Poverty can be extremely depressing. It can dehumanize, depriving self-esteem as well as human dignity from those caught in its trap. If not for the support of the joint family institution, still very much a tradition in the Manipur, the number of absolutely poor, with absolutely no income source at all, would have become visible in very many ways. Seven lakh and more unemployed youth, (as is what the registers in the state’s employment exchange shows), out of a population of 28 lakhs, would have been simply socially explosive and devastating if not for this generously elastic shock absorber. Indirectly, we may already be witnessing the strain on the society in the rise of delinquency, drugs abuse, petty street crimes and even organized extortion gangs although there probably are other factors as well for these deviant behavioural shifts. More often than not, it is the poor who are more generous and humane than the rich. Only when hopes for a redemptive mechanism become lost, or when the conditions for poverty begins to be seen as a result of unjust administration, or when the disparity between the rich and poor become unfairly stark, attitudes begin to harden for the worse. No wonder than that most religions eulogize the state of material poverty, for it is assumed poverty in the external world is an indicator of the richness of one’s soul. No other religion says this more explicitly than Christianity, when Christ in what is today considered one of the greatest and most poetic passages in the Bible, tells his disciples during the Beatitude (in the Sermon on the Mount), that blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Gautam Buddha too renounced the material world and through his self-embraced poverty, attained enlightenment. There are so many other messiahs, from all regions of the world, who followed this same path.
But the poverty that religion envisioned is more a metaphor of a spirituality to which material conditions make little difference. It probably referred to a life free of avarice and greed, and all other transgressions into human understanding of ethical behaviours, which are generally associated with the way to material wealth. This poverty cannot however be the same, agonizing, life-sapping impoverishment that the modern world knows and sees on its urban streets. For this is a poverty that crushes not just the physical world of those it burdens but also their spiritual landscape with its sheer weight, and more importantly, hopelessness. It is more a curse than a blessing. And this is the kind of poverty that is taking shape in our society today. We cannot see a bigger challenge before any government, our state government in particular, than to arrest the slow but sure onslaught of this poverty.
There cannot be any miracle solution to remove the factors in an economy that leads to impoverishment of a population. It will have to be by a multi-pronged, long term, well thought out strategy that the problem is tackled. It cannot also be the government alone that is given the responsibility to fight this battle. The people and the government will have to make this a common battlefront. However, for the people to feel empowered to join the battle, the government’s initiatives are vital. Poverty is terrible, but it would not have been so terrible if hope remained alive that given the will, this condition can be overcome, if not in one generation, then in the next. The way many Eastern and South East Asian countries, including South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and many more came out of the poverty trap much worse than our own should be an example as well as inspiration for us. That is to say that parents living below the poverty line must still be given the confidence that they have the means to equip their children to compete legitimately for the best life the system can offer, dependent solely on their individual diligence, industry and aptitude. The most important thing that the government can and must do, is for it to lift the standard and discipline of its moribund education system. The elixir to re-instill hope even in the poorest is the sense that they can still empower their children with the appropriate knowledge and skills demanded by the modern world regardless of their poverty. Let the government education system work and even if miracles do not drop from heaven, they can be manufactured here on earth.