Matthew 25: 40)’, a young man got up to ask the speaker, ‘Achen, Where do I find the poor?’ The speaker was livid.
Most of us in the cities live in a bubble, untouched by reality. Let me list a programme for city Yuvajana Sakhyams in their emphasis on social justice.  
  • Break out of the bubble, like Tushar and Mathew did, and make a conscious effort to apply the gospel to the economics of society. Why makes people poor? What are the causes and effects of poverty?
  • Initiate studies on the Food Security Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, and other pieces of legislation that affect the lives and livelihoods of a large number of people.
  • At least one of our churches in Delhi initiated a ‘langar’ (community kitchen) for the poor during Lent. Can we have more churches opening up their premises for food and opening shelters for the homeless?
  • Participate in the struggle to make food security a reality. “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5: 24).


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