Poverty and Values

I was involved in an… altercation a few nights ago. Well… altercation might be overly dramatic a word. But words were crossed in public, and I found myself struggling with an internal dilemma.

bicycle rickshaw

The setup: Some friends and I had hired two cycle-rickshaws to take us home, with a stop en route to pick up laundry. The price, which we had agreed upon in advance before starting the journey, was 30 rupees (~$0.60) per rickshaw. Along the way, one of the rickshaws takes a wrong turn, resulting in a delay of about ten minutes while they regroup with us and we continue onwards. Upon arriving at our destination, I hand over 100 rupees to my driver on behalf of me and Deven, who rode with me in the rickshaw, expecting 70 rupees change. Instead, the driver hands me 60. And so the altercation begins.

Deven is Indian and therefore does most of the talking when it comes to dealing with other Indians. He quickly notices what has happened and starts talking very quickly to the rickshaw driver, who is soon joined by his colleague from the second rickshaw. They go back and forth for a while, and I realize that they’re claiming that, due to the delay, the cost of the ride has increased to 40 rupees (a difference of about $0.20). Deven insists that the delay was not our fault, but rather the fault of the second rickshaw driver (which is true), and therefore we shouldn’t have to pay for it.

A crowd starts to develop (drawn, no doubt, by the two white girls in our group). The debated drags on for several long minutes, and the crowd quickly grows into a small throng of 15 or so people listening intently to the debate between Deven and the rickshaw drivers. I feel a subtle sense of alarm–what if this crowd somehow decides my group was in the wrong?–but brush it aside.

As the debate continues, I find myself struggling with the ethical issues at play. On one hand, my group had made a deal with the rickshaw drivers. They would convey us to our destination, and in exchange we would compensate them 30 rupees per rickshaw. As opposed to rickshaw drivers who choose to operate by meter, whose fare increases as the distance increases, these drivers opted for a negotiated contract. It was a contract fairly drawn–my group was under no duress to accept, and neither were they. It was, as far as these things go, fair. In attempting to unilaterally increase the fare ex-post, they were exceeding the bounds of the contract, and my group was completely justified in our refusal to pay. This is the first half of my dilemma.

On the other hand, the amount of money they were requesting was almost meaningless to me, but very meaningful to them. I could lose 10 rupees (~$0.20)and not even notice. If I was in a rush, I might not even stop to pick up 10 rupees I saw on the street. In my world, that amount barely registers. For them, on the other hand, these 10 rupees could mean the difference between going to be hungry or going to be full. It could mean a pair of shoes for one of their children. To people surviving on so little, 10 rupees means something.

What does it mean, when in India I stand my ground and demand my change? What am I standing for? The principle of contracts? Of fair dealings? Of honest wages (for these wages, although scant by my standards, are honest–these are unskilled workers, being paid what the market seems to be willing to bear)? Am I standing for my right to be treated with respect? What does it mean, to demand respectful treatment for someone over whom I possess tremendous power and privilege? What does it mean, to uphold a contract made–albeit fairly–between two such massively asymmetrical parties?

How should I understand the extra time and effort that was needed to get my group to our destination because of the wrong turn? The rickshaw drivers gave us more of their time and energy, and, according to the contract, we owed them nothing in return. Is that just? On the other hand, if we do owe them something for their effort (which makes intuitive sense), how can we decided what it is? Further, is anything more truly owed? If the extra energy the rickshaw drivers spent on us was a result of their error, does my group have any obligation to compensate them? We also spent extra time on the detour, and so perhaps we should expect the rickshaw drivers to compensateĀ us. Who exactly is obliged to who? This, I think, is why we have contracts.

And what about my other values? What about my desire to see a world in which needs are met? My principle of treating people with kindness and generosity? My hope to be a source of strength to others? Am I not–at least somewhat–turning my back on those values by withholding 10 rupees from a poor man?

Is there perhaps another form of justice, higher than that of fair contracts?

But on the other hand, where does that argument end? If I allow these 10 rupees to slip, shouldn’t I be giving 10 rupees as alms to every beggar I come across, as a tip to every driver who conveys me? How long, in a country of such poverty, until even my resources are exhausted? And, after I have been consumed, what difference would have been made?

Eventually, Deven won over the crowd and the rickshaw drivers were compelled to hand over the contentious 10 rupees. Drivers excluded, everyone (my group, and the assembled crowd) seemed content with the outcome, as if their sense of order had been preserved. I was less certain, and still puzzling.

How does one give in a world that needs more than you have?

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