Week 5 Response
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo tells the stories of residents of a Mumbai slum and the hardships they endure. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered, and how does this affect their well-being and agency? Use specific examples.
The infrastructure of opportunity in the society that the slum residents live in seems to surround first having land (or some sort of valuable property), then having an education, or being innovative – whether that is starting a genuine company or cheating the government for funds. Having a place to live that is relatively stable and not a financial liability is a useful prerequisite to grasping other opportunities. For the slum residents, they are always in fear of being kicked off premises that they are not authorized to live on, so besides substandard living conditions, they also have to give into political pressures and support crummy politicians as long as they vouch for their place to live. The market values people of good class and caste standing. Abdul and his family are Muslims, an ethnic minority that Indians tend to look down upon, which was one source of tension in the slums. Having fewer ethnic allies made life even harder for Abdul and his family especially in times of need. The market also values education. Manju, Asha’s daughter, attends an all-girls college, in hopes of becoming a teacher. Having a college education might not necessarily guarantee stability for the rest of her life, but it will at least jump start some opportunities for Manju to get decent jobs. The government’s economic and social policy favors corporations and business interests. For example, the government is intent on closing down the slums not only because of unhealthy conditions or crime, but especially because the sight is unpleasant to tourists and makes for ugly press to the outside world. The hotel and airport near Annawadi are favored by the government to expand and gain more money at the expense of clearing the slums and displacing the residents. For those without any legitimate claim to power/money, they do what Asha does and innovate. For some it might be having a genius business idea and starting a company that will grow and succeed. For others like Asha, it might be applying for government subsidies to a non-existent/faulty non-profit organization, capitalizing on corruption and the government’s good intentions. The infrastructure of opportunity is narrow in this society because of lack of social safety nets. For example, Mr. Raja Kamble was relatively successful because of his permanent job until his health collapsed, after which he suffered from lack of an income and lack of medical attention due to corruption and high medical fees, and he never bounced back from it. Mr. Kamble had “made it” on a dangerous cliff of opportunities but when he fell there was nothing to catch him and help him back on his feet. Those whose capabilities are squandered are mainly the connection-less and the poor. When Abdul is arrested and charges were filed, lack of money and connection with the authorities made circumstances quite bleak. The police would not release Abdul or treat him well without money, and the special executive officer dispatched to investigate the case also wanted money from the Husains.
In the community that I serve, I find that the infrastructure of opportunity centers around similar things, but the people might have a little more safety net than the slum residents Boo’s book. Land, education, and innovation are relatively consistent opportunity boosters. In Shanghai, land and housing prices are outer space high, so those without land are trying to make enough money to buy land or survive the high rent prices. University tuitions are not nearly as high as schools in the U.S., so those who can get into a university can go and then use that degree to land a job that pays reasonably well. I’ve also met some relatively successful entrepreneurs who start their own business in Shanghai. The crooked innovation that is cheating the government is rampant as well. I visited a children’s wellness center that is supposed to receive disabled children from government-sponsored orphanages and give them specialized rehabilitation and treatments, but the money from the government does not go into any treatments, the center takes the money and barely keeps the children alive for more money. In relation to the cerebral palsy children whom I serve, their capabilities are squandered because in Shanghai the city government subsidizes a very small part of their medical fees due to its belief that cerebral palsy is either not treatable or too expensive to invest into. And even then, without government connections, many of them do not actually receive any aid, so the financial burden is on their families to pay as much as they can for them to live at CereCare, and CereCare pays for the rest of it. In exchange for enhancing their capability of physical health with the intensive treatments and therapy, I think that the children’s intellectual capability is hindered. The center focuses first and foremost on teaching the children how to persist in their physical struggles, but it falls short on keeping up with academics and social intelligence. The children already have trouble with speech and they do not quite learn how to interact with others in a healthy manner. They have trouble expressing and understanding their needs and emotions. In this way, within the center there are those whose capabilities are more supported and those whose capabilities are more neglected. One of the girls in my class is very bubbly, has a short attention span, and is mentally handicapped, so she acts like a very small child and can say very few words. The teachers mostly do everything for her and just keep her happy by playing with her. I think they are not equipped to challenge her and enhance her capabilities, so she will stay that way forever as a bubbly child who cannot take care of herself. On the other hand, volunteers from outside non-profit groups often come to visit the center. Two orphans are particularly intelligent, well-spoken, and cute. An outside group has been trying to register the two children and put them up for adoption so that they can have a loving family to help them grow. But I think one of the reasons why other orphans from the center are not being put up for adoption is because they are not as cute, as physically able, or as socially intelligent. Outside groups feel that the orphans they are helping are young and cute enough to have a chance at being adopted. The others are not as functional and therefore not as attractive of an option. Capabilities for those who are disabled are generally neglected and then within the disabled there are also ways that advantage some while disadvantaging others.