Friday, June 4, 2010

Slumdog Inspires India's "Big Switch" TV Show

The 2008 release of the Academy award winning Slumdog Millionaire movie showing extreme poverty in India's financial capital was met by expressions of anger and embarrassment by the Indian elite.

Decried by many in the Indian media as "racist poverty porn" and condemned by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachan in his blog for showing India as "a third world dirty under belly developing nation (sic)", the movie Slumdog Millionaire was greeted by howls of protests in India. But it received wide acclaim in the West.

With the Indian reality TV series "Big Switch" focusing on poverty, it now appears that India's entertainment moguls see an opportunity in what has been called "poverty porn" to make big bucks. The first season began airing in October, 2009 and ended in February, 2010. The run was a big success with nearly 26 million viewers tuning in every week.

The show brings rich Indians to live with poor slum dwellers for two to three weeks, though it stretches "reality" by putting them in a dormitory specially built near shanties for the show, while cameras roll. "When you bring people from two clashing worlds together, it makes for great television," says UTV Bindaas chief executive, Zarina Mehta, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal. The show marks a new direction for Indian TV, which in the past has steered clear of plots that focus on the poor in India. "Even if you have a driver as a main character, he always turns out later to be a prince," says media critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, who writes for the newspaper DNA.

Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal story on "Big Switch":

Ms. Mehta, the TV executive, recalls a scene she will never forget involving Siddhartha Khanna, 25, heir to a real-estate empire who admits he leaves his clothes where he drops them and has never cleared up a cup of tea. One of Mr. Khanna's tasks was to clean up cow dung with his bare hands, a chore he tackled without complaint. The points he earned -- which translated into 200,000 rupees ($4,350) -- would go toward helping his slum partner, Samir Pagare, set up an event-management company.

Siddhartha Khanna, heir to a real-estate empire, won the 'Big Switch' contest by doing such things as cleaning up cow dung with his hands.

"I did it because I wanted to help Samir, to give him hope. I want this program to build bridges, to make young Indians realize they can do a lot to help the poor realize their dreams," says Mr. Khanna, who went on to win the contest for his partner.

In India, the rich and poor rarely cross paths. More than 80% of people live on 20 rupees a day (43 U.S. cents) or less. Of the country's 1.17 billion population, less than 1% earns more than 85,000 rupees ($1,850) a month. On "Big Switch," many of the rich participants earn more than that. And some of the highest earners among the slum dwellers pulled in about 5,000 to 7,000 rupees ($109 to $152 a month).

Slum dweller Abhishek Kushwah, 24, wants to be a chef. He grew up in Mumbai's Dharavi, India's largest slum, in one room with his parents and two brothers. They share a single toilet with 60 families. Says Mr. Kushwah. "I'd thought the super rich were lazy and selfish but my partner put in a lot of effort to help me."

On the first day of shooting last October on the "Big Switch" set, the two sides viewed one another warily. Their first impressions were revealing. Most of the slum dwellers were overwhelmed at simply being addressed politely.

"I never dreamed that the rich could be so nice," says Ms. Gaekwad.

The second reaction was shock. "Dreamer" Neelam Dumbre, 18, gasped when she heard her rich partner, Bindi Mehta, a researcher with a television news channel, talk about her closets full of outfits that cost 40,000 rupees (about $870) each. Another slum dweller was speechless when her rich counterpart showed her the 110 pairs of shoes she'd brought for the duration of the show. And then there was Sunny Sara, a 28-year-old nightclub owner in Mumbai, who unpacked 60 T-shirts. "I had no idea the rich were so rich," says Ms. Dumbre.

"Slumdog Millionaire" inspired the creators of "Big Switch," but given the controversy that erupted in India over its graphic depiction of poverty, UTV Bindaas channel head Heather Gupta, a British national who moved to Mumbai six years ago, was determined to avoid any hint of "condescension or using the poor participants as circus freaks."

"We're not blaming the rich for anything, but we want to jolt them into paying some attention to poverty," says Ms. Gupta. It is very easy in India, she adds, to become inured to the plight of the poor.

Model and budding actor Adam Bedi, 26, says he was filled with admiration for the resilience, drive and resourcefulness of the slum dwellers. "They just get on with their lives without moaning about everything they haven't got," he says. "They really impressed me."

Ms. Suri, the former beauty queen, described the experience as humbling. "These conditions are a daily reality for millions and yet, in their struggle to survive, they manage to be cheerful and dignified."

The chasm between the two sides reopened on the last day of shooting in early December. The rich kids were impatient to get home, desperate for a hot bath and good food. The poor dragged their feet; the dormitory, bare as it was, was more spacious than any of the slums they had lived in. As everyone packed, declarations of undying friendship were made amid hugs, displays of genuine affection and exchanging of numbers.

Two weeks later, back in their respective milieus, many of the participants say they talk to one another on the phone occasionally. But once the common link of being on the show has gone, what connection will remain, and for how long?

Ms. Gaekwad has no illusions. "On the show the rich were great. But if I walk out on the road now and try to speak to a rich person, they won't respond," she says.

I think the popularity of reality TV shows depicting Indian poverty is a sign of a maturing society that recognizes the depth and breadth of extreme deprivation in economically resurgent India. And I hope this recognition will spur a more serious effort to alleviate the suffering of the world's largest population of poor, hungry and illiterate people.

Related Links:

Mumbai's Slumdog Millionaire

Poverty Tours in India, Brazil and South Africa

South Asia's War on Hunger Takes Back Seat

British TV Accused of Making "Poverty Porn"

Orangi is Not Dharavi

Bollywood and Hollywood Mix Up Combos

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Slumdog Is No Hit in India

Pakistani Children's Plight

UNESCO Education For All Report 2010

India's Arms Build-up: Guns Versus Bread

South Asia Slipping in Human Development

World Hunger Index 2009

Challenges of 2010-2020 in South Asia

India and Pakistan Contrasted 2010

Food, Clothing and Shelter in India and Pakistan

Introduction to Defense Economics


Anonymous said...

isn't this true for all countries.
No country likes truth to be told. China banned the book written by a chinese couple showing poverty level of peasants of around 700 million. Those writers are still outside china and dare not return.

Anti Pak articles come in Western Media or TV programs. How much of it is liked by us. I doubt whether any nation can beat us in double standards.\06\04\story_4-6-2010_pg3_3

Riaz Haq said...

DC:"Anti Pak articles come in Western Media or TV programs. How much of it is liked by us. I doubt whether any nation can beat us in double standards."

Do you think Slumdog Millionaire or Big Switch are anti-India?

Anonymous said...

no they are not. In fact SDM is a fiction. Why on earth did indians took it seriously is beyond me?

Anyhow my point remains the same. No one likes to be told by others
that what is wrong with them.

Take you. Time and again you have written here that western media's portrayal of Pak is very biased. Isn't it ironical that you accuse indians of same.

BTW this Pakistani is a Wall Street investor and living here for 30 yrs. Terribly anti Pakistan.

Riaz Haq said...

DC: "Take you. Time and again you have written here that western media's portrayal of Pak is very biased. Isn't it ironical that you accuse indians of same.

I have pointed out errors in the western coverage of Pakistan, not disputed facts when they were offered. And I have backed up my criticisms with arguments and opinions from others, such as William Dalrymple and Juan Cole, who have direct and deep knowledge of South Asia.

DC: BTW this Pakistani is a Wall Street investor and living here for 30 yrs. Terribly anti Pakistan."

There is a lot of diversity of opinions in Pakistan. This guy you refer to you is just one of many such voices. All such voices are not necessarily anti-Pakistan.

Anonymous said...


I am sorry that you sound very self righteous and arrogant. What makes you think that you know best about Pakistan and all western media authors are biased. For years they have been telling that Pakistan has state sponsored hatred for west and anything non islamic. Does an attack on Ahmedi jolt us to realize it.
A week or so after 9/11 when USA forced Mushy to be with them in the war on terror, streets of Pakistan was filled with anti US pro Bin Laden protest. It was shameful to see Photos of OBL used by public as their heroes. Was there any Iraq or Afghan war at that time. Yet Pakistan public chose to hate USA when they had world's sympathy after 9/11

Even now you don't seem to agree that our religion is our root cause of all troubles. This is what Thomas Friedman has been saying for years. This is what Dr. Hoodbhoy has been telling for years.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a relevant piece from Deccan Herald:

The number of poor is multiplying along with the number of billionaires. Growth does not reflect the widening disparities.

There is something terribly wrong with growth economics. After all, 18 years after India ushered in economic liberalisation, the promise of high growth to reduce poverty and hunger has not worked. In fact, it has gone the other way around: the more the economic growth, the higher is the resulting poverty.

A report by an expert group headed by Suresh Tendulkar, formerly chairman of prime minister’s economic advisory council, now estimates poverty at 37.2 per cent, an increase of roughly 10 per cent over the earlier estimates of 27.5 per cent in 2004-05. This means, an additional 110 million people have slipped below the poverty line in just four years.

Poor multiplying
The number of poor is multiplying at a time when the number of billionaires has also increased. Economic growth however does not reflect the widening economic disparities. For instance, the economic wealth of mere 30-odd rich families in India is equivalent to one third of the country’s growth. The more the wealth accumulating in the hands of these 30 families, the more will be country's economic growth. A handful of rich therefore hide the ugly face of growing poverty.

If these 30 families were to migrate to America and Europe, India’s GDP, which stands at 7.9 per cent at present, will slump to 6 per cent. And if you were to discount the economic growth resulting from the 6th pay commission, which is 1.9 per cent of the GDP, India’s actual economic growth will slump to 4 per cent.
Anyway, the complicated arithmetic hides more than what it reveals. Poverty estimates were earlier based on nutritional criteria, which means based on the monthly income required to purchase 2,100 calories in the urban areas and 2,400 calories in the rural areas. Over the years, this measure came in for sharp criticism, and finally the Planning Commission suggested a new estimation methodology based on a new basket of goods that is required to survive, which includes food, fuel, light, clothing and footwear.
Accordingly, the Tendulkar committee has worked out that 41.8 per cent of the population or approximately 450 million people survive on a monthly per capita consumption expenditure of Rs 447. In other words, if you break it down to a daily expenditure, it comes to bare Rs 14.50 paise. I wonder how can the rural population earning more than Rs 14 and less than say even Rs 25 a day be expected to be over the poverty line. It is quite obvious therefore that the entire effort is still to hide the poverty under a veil of complicating figures.

India’s poverty line is actually a euphemism for a starvation line. The poverty line that is laid out actually becomes the upper limit the government must pledge to feed. People living below this line constitute the Below the Poverty Line (BPL) category, for which the government has to provide a legal guarantee to provide food. It therefore spells out the government subsidy that is required to distribute food among the poor. More the poverty line more is the food subsidy.

If the government accepts Tendulkar committee report, the food subsidy bill will swell to Rs 47,917.62 crore -- a steep rise over the earlier subsidy of Rs 28,890.56-crore required to feed the BPL population with 25 kg of grains. This is primarily the reason why the government wants to keep the number of poor low. In other words, the poverty line reflects the number of people living in acute hunger. It should therefore be called as a starvation line....

Anonymous said...

it seems people like Devender Sharma and Riaz Haq do not understand that the sales figure of auto or home sales does not indicate that poor is growing in india. Unless the rich are buying the same things again and again there is no way India would be selling 1.2 million cars a year and growing at the rate of 18% a year. Same with housing.
In developed countries signs like auto sales, home sales are considered as a sign of economic well being. based on that india has all the reasons to feel good.
Not rants from so called economist like Devedar Sharma.
Check Pakistan's low figure of car sales or home sales. Check that there is no equivalent of IPL in Pakistan where it pays its cricketers fabulous amount.
It is Pakistan which has no economy except aid from USA as zakaat
MNCS are coming to India to sell, not Pakistan which they don't want to touch even with a barge pole.

So riaz pls keep dreaming about india's poverty. it does nothing to us, while day by day your pakistan moves one step closer to compelte failure.

Riaz Haq said...

anon: "it seems people like Devender Sharma and Riaz Haq do not understand that the sales figure of auto or home sales does not indicate that poor is growing in india."

By World Bank's definition of the upper rich class as being the top 5% of the population, India has about 55 million. At a rate of 1.2 million cars a year, they can keep buying for 50 years without touching the rest of the 95% of the population...most of whom live on less than $2 a day.

There are monumental social inequities in India, which is home to 50 billionaires and also the world's largest population of poor, hungry and illiterate peope.

Riaz Haq said...

DC: "I am sorry that you sound very self righteous and arrogant."

It's you who is being self-righteous and arrogant by arguing "our religion is our root cause of all troubles".

I think the followers of secular liberal orthodoxy are just as arrogant, self-righteous and rigid as the religious extremists.

DC: "you know best about Pakistan and all western media authors are biased."

The extreme negative bias of western media against Pakistan and other Islamic nations (and for India and Israel) has been well documented by some western academics and journalists. I have written several posts on the subject such as the one about the coverage of Israeli commando terror against civilians in Gaza Flotilla, and a post I did on the western media's bold-face lie calling India "peaceful, stable and prosperous."

anoop said...

This kind of show can never be made in China where there is no free speech. I dont know what to think of such shows. But, the truth is the truth and there is no point in running away from it.

The privileged people of India must watch this and help.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Wall Street Journal story about counting the poor in India for government's welfare aid program:

Alimunisha's home is a 150-square-foot mud floor with a roof of plastic tarp held up by bamboo sticks. The beds are burlap potato sacks. There's no running water, electricity or toilet. She can afford to feed her five children one meal a day on the income her husband earns selling traditional drums.
Redefining Poverty in India

But according to the Indian government, Ms. Alimunisha, who goes by only one name, isn't living in poverty.

That means her family doesn't qualify for aid aimed at the poorest Indians, including a program that provides free housing and subsidies that would cut her food costs by two-thirds.

India, one of the world's fastest growing economies, is now embarking on a major reassessment of poverty levels. The review will determine how many struggling people across the world's second-most populous nation, from urban slum dwellers like Ms. Alimunisha to landless farm laborers, will be counted among the ranks of the official poor and get government handouts. At a stroke, tens of millions of people could flood onto the welfare rolls.

Millions of destitute Indian families don't qualify for food subsidies or housing assistance because they are not officially considered poor. Now the government is reassessing its poverty levels.

Generating a reliable list of poor households has become a top priority for the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which has pledged to spread the benefits of India's rapid growth to the aam aadmi, or common man. The government launched its review of poverty as it drafts legislation to give the poorest Indians a right to subsidized food-grains.

Defining poverty is tough in any country. But deciding who is poor, and how much the government can afford to help them, is especially complex in a nation of 1.2 billion where average annual per capita income is $953 and roughly one in two children is malnourished.

Expanding the definition of poverty without ballooning social spending will be doubly difficult. India already spends $12 billion a year on food subsidies alone. The review could add 100 million people to the welfare rolls and $1.3 billion a year to the nation's food-subsidy bill, a burden on a country that is striving to trim public deficits.
But the most pressing question is how many people the program should cover. Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, who has made the "right to food" bill her pet project, was unhappy with early drafts based on the previous poverty count, because she thought too many people would be left behind, people familiar with her thinking say. Through a spokesman, Mrs. Gandhi declined to comment.

It isn't hard to see why politicians find it so tempting to expand the welfare rolls. In urban areas like Ismail Ganj, the Lucknow slum where Ms. Alimunisha lives, residents beg for water from nearby government buildings, often without success. They bath and defecate in the open.

Last September, the city bulldozed the slum prior to the planned inauguration by the state governor of a building across the street—the state's Human Rights Commission. The ceremony was canceled amid a backlash over the incident. Residents re-erected their mud and bamboo homes.

Ms. Alimunisha's husband earns about $40 per month—less than the official poverty line for a household of seven—by selling "dholaks," folk drums made of mango wood and goat skin.

"I feel so bad being poor," Ms. Alimunisha says. "Are we going to have to live like this all our lives?"

Riaz Haq said...

Here are some excerpts of an interesting story published in The Hindu:

Can anyone really live on Rs. 26 a day, the income of the officially poor in rural India? Two youngsters try it out.

Late last year, two young men decided to live a month of their lives on the income of an average poor Indian. One of them, Tushar, the son of a police officer in Haryana, studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for three years as an investment banker in the US and Singapore. The other, Matt, migrated as a teenager to the States with his parents, and studied in MIT. Both decided at different points to return to India, joined the UID Project in Bengaluru, came to share a flat, and became close friends.

The idea suddenly struck them one day. Both had returned to India in the vague hope that they could be of use to their country. But they knew the people of this land so little. Tushar suggested one evening — “Let us try to understand an ‘average Indian', by living on an ‘average income'.” His friend Matt was immediately captured by the idea. They began a journey which would change them forever.

To begin with, what was the average income of an Indian? They calculated that India's Mean National Income was Rs. 4,500 a month, or Rs. 150 a day. Globally people spend about a third of their incomes on rent. Excluding rent, they decided to spend Rs. 100 each a day. They realised that this did not make them poor, only average. Seventy-five per cent Indians live on less than this average.

The young men moved into the tiny apartment of their domestic help, much to her bemusement. What changed for them was that they spent a large part of their day planning and organising their food. Eating out was out of the question; even dhabas were too expensive. Milk and yoghurt were expensive and therefore used sparingly, meat was out of bounds, as were processed food like bread. No ghee or butter, only a little refined oil. Both are passionate cooks with healthy appetites. They found soy nuggets a wonder food — affordable and high on proteins, and worked on many recipes. Parle G biscuits again were cheap: 25 paise for 27 calories! They innovated a dessert of fried banana on biscuits. It was their treat each day.
Living on Rs.100 made the circle of their life much smaller. They found that they could not afford to travel by bus more than five km in a day. If they needed to go further, they could only walk. They could afford electricity only five or six hours a day, therefore sparingly used lights and fans. They needed also to charge their mobiles and computers. One Lifebuoy soap cut into two. They passed by shops, gazing at things they could not buy. They could not afford the movies, and hoped they would not fall ill.

However, the bigger challenge remained. Could they live on Rs. 32, the official poverty line, which had become controversial after India's Planning Commission informed the Supreme Court that this was the poverty line for cities (for villages it was even lower, at Rs. 26 per person per day)?
... Do we really need that hair product or that branded cologne? Is dining out at expensive restaurants necessary for a happy weekend? At a larger level, do we deserve all the riches we have around us? Is it just plain luck that we were born into circumstances that allowed us to build a life of comfort? What makes the other half any less deserving of many of these material possessions, (which many of us consider essential) or, more importantly, tools for self-development (education) or self-preservation (healthcare)?

We don't know the answers to these questions. But we do know the feeling of guilt that is with us now. ....

....And above all — in Matt's words — that empathy is essential for democracy.