I’ve just finished reading ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers‘, a compelling work of non-fiction by Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo that documents the underlying tensions of a modern country tightly welded to a massive, ugly bureaucracy.
Annawadi is a slum on the border of Mumbai’s glossy international airport. Over the course of four years, Katherine Boo trailed its residents, photographed, videoed, and spoke to them to understand what life in poverty is really like in a country that has time and again been touted as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Brutally and lyrically, her words simultaneously convey the impact of global events like the 2008 economic crisis in the West on the lives of these people thousands of miles away: all at once it matters and yet doesn’t. Abdul, one of the key characters in the book, is too ‘busy’ being beaten by policemen while in custody for a crime he did not commit, for example, while his mother is running from pillar to post to be able to afford the bribes that multiple government officials demand for what they’d probably call his ‘safety and security’.
Other political events like the terrorist attacks in the city, also in 2008, are a double whammy to the livelihoods of this community (as they would have been to millions of others). Many of the residents of Annawadi have temp jobs in the adjoining five-star hotels such as the Intercontinental and the Hyatt, and are forced to make step changes in their habits. ‘Step-change’ doesn’t mean what you and I think are accustomed to thinking, though. One sentence sums that up perfectly: ‘More Annawadians had to relearn how to digest rats.’
In the clip above, Katherine Boo mentions the ‘last mile problem‘ that I think is something a lot of us could do with thinking about a bit more. It isn’t restricted to countries in Africa and Asia – in fact on a philosophical level it affects the advertising industry a fair bit: this tendency not to engage or complete projects that are almost no-brainers. Where in some parts of the world it’s sheer greed, in other parts it’s lethargy and a risk-averse nature that makes us grapple endlessly with bottlenecks, reflecting a hidden last mile problem.
On reading this paragraph by Boo, I was also reminded of what Rory Sutherland said recently in that talk about big data:
The slumdwellers I’d already come to know in India were neither mythic nor pathetic. They were certainly not passive. Across the country, in communities decidedly short on saviors, they were improvising, often ingeniously, in pursuit of the new economic possibilities of the twenty-first century. Official statistics offered some indication of how such families were faring. But in India, like many places in the world, including my own country, statistics about the poor sometimes have a tenuous relation to lived experience.