Here is why there is so much to learn from the poor

The poor can also teach us many lessons and put us to great shame. They often demolish many myths we have about them. The way they live their lives can offer us so many lessons. This article is an attempt to focus on some of them.


The poor have many lessons to teach us. Tolerance of ambiguity. Tolerance of other religions. A good tendency to help others. Being honest in whatever they do and cutting costs wherever possible almost as a routine. It is incorrect to assume that most of the poor people are not honest. This is just not true. Very poor servant maids, who double up as cooks in several homes across India, are very trustworthy and they are doing such a great service to the families. Most of them live on in the same houses for decades and serve the old people, sons, and daughters of whom are settled abroad.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, "for a man with an empty stomach, food is God". And he went on to say something that is often quoted by some of the world's best economists to this day: "there is everything for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed". Yes, indeed. People are still very poor, as the rich and the middle classes have become very greedy. We want them to be poor, for our own selfish purposes.

Cut to the poor and their ways. It does turn out that the poor, a) Have very high moral standards too b) Are not always angry and are humane too c) Are deeply spiritual and have aspirations too d) Are deeply concerned that this generation should study well and e) Deeply emphatic to "more like us" people and f) Are quietly optimistic with fabulous endurance skills.

Have very high moral standards too

Yes. Their standards of living are not very good. Yet, what we need to understand in today's conditions is that we just do not have any right to pass any judgment on their moral standards. This author has interacted with a large number of them, each of whom is so keen on doing an honest job and coming out of the poverty line. Not every man boozes. This is one myth that needs to be demolished. The wives have an endurance of a very big order and do all their bit to educate their children on good values. For instance, there were two mothers who would not accept offers of financial help to their sixteen-year-old son and daughter, to study. The mothers insisted that they paid for some work and this was happily accepted. The boy would do all the odd jobs like running around and the girl had to attend to a very sick man from the rich household, part-time. The salary given was then accepted. So, all that needs to be done is to spot some small work that these children can do. They would continue studying anyway.

Are not always angry and are humane too

The poor are not at all angry. They may be sad that they are not supported well by their rich relatives. Their anger is often directed against the Government who would like to make them stand for hours to just get the rations through the Public Distribution System. If the new State Government of Andhra Pradesh is able to make a big success of its supposedly good scheme of delivering goods at the doorsteps of the people, this model can be followed at other places too. The poor just want some sort of support. Those who engage in very small businesses, like catering establishments from their homes to just survive, give the leftover food for free to other poor people. As a rule, they are quite religious and believe that God will somehow give them all the support they need. This is the belief of even those who live in the slums of cities like Bangalore or Chennai. Their aspirations are not much. They try to earn some extra money through perfectly legal means, like selling flowers and vegetables, door to door sales of food items and so on. They have all the good qualities of rich people. They endure everything. For example, it was interesting to watch how women stay on for hours at taps that supply drinking water. They patiently transport the same through shared autos and the bicycles or two wheeler s driven by their sons or daughters or even neighbors.

Are deeply spiritual and have aspirations too

Whatever be their religion, as a rule, they are mostly religious. Even if their husbands beat them when they come home, they pray to God to give the men some good lessons!! They are often seen visiting the local temples during the early hours of the morning and simply pack off to some temple festival in their native places during the summer months. This is one occasion for them to buy some sweets, glass bangles, cheap saris and so on, for the entire family. They chat among themselves and share all the food that is given for free by the rich.

Their aspirations are so good that of late, particularly in Tamil Nadu, there are nurses, engineers, lab technicians, teachers and even engineers who emerge from very poor families. Since it is so easy to get an engineering college seat, the course is there for the asking. The long term chit funds are the only source of finance for most families. They would have saved for a very long time, and if their resource position is not too good, they do not hesitate to migrate to the new place, where the man and woman work in the construction industry, while the son and daughter study in the engineering college. The owners of these colleges sometimes take pity and give them concessions in both fees and even provide them some money for doing some odd work in the library or in the hostels and so on. This is commonly seen and when they complete the engineering course, the boys take up the apprenticeship training somewhere, learn all the tricks and then migrate to even cities like Pune, where they find the regular jobs and settle down. This goes on and on.

Are deeply concerned that this generation should study well

Quiz any casual worker or contract worker or an electrician or a plumber or a motor mechanic on what his immediate concern is and pat would come the answer: " my son and my daughter should never be like me". This social change is very encouraging and does inform what their mind-set is. The kind of churning that is going on in the cities is indeed very good. One does hope that this becomes a national obsession, across communities and castes. This will, in turn, do the country a world of good.

Are Deeply empathetic to people akin to them

Go around to a particular street called Renganathan Steet at T.Nagar, the business district of Chennai. Just buy one or two things from them. They are cheap goods, literally thrust on you by so many sellers. Hang around and observe how they deal with those who do not look very highly educated or are rustic. They would immediately drop prices and when they do it, the buyers will not bargain any further. This happens as a rule, almost everywhere. Guess why the sellers do this? They do this because they feel that "more like us" people, as perceived by them, should not suffer. They always feel that they should be supported. The rich can pay. One of the best eye hospitals in the world, called the Aravind Eye Hospitals in Madurai and in most parts of South India, subsidizes the cost of eye operations for the poor and sometimes give it free, but the rich have to pay. In fact, this model is just as fine. When we learn this from the poor, we feel that they are more empathetic to other poor people. A lot more than the rich and the middle classes. In fact, Arvind Eye hospital is one big hope for the very poor, even now.

Are quietly optimistic with fabulous endurance skills

Floods, droughts, famines, costly prices of every type of goods and services, everything bothers the poor as much as it does the middle classes or even the rich. Yet, contrary to public perception, the coping mechanisms of the poor are highly advanced. For example, they can drink any water at any hotel and still be unaffected. They are immune. They do not buy the mineral water at all. Even children drink boiled and hot water. The poor know thousands of natural remedies that those in the cities are not even aware of. The list goes on. They survive through their native intelligence. They will do so at any point in time.


Study of any complex social phenomena need not be done only with those who have a sociology background. A keen sense of observation can teach us many things. The poor have lessons for all others. It is for us to learn from them, in whatever ways we can.


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