Rakhee Ghelani

Business Consultant, Writer and Traveller

How to change your perception of wealth in India?

When I moved to India I left behind, what many would consider, a very good career.  I was a senior manager in a big bank, and had a lot of opportunity to progress and develop.  I just needed a change, the corporate rat race wasn’t really for me anymore.

Whilst I left my job, I had still saved with the intention of being able to take time off in India and travel, before feeling the need or financial pressure to settle down and find a job.  Having been in India for only 3 weeks, what is blazingly obvious is that my perception of what is expensive or cheap is very different from that of a local. I still haven’t adjusted my own perceptions of wealth.

Depending upon what source you look at on the internet, the average income in India is between US$500 and US$6,000 per annum.  Whichever way you look at it, compared to Western incomes, the average Indian earns significantly less.  That said, the cost of living can also be incredibly cheap (from a Western perspective).  Today (excluding accommodation) I spent Rs775 (US$17.20). It was a relatively expensive day, as I ate at quite nice restaurants.  What did I get for my Rs775?

– Breakfast of toast, tea and lime juice

– 4 taxi rides

– Palak Paneer, steamed rice and lemon juice

– Entrance to the Lake Palace Museum and a personal guide

– Chocolate brownie and lemon juice

– Large bottle of mineral water

Clearly I do like my citrus juices, thankfully they are specialty in India.  If I tried to purchase something similar in Australia, at an estimate the same day would have cost me at least US$150.  That’s a very big differential.

I had a little chuckle to myself when my friend (Tortoise Tales) asked me to send her some Rakhi’s for TT and offered to deposit the money in my account for the gift.  I laughed because after I selected about 15 Rakhi’s, bought a card, had them packed and sent by airmail, I had spent a total of $3.40.  She can buy me a coffee next time I see her.

Whilst I have spent so little here, to a local I look considerably wealthy.  It’s not just what I eat, but the mode of transport I choose and the way I dress (and I am certainly not glamorous!).  Everything about me screams wealth, and I can feel myself cringing as a local looks at me when I walk past.

However, I can’t seem to find a way out of it.  The extremes of wealth and poverty are so vast here.  In the same streets where a wealthy doctor parks their brand new Audi, is a family of four living under a plastic sheet 2m by 2m. It is not only foreigners or recent arrivals, the wealth divide exists for locals who have been fortunate by birth or opportunity.

As a Westerner though, I am finding these extremes between wealth and poverty here just heartbreaking to watch. Even though I have seen them before, after all this is my eighth visit to India.  The wealthy can be almost obscene in their display.  Big, expensive cars, flashy jewellery and servants for everything imaginable. If one can afford to pay someone to do something, they certainly don’t do it themselves.

Yet, I still sit here in the comfort of my air-conditioned room, tapping away on my laptop worth more than the average income here. Something tells me there must be more I can do to help bridge this gap, but I am not sure what it is that I can do that would actually make a difference.

I also didn’t come to India with the idea of saving people, it’s certainly not in my nature. I am happy to help people, but  I come from the school of thought where you teach someone to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.  But in India, it is almost impossible to know where to start, everywhere you turn there is someone in need, it’s very overwhelming.  I don’t think I am adequately equipped to help them, and I am not sure it’s what I really want to do here.  But certainly the itch to do something other than flaunt my perceived wealth is certainly strong.  I guess as the days and weeks go on, and I travel more of this country, I will see what it is I do or don’t do to bridge the wealth gap.

19 comments on “How to change your perception of wealth in India?

  1. Pingback: Keeping the Poor Down: India’s Growth Strategy « Rakhee Ghelani

  2. Leonie Greenwood
    April 3, 2012

    Hi Rakhee,
    I am really enjoying your thoughtful, well written blog. In reply to your comment on how many servants the wealthy employ – every servant is someone not having to beg for a living and they are able to help provide food and shelter for their family.
    This fact was brought home to Herb and I when we stayed with expat friends in Manila in 1965. On arrival, they were told by others in the expat community how many staff they should employ on their salary level as a contribution to the prosperity of the local community.
    Leonie Greenwood

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      April 3, 2012

      Thanks Leonie, that makes sense and as long as the staff are treated well then their employment is definitely contributing to the well being of the community.

  3. Pingback: Adventures in the Desert Part 2: Pabu ki Dhani « aussiegirlinindia

  4. raisingdot
    August 28, 2011

    humanity at its best and worst, nonetheless it is real. 1.2 billion is it? goodness i think india does an amazing job. its so very hard to travel and to try and leave our own perceptions at home. i know there are some micro finance loan thingys set up for women in some of the slums in india, perhaps thats a start ? x

    • aussiegirlinindia
      August 28, 2011

      Its certainly a thought that has crossed my mind. I will see what else inspires me as I travel. Cheers

  5. srini
    August 25, 2011

    @Terry “happier” comes from the social safety fabric that extends from joint families nd extended families n the relations with cousins if harmonius! (middle-class lifestyle in India). In rural India, the social fabric keeps them going! It also helps that rural folks n middle classes who have not had exposure to western countries do not know that a lifestyle around malls, city-jobs, cars & suburbs exists at all.

    The people here wealthy or not have their share of problems, in terms of aspirations, working hard to sustain family, envious & jealous of others success, job-satisfaction etc.

    devotion n belief in god, spiritualism adds to being content n stay rooted and get along with ones life with the means available. elaborate rituals in worship, keeps the mind occupied and following the rituals religiously does make the ordinary India being rooted with what one has!

  6. Terry Stuart
    August 25, 2011

    They may perceive you to be ‘wealthier’…but do you think they think you’re happier? Do you think you are? They could probably teach us all a thing or two about learning to be happy just with what we have.

    • aussiegirlinindia
      August 25, 2011

      I think your right about that.

      The difference is in some respects I am “happier” in that I have proper shelter, food and water, whereas so many here don’t.

  7. srini
    August 22, 2011

    .. would be naive to think that by few visits n from one’s perception of what they see, feel, observe, think and analyse, one could make a diff, unless one has studied something on development economies like a scientist or economist or a phianthropist who could invest a certain amount and work with govt/ngos to implement such programs! Even those generous investments will have a secret agenda of the sponsors! Keep travelling n post your observations! nice to read them here!

  8. Eliza
    August 21, 2011

    How to ensure my child can cope with the poverty and begging is what stops me from planning a trip there ASAP.

  9. Jo
    August 21, 2011

    Am interested to discuss this further with you when I am there as I imagine I will find the poverty pretty distressing.
    Also can I just say I LUUURVE palak paneer :). So very excited to see it is pretty cheap!

    • aussiegirlinindia
      August 21, 2011

      I will be interested to hear your thoughts after seeing it firsthand. Do not fear my friend, we will eat very well here :-)

  10. Jess
    August 21, 2011

    I am constantly overwhelmed by the mammoth task of helping people out of disadvantage. While I do macro activities like be involved in a political party that concerns itself with the issue more than others, donate regularly to UNICEF etc, on an individual level I always have to come back to the starfish analogy, which I am sure you’re well across. No, you can’t save all of the starfish/people, but you can make a difference to one starfish/person at a time. You are already doing this and as TM has said above, you will probably find other opportunities leap out at you.

  11. TortoiseMum
    August 21, 2011

    Oooh I am so looking forward to getting that parcel :)

    I’m glad you’ve written about wealth disparity in India. I don’t know if you remember that I was reading a book called India Calling? The author talks about this stuff as well. He talks about how wealthy people flaunt their wealth and how it’s culturally appropriate to be ostentatious. It’s a bit of a strange concept to us I guess because flaunting your wealth is Not Cool in Australia.

    I would be deeply affected by the abject poverty, illness, oppression … I haven’t travelled much, but when I think back to the places I’ve travelled, alongside the memories of delicious meals and fascinating buildings and glorious landscapes, are memories of a little beggar girl following me for hours across a city, like a wraith. It was a long time ago but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that little girl.

    I can totally understand feeling overwhelmed by the scale of “the problem”. I guess you can only do what you can do. You can’t solve the problems of the world, or of India, or even of one village. But perhaps you can find something that will make you feel like you’re making a difference. It’s early days in your trip yet but I suspect that when you find the right opportunity it will be instantly recognisable. You don’t get to be senior manager at the bank without learning some assessment skills, some critical thinking skills and some how-to skills.

    • aussiegirlinindia
      August 21, 2011

      I suspect there will be many more posts about wealth disparity.

      If begging distresses you, I suggest not coming to India, unfortunately it is impossible to avoid.

  12. Eliza
    August 20, 2011

    Do you stand out as a Westerner or do they just assume you are a wealthy local? Do the wealthy Indians dress in western clothes all of the time or a more expensive version of what the not so wealthy dress in?

    • aussiegirlinindia
      August 21, 2011

      No one here sees me as Indian. They assume I am white, Spanish comes up a lot. The wealthy locals dress in local dress, more expensive versions though. The difference I think is a few things, the way I walk and carry myself is western, I have been told a local does it differently. Also a wealthy local would never walk somewhere, they would have a car and driver, yet I walk everywhere or take a rickshaw.

  13. srini
    August 20, 2011

    the little change u can make is something on lines of imparting ur knowledge to the locals..perhaps thru education!

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