Among the protests, India’s poor get on with life

August 18, 2011

“Shoe polish, sir?” That was a quote your correspondent was not expecting to record as he paced through the crowds protesting in New Delhi in solidarity with Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old poster boy for India’s fight against endemic corruption.

Among the waving flags, painted faces and punched fists of thousands of mostly students and young professionals on Wednesday, were beggars, trinket-sellers and shoe-shiners plying their trade seemingly indifferent to the din around them.

The sight gave pause for thought as to how far the spiralling protests against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scandal-plagued government have trickled down to an underclass of hundreds of millions of Indians living below the bread line.

Hazare, a self-styled Gandhian activist, has caused huge embarrassment for Singh’s coalition for months, staging street protests and fasts demanding tougher laws against graft.

He has tapped into a groundswell of discontent against the corruption which touches Indian lives every day. Protests have erupted in cities throughout the country, from the hilly northeast to the southern tech hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad.

But the question remains whether this week’s protests are mostly confined to relatively affluent urbanites who have thrived from two decades of economic boom but are tired of the older, corrupt elites governing their country.

On Wednesday, protesters had gathered at India Gate, a colonial era memorial that has turned into a tourist hot spot in the Indian capital, hence a magnet for those hoping to earn a few rupees or dollars from visitors. Ice cream carts, soda carts and ornaments laid out on mats were still parked next to TV vans.

While I was interviewing a group of students and young IT professionals who had travelled from the trendy city of Gurgaon, next door to the capital, shoe-shiners and trinket sellers approached us several times, and were ignored or spoken over.

The group, who wore paper signs on their chests criticising Sonia Gandhi, the country’s most powerful politician, was later making jokes about Singh being Sonia’s “toy” when children in bare feet prodded them, asking for money.

They were gently but firmly brushed away, a common sight in Indian cities where toddlers dance acrobatically and older or disabled men and women knock at car windows and prod travellers in auto rickshaws for money.

The beggars did not share the excitement of the protests, just as it is not clear how much of the news of scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats on trial have filtered down to rural areas, where concerns of jobs and where the next meal is coming from dominate.

In a recent poll by the Hindu newspaper, only 45 percent of respondents had even heard of Anna Hazare. The figure dropped to 39 percent among rural respondents.

When I asked the protesters why they had come to protest, their gripes against corruption had a distinctly middle class flavour. Manas, a student with a goatee wearing huge sunglasses and a rucksack on his back, told of how he was asked to pay $8,800 as a bribe for college admission.

“The principal said we’re not worrying about your mark sheet, just give me money and you’ll get in,” he said.

The crowds met at India Gate on Wednesday afternoon, either leaving work early or bunking classes. They marched in circles, punching the air, shouting abusive slogans against several leading politicians, and crowding around TV cameras and yelling as correspondents were giving updates to the studio.

But as the crowds thinned out, marching onwards to another, bigger protest nearby, kids and older men, armed with large, dirty white sacks, were rooting through the trash left behind by the protesters, looking for something usable to sell.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see


Posted by sudcool | Report as abusive

this is by far the most sensible article i’ve read on this rubbish hoopla.

Posted by dontbeasinine | Report as abusive

It’s a ridiculous post, makes no sense and is not worthy of an article. The poor in any country below the poverty line, don’t care or want to care of any protest and it’s outcome. The keyword poor connected to a stereo typed image of India is merely used to attract attention to the blog. There is no sense to this story and is definitely not worth a complete complete page, leave alone a headline.

Posted by SamratMukherjee | Report as abusive

The author got it all wrong.

1. The protests are not just confined to India Gate/Ramlila. It has spread to all metros, tier-2, tier-3 cities and small towns. The author should watch all regional news channels.

2. If daily-wage workers and beggars attend protests, they and their families will have to go empty stomach for that night. That’s why general elections in India are a matter of cash-for-votes.

3. Forget The Hindu poll. Majority of Indians who vote in general elections won’t be knowing the person whom they’re going to vote for. Whoever gives more money/food/alcohol/cloths will get votes.

Posted by Tranquiler | Report as abusive

The daily wage workers and beggars simply do not have the luxury of time to do this. As Tranquiler mentioned, they live from hand to mouth and if they were to join in, their families will have to go hungry for the night. I do not think it is fair to say that because they are not out actively protesting and wearing Anna hats that the anti corruption movement is not relevant to their lives.

The reason why these people are left on the streets begging is corruption. The money which the corrupt government has stored in their private swiss bank accs can be put to education, infrastructure, jobs creation. All of which are badly needed by these people.

India is rich. Super rich. This is a country whose economy is so huge. With such a great potential to grow and progress, why then are there still so many poor people? It is simply baffling. Even as a foreigner, I cannot help it but feel strongly indignant about the situation the common folks face as well.

For an idea on how corrupt at the Congress gov is, simply take a look at Gujarat. Look at the good work which Narendra Modi is doing. Big businesses are establishing themselves in that state. There is still a lot more work to be done in Gujarat but it has been a great and very heartening start. This is a possibility in all states in India. A possibility which can b easily achieve if the Congress government bothers to spend even just one minute to think of the common people on the streets and less on their private jets, which islands in the world to purchase and which country to fly to for their vacation.

Posted by Yeesh | Report as abusive

India is at a crucial cusp in history. The Indian population has been under various kinds of ‘rulers’ for a very long time. Hence even though India has elections , the elected representatives and their insitutitions behave like rulers. The Indian population has been exploited by the ‘new rulers’ long enough. This is the rise of orphans of a half revolution to seek true democracy.
The people have more than demonstrated their faith in Anna and Government has to recognise the voice of the people.
Our politicians need to be reminded that they are ‘representing’ us not ruling us. This ‘ruling’ mindset percolates all levels of Government from a cop to the ministers…. India needs to become a true democracy and ensure our representatives behave like representatives.

Posted by PD1967 | Report as abusive