My Privilege Versus Yours

A Snapshot of Inequality

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO, had approximately 35% increase¹ in his wealth in 2017 making him the richest man at 121.2 Billion USD². One of the latest reports says that world’s eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%³. That is eight people having the same wealth as 3.8 Billion people. (8 ~ 3,800,000,000) Let that sink in for a moment and then proceed.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said- “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

(Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Time- Sometime in early 2018
Place- Bangalore, India

I opened the app on my phone as my laptop played Happy by Pharell Williams. With Youtube opened on one tab and Gmail opened on another, I entered the destination on the cab app (an app very similar to Uber). Choosing an online payment mode, I booked the cab and went scrolling through my emails again. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. Eh, no deadline yet, will mark it as Pending. Tomorrow. Done. Tomorrow.

I washed my hands in a hurry while coming out of the toilet as I heard the notification beep of the cab driver starting the timer. I had exactly three minutes to get to the cab and I was on the second floor, way too far from the lift. I hurried as I quickly descended in a synchronized manner with my left leg falling next to the right one on the steps. Waving my hand, I indicated the cab driver to come to me. He was a 100 meters away. I could have easily walked that much.

“Sir, online payment.” I said entering the cab. He nodded with a welcoming smile and started the cab. I use sharing cab to save money. My money comes at the expense of his time. He took a U-turn and reached a place from where he was supposed to pick up another person. We waited for a while. The person never showed up. Maybe she decided that waiting five more minutes wasn’t worth her time. He shook his head, started the ignition again and looked at me. I seemed like a decent enough passenger to have a conversation with.

“Sir, I would drop you off and go home directly,” He said, “I just thought I’d earn some extra money before calling it a day.” It was ten thirty in the evening. When did he start his day? Seven in the morning. He had been driving for about fifteen hours in the mind-boggling Bangalore traffic. “Too much traffic today, na?” I asked. He nodded. He had to pay petrol money from his limited earnings for the fuel, most of which was wasted in the painfully slow wait of the traffic signal turning to green from red.

“I worked in the manufacturing industry for ten years before shifting to driving.” He said. I nodded and dared to ask how much he used to make there. He said the number. I was (and still am) ashamed to admit it was a fraction of what I was getting paid as a fresher in the workspace (and was thinking that it wasn’t enough). “Driving used to give good money,” He said, “But now they are paying less because they have the customers and nobody comes to the drivers anymore other than the app. They have the monopoly. They can pay us whatever they want. (They are the people who built the app). I worked in the manufacturing industry for ten years without any raise. I asked for a raise, my manager shouted at me and said if you do not want the money, do not work here. Go ahead and leave. Nobody else will give you a job and pay you. I knew driving. I started driving. But then these people (the cab app) came along and stole our entire customer base. Now I wish to go back to my old job, but he won’t take me back and I don’t want to beg for that job.”

He now lives in a flux. Morning to morning. Day to day. Hand to mouth. His kids go to school to learn and he hopes that they won’t end up like him.

He lies somewhere in the smack-dab middle of that huge pile of 50%.

Indian Billionaire Mukesh Ambani saw a jump of 17.4 Billion USD after giving the country free internet for about a year⁴. His net worth reached about 40.1 Billion USD at the end of 2017. My cab drivers now are usually watching videos on Youtube on their free internet before I enter the cab. They are going to have to pay eventually, I guess.

Source

Time- Sometime in late 2017
Place- Bangalore, India

I swiped my ID Card on the office log machine to symbolically say that I was done for the day. I had no intention of booking a cab. My feet were itching to walk. The fat that I had very consciously settled on both the sides of my belly had become very voluptuous and I wanted to get rid of it. I glanced at the clock before putting my foot out of the office. 8:30 pm. Not bad. A little early than usual. More Netflix time. I put my earphones and opened Youtube. Yes, I use Youtube to play songs, courtesy the free internet. As I walked down the stairs, I felt someone calling me. Maybe nothing. I was walking out of the building as I heard someone calling my name again, this time sharply. I removed an earphone out of one of my ears and looked back in the direction of the caller. The security guard of my company came half-running to me.

“Sir…” He hesitated a bit. “Do you have fifty rupees? I need it for the bus. I don’t have…” He opened his wallet to show me a note of twenty rupees inside. My hand reached my wallet instinctively. Unfortunately, all I had was a note of five-hundred. I stood there with my wallet out open in front of him. We both stared at each other for a second. “I don’t have it, sir.” I said. He nodded politely. I could see him pretending to be fine.

He lies in the 50%. And most probably will be there for his entire life, given that he had spent half of it already.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the youngest Billionaires in the world with wealth of 76 Billion USD⁵. I pinged a friend about my unjust encounter with the security guard on one of the messaging apps he owns. Rest of the way, walking, I scrolled my Facebook feed mindlessly to look at the pictures of the people that I didn’t really care about. Closing the app after several minutes of the scrolling, I opened Instagram, another app that he owns, to scroll mindlessly at different content from the same people that I didn’t really care about.

In a documentary I once watched, named ‘Hate Rising’ featuring the journalist Jorge Ramos, I saw a homeless Mexican man who stayed in the United States talking to Jorge⁶. The man explained in details about a very unpleasant encounter he had with some very unpleasant people. The homeless man was beaten in the night as he was sleeping on the road and was peed on. Yes, peed on. Because he dared to be poor and of another race. His day job consisted of picking up garbage off the street in a banged up supermarket trolley. He segregated it and sold it for nickels and dimes. Just imagine being a middle-aged homeless man living in a country where you are surrounded by people who do not belong to your race and hate you for that.

Oh, by the way, did I mention he had cancer?

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

source

Time- Sometime in early 2018
Place- Bangalore, India

My hands were almost black after lifting the incredibly dirty luggage up the four stairs. As I looked at the luggage lying around in my new house, I felt hunger rising inside me. I turned the geyser on and waited for the water to get hot. I had to take a quick bath and head off to work. As I was waiting, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it. My flatmate tagged along to see who had come.

“Sir, I work as a cleaner in the building. Do you want someone to clean the apartment every day?” the man asked. He seemed very genuine.
“We can’t afford an everyday maid. How about every alternate day?” I asked.
“Sure, sir, That would work.” He said, his smile never wavering.

“How much will you charge?”

“Sir, how much can you pay?” He asked. His smile did not reduce.
“I used to pay 700 rupees at my previous home. Would that work?” I said, lying. I used to pay more than 700. Exactly three hundred rupees more.

His smile died just a little. “Sir, that won’t be enough.”

“We will discuss and let you know.” I said with a polite and perhaps pretentious smile thinking it had been a conversation where I had won. Thinking it had been a conversation where it was necessary for me to win. Looking back, my victory signified absolutely nothing.

He nodded and regained the smile and walked away.

I looked at my flatmate and shrugged. He went back to playing songs. Happy by Pharrell Williams came on.

Later the same night, I paid four hundred rupees for extra cheesy pizzas.

He belongs to the 50%. He belongs so far down the list that perhaps the cab guy that I had encountered would probably look like Bill Gates to him.

It is very easy to assert dominion over the poor. The poor do not care about the fancy money making methods. They don’t care about investment, and stocks, and renewable energy, and technology. They are hungry. And cold. And surprisingly accepting of their circumstances. And it is a chain that goes on and on sometimes crossing generations.

We are so blissfully unaware of our privilege that we mistake it for our right. Do we have the right to spend thousand rupees in a dinner at a fancy restaurant when the cab driver who brought us to the restaurant got paid less than fifty rupees? He would have to make twenty trips to earn a thousand rupees. I don’t think we have the right. We have privilege. And perhaps that is all we have ever had. Carlin said, correctly so, our privilege is temporary. It is when we lose it that we understand the monumental significance of it. Perhaps capitalism is unjust. Perhaps heredity is a concept we ought to be rid of. Perhaps someday enough people will realize this fact and there will be a collective need to change the society.

Until then, if nothing else, the least that we can do is to be just a little bit more aware of our accidental privilege. Because, at the end of our Ozymandias statues, what remains?

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Note- There is no attempt of defamation in the post. I respect all the people who I have named on the top. I also admire their achievements and learn from them. A lot of them are doing invaluable services to the world, I am fully aware of that. The point is only the distribution of wealth.

References & Links-

1] http://time.com/money/5073526/billionaires-net-worth-jeff-bezos-mark-zuckerberg/
2] https://www.forbes.com/profile/jeff-bezos/
3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/16/worlds-eight-richest-people-have-same-wealth-as-poorest-50
4] http://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/mukesh-ambani-net-worth-indian-billionaires-2017-bloomberg-ril/story/266811.html
5] https://www.businessinsider.in/Heres-how-Facebook-CEO-Mark-Zuckerberg-and-wife-Priscilla-Chan-spend-their-74-billion-fortune/articleshow/61164533.cms
6] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6123930/