In the name of progress

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readSep 13, 2017

Source : Google photo of happy poor children with the farm produce

Synopsis : We have discarded many good things in the name of progress that allowed poor people everywhere to be self reliant and earn a living and made it easier for the big and powerful industries to take over the void and push their antipoor agenda. The blog looks back at what we have lost.

I remember many small vendors and tradesmen who used to sell many things like homemade toffee, candy and toys or tasty snacks in our narrow lane where we eagerly waited for them in the evenings. They sang the merits of their products in a sing song way or had a bell they chimed to attract attention.

Their toffee or candy cost only a penny and they would shape their red striped candy into the shape of a bird or animal for you and stick it on a straw. But the ones we liked most was the cotton candy that they would spin on a pedal cranked contraption they carried on their shoulder and gave it to you in colors like red or green or blue in a big shape of a ball on a stick.

Then there was a vendor who always came in the evening with a basket full of candy made of sugar and colored in the shape of small animals like a turtle or a bird. Another sold popped chick peas coated in tasty spices and rock salt that we loved. Nothing cost more than a few pennies.

One fellow had a big box on four legs with holes on one side from where we could peep inside and see the horses galloping or birds flying. He hand cranked the music while a disc with cut outs of horses and birds spun giving the impression that they were galloping or flying. It also cost a few pennies.

Sadly we don’t see them anymore anywhere because they all have disappeared. People call it the progress but I call it the loss of an era of small vendors who made a living this way and raised their family.

Now the kids buy the Cadbury chocolates or KitKat in the stores but they cost a lot more than a penny and it goes to big candy companies that spend millions in TV advertising their products to entice the kids. You see newspapers ads or big bill boards doing the same.

In those days there were many small entrepreneurs who made things at home that they sold later on the streets. They did not have the resources to put up a factory and produce the things on a large scale like the big companies now do but they made a living on which they raised their family.

I remember a family in our community that made spicy chick peas called Kabuli Chana ( meaning Kabuli white chick peas). It was made at home by the mother or the grandmother and sold in various stores. It was a good business because everybody liked it but now I don’t see it anymore. Such businesses die when the old people who made the products die.

India is a country where the private small entrepreneurs thrived and to some extent still do because there were no restrictions on them, no red tapes and tedious business permits to acquire giving poor people a chance to make things and sell them on the street and make a living. They never got rich but they were self-employed and did not ask for any favors.

You still see them in many countries selling whatever they make on street corners. It may be toys, snacks or serious street food that they sell at a low price. If you drive down the highways in India, you will see these ramshackle eateries made of bamboo and thatch called Dhabas where for less than a dollar you can eat very tasty food that are freshly made and served piping hot. The waiters there are so humble that they hesitate to take 20 Rupees tips that I gave because the service was so good and the food excellent. Compare that with waiters in Europe or in America.

There were numerous street jugglers, clowns and acrobats as well who made a living this way along with numerous snake charmers, the nomads with the dancing bears or monkeys and snake oil peddlers. Many sold dubious products like ointments to cure all ailments while others read your palms. No doubt many were con men out to make quick money from people who believed in such things but they all made a living and survived.

I saw them in the streets of Paris or Mexico City but they are always harassed by the police who ask them to move on. I still do not understand what is so unlawful to make a living and be self-employed but such harassment goes on everywhere.

Now the police shoot and kill a poor black fellow who was selling a few sticks of cigarette or a CD in the United States because he did not have a business permit. A poor fruit vendor in Tunisia was slapped by a policewoman and his fruit trays over turned just because he did not have a permit to sell a few fruits and make a meager living. In shame he poured gasoline on himself and lit the fire while people watched helplessly the man burning to death. This led to the Arab spring movement that toppled many dictators.

There are millions of poor people who are self-employed, who provide a great service to their communities and make a living. No country in the world can provide jobs to every citizen so people with little or no education thus learn to survive on their own and not asking for any favors from the government.

But the capitalism favors big businesses with tax breaks and special treatment while the big businesses stifle the small ones that they perceive as competitors. One small dairy farmer in the USA somewhere had a few cows and sold the fresh milk in the market but the big milk company could not tolerate an independent milk producer like him so filed complaints that his cows were dirty, his milking sheds were unhygienic etc. The health inspectors came down hard on this poor fellow and found many things wrong.

The government health inspectors were always in cahoots with the big corporations and favored them over the small milk vendors so the poor man was put out of business. He had to sell all his cows to pay for the litigation.

The trend now is to push out the small people in favor of big businesses so you don’t see many independent small farmers in the United States where big corporations have taken over the production of crops and animals in large scale.

There was once a great private farmer in the United States who had over 600 acres of very productive land that he cultivated with distinction and was very prosperous. But one day he died leaving his widow alone who did not know anything about farming. So every year the state took away a part of her land because she could not pay taxes until only her house was left to her and with no income. Finally a plea was made to the governor to spare her house which he did. She was black. I wonder what would have happened if the farmer was white.

In the old communist Russia they protected the right of everyone to have jobs but managed the agriculture and industries leaving nothing in the private hands. Thus they mismanaged the agriculture in large state farms and government run and mismanaged factories giving people no incentive to work hard and produce.

We all know that their state managed farms and factories were unsuccessful so they are now back to square one and allow private farmers to grow what they want. The result has been spectacular. When people have a stake in their enterprises, they work harder and try to succeed.

But the capitalism as practiced by some western countries is anti-poor so they are slowly pushed out by the people who have money and control everything including the congressmen and politicians who make laws in their favor.

When Fidel Castro and Che Guevara made their revolution a success and gave the poor people in Cuba a voice for the first time, they were demonized by the capitalists who were pushed out of Cuba. The result was a trade embargo that until now has not been lifted. The big businesses are sacrosanct and cannot be pushed out of any country without consequences as Cuba learned.

Now this capitalism is spreading everywhere with grave consequences for the poor who are left out of the progress a country makes. They do not have the cars to drive on spanking new highways and pay ridiculous amount of toll fees. They do not have the money to spend in spanking new and massive malls where the goods sold there are for the rich.

They cannot buy a small house in fancy housing estates where only people with a great deal of money can live in gated communities. Their children cannot go to new colleges and universities where the cost is beyond their ability to pay.

They cannot go to fancy hospitals equipped with latest imported equipment and well trained doctors and nurses because they are poor and can’t afford.

So I come back to the plight of poor people who during our childhood somehow made a living selling things they made and raised their families. Now such people find it harder to make a living. What was so wrong that poor people were self-employed? What was wrong with the idea that they tried to be self-reliant?

Why couldn’t other countries learn from the Cuban experience that a country makes progress only when the poor are empowered to manage their own destiny? The politicians make a great deal of promises to get their votes but who controls the politicians and who finances them?

These are very relevant questions that need answers. Socialism that helps the poor is a dirty word in some capitalistic countries where making money at any cost is the normal practice. If the poor get sick, they can’t pay for the hospital costs so they die needlessly. One woman brought her injured daughter to the emergency room of hospital in the United States and pleaded for her daughter’s life who was bleeding to death but she was kept waiting for 6 hours. The girl died before the doctors arrived. Rich people do not wait for 6 hours.

Another woman was refused admittance to a hospital because she did not have insurance so she gave birth in the parking lot. Can poor people be treated this way in any country that claims to be rich and developed?

If Castro did nothing except to make free health care for every citizen and gave land to every poor farmer, he will be remembered as a legend but he did much more. The literacy rate in Cuba is over 97% and where no one has to give birth in a parking lot. Sweden is another country where every citizen enjoys quality health care irrespective of his income but you will be surprised how the politicians in the United States make fun of Sweden just because they take care of their poor.

I know that the material progress any country makes comes at a price. The question is who pays the price? Do the poor make air pollution that chokes their cities? Do the poor produce mountains of waste that goes to the landfills? Do the poor produce the industrial wastes that pollute the land, water and poison the environment? Did you know that the poor people are the number one recyclers of waste?

Some people castigate China for the poor human rights record but a Chinese official said that China has lifted hundreds of millions of poor Chinese out of poverty and built millions of modern homes for them thus uplifting them and protecting their human rights in a spectacular way. Can other so called developed countries claim the same where a poor woman is forced to give birth in a parking lot?

I do get nostalgic when I write about the poor people who made a living and raised their families on their small income. They now watch the development and progress everywhere in India but the progress has passed them by. Over 400 children in one government run hospital in India died because of poor sanitation and lack of proper medical care. They did not have oxygen because the supplier was not paid. Rich people go to private hospitals.

There will always be a divide between the poor and the rich anywhere. The question is how to narrow this gap and help the poor in a meaningful way so that they too can someday join the middle class like they are doing in China.

If you empower the poor of this world by helping them get education, jobs and a higher standard of living, they pay back in spades in taxes and in turn generate jobs for others and help a country grow.

So I salute all the poor people everywhere who ask so little and contribute so much. They are the salt of this earth and number in millions. They are mostly self-reliant and ask so little or nothing from the government like those vendors during my childhood. If they can’t participate in the progress a country makes then the progress is meaningless. The progress should not and cannot come at any price because it should be inclusive and not exclusive.



Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.