Poverty is universal. No matter where in the world, there are always discussions and debates surrounding the poor: individuals who are struggling economically and unable to maintain a comfortable livelihood. But the issue with the term “poverty” itself is that it remains an umbrella term; it moves the conversation away from the specific groups (whether defined by race, religion, ethnicity, or some other category) that make up an “impoverished” population and instead lumps them all together under the general category of “poverty.” This is a problem because different groups have different needs, yet most methods and discussions of poverty alleviation rarely take these distinguishing circumstances into account.
Such is the case in Ahmedabad, a city of over 6.3 million inhabitants (according to 2011 figures, although current estimates place the number at over 8 million) located within the urban agglomeration of India’s western state of Gujarat. The city’s rapid growth is coupled with an ever increasing low income population as well as a lack of affordable housing that has given way to a vast expansion of squatter settlements or slums. As of 2011, 38.8% of Ahmedabad’s population resided in slums, a figure that continues to increase with the growth of the city’s population. (Source: Annez, Patricia Clarke Bertaud et al, Ahmedabad: More but Different Government for "Slum Free" and Livable Cities: The World Bank, 2012, p. 15.)
But as Ahmedabad is a Hindu majority city still entrenched within the caste system, the urban poor who live in the slums are the city’s most marginalized: the 300,000 Muslim minority (approximately 5 percent of the population), individuals of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (the most historically disadvantaged classes and the lowest ranking in India’s caste system - formerly referred to as “untouchable,” but commonly referred to now as Dalits), and migrants (those without Gujarati citizenship, often coming from other states within India, Bangladesh or Pakistan).
My research for the Covering the Margins series on media coverage of urban marginalization in Ahmedabad focused on the three news sources: The Times of India (specifically its Ahmedabad section), the Ahmedabad Mirror and DNA: Daily News and Analysis. Whereas the first two are more traditional news outlets, DNA is a newer outlet created for the upper middle class “business” youth. In all three, however, I found a similar pattern in the representation of marginalized experiences: those who make up the urban poor, the impoverished, the slum population, remain rarely individualized.
In almost all articles I reviewed, the specific experiences of the vulnerable groups are lumped together and further invisibilized under the guise of “poverty.” Out of the 45 articles analyzed (15 articles from each of the three papers), not a single one gave any historical (or present) reference to the specific populations most affected by the lack of housing, the populations who have made up the majority within slums, the history of failed slum development projects, or even the recurring string of atrocities against these marginalized groups.
Similar to the Buffalo, NY coverage I addressed in Part II and Part III of this series, the news sources tend to leave out crucial background to a story or broad issue in order to portray a very one-sided view of the city. For example, A postgraduate man travels in auto-rickshaw; he is the driver, an article from the Times of India, details the growing trend of drivers with postgraduate degrees driving auto rickshaws (three- wheeled motorized vehicles - a common mode of informal transportation throughout the city). While the article frames the trend through a positive lens, detailing rising employment opportunities and the “flexible hours” of the job, it fails to portray the other side of the story: the lack of job security, the low pay, and increased competition in a field originally dominated by low income workers unable to access any educational opportunities. Similarly, the article doesn’t explore what it means for those with the privilege/ability of having an post-graduate education to be entering the discriminating, invisibilized sector of informal labor. The article lacks mention of low employment opportunities in the formal sector and how these may be linked to identity discrimination, therefore diminishing the relevance of central issues.
The DNA article More fishermen & disowned foreigners than spies & terrorists in JIC in Kutch offers a more explicit mention of the at-risk population of Pakistani fisherman (and migrants in general). Nonetheless there remains a biased tone: the article references the “increasing numbers of illegal foreign migrants” (emphasis added) and describes how “foreigners are detained even after the term is served as it is safer to keep them.” The language criminalizes instead of reviewing the actual situation of the migrant detainees, such as their low income and religious background (predominantly Muslim).
When reviewing the various issues mentioned in the articles, I coded the articles on a 0 (no mention) to 3 (central theme of article and explicitly mentioned several times) scale. The theme of poverty received a 3 rating 60% and a 2 rating 26% of the time (meaning “poverty” was a central theme and alluded to). The issue of caste received a 1 rating 58% of the time (meaning that the article pertained to caste based discrimination, but did not explicitly mention it). Issues of religion/religious discrimination maintained a similar pattern with 1’s showing up 53% of the time.
What this reveals is that the concept of poverty is typically reduced in a way that results in a normalization of the broad, seemingly distant notion of poverty while further diverting attention away from the real struggles faced by individual and communities who are marginalized by specific caste, religion and migrant identities.
Some articles did stand as outliers to the trend: The Times of India article Study: 30% of shelters in city for migrant labourers defunct and the Ahmedabad Mirror’s School Throws Out Dalit Kids, HC Pulls Up DEO, for example, both name the vulnerable populations in their headlines and also within the text. Still the history of Dalit marginalization and the exact identity of the migrant communities (some of which, especially Muslims, are more discriminated against than others) remained excluded. These two articles better foreground neglected communities, but the voices of people in those communities are not featured (i.e., through interviews), and the articles still paint a picture of the city that minimizes the widespread prevalence of such structural inequality. The reason behind the struggles of the population, whether mentioned as an individual case (as as in the Dalit article) or in reference to a larger community (as with the migrants), is simply “poverty.”
This recurrent normalization of poverty, whether explicitly mentioned or just as a central underlying theme, creates a notion of a broad urban challenge that remains distant from the majority of the population. Such coverage minimizes the humanity of each discriminated group and overlooks their specific marginalized identity. In the next installment of this series I will look at how the government is often framed as the cause for this societal failure, thereby absolving citizens from the responsibility of taking part in the work of creating change.