Category Archives: Poverty

Meet Shyam, The 11-Year-Old Snake Charmer

Shyam-11 year old snake charmer

This is the story of Shyam, whom this author met at a restaurant at the Delhi-Agra highway. He had a tale to be told so here it is.

How many of us have come back home after a bad day at office and thrown things around because of a bad meeting, bad boss, poor traffic, a stuck deal etc. While doing all this, little do we realise, that in a country where a third of the population lives upon what Montek Singh Ahluwalia calls enough income (Rs 30 per day), we are blessed to actually be on that road with a car, in that office with an AC and a computer, in a job with a 6 figure salary. Look around you and there are numerous without even basic amenities of food, clothing and shelter. This is one such story.

Meet Shyam, an 11-year-old, snake charmer from Kosi. For my western friends am sure being 11-year-old and being a snake charmer might sound a little unbelievable but in this country which is often presented in marketing meetings as the biggest market in Emerging countries, there are villages where 2-year-kids start training on learning to charm snakes as without any formal education and support, this is the only career they entitle themselves to.

I happened to jump onto this young lad when I was stepping out of a restaurant at the Delhi-Jaipur old highway. As usual after having splurged Rs 500 on a unnecessary lunch alongside my wife, I was headed towards my car for an afternoon siesta as my Driver would drive me back to Delhi. Suddenly I heard the sweetest “Bye Bye” I had ever heard. Just outside I saw Shyam with his friend, a snake.

As Shyam saw me interested, he lifted his snake and moved towards me with enthusiasm you only associate with someone who loves his job. At 11 years of age am not sure whether he really loved his job or whether he was trained so well. As he came towards me, I could not stop but wait to talk to him and here I am, narrating his story to all of you.

Shyam is all but 11-years of age. Studies and after his school helps his family by sitting outside the restaurant alongside his snake. I could not refrain myself from asking a foolish question. Whether he was scared of the snake or not. His reply was obvious “He is like my friend, I know it since a long time now and it never bites me”.

Shyam has a father who often drinks and beats up his mother, a mother who is often ill and two sisters who are 2 years and four years elder to him respectively. He says that they will get the older one married soon (I did not ask him whether he was known to the fact that getting a girl below the age of 18, married, entitles legal action).

So what does Shyam wants to become when he grows old. He wants to become an engineer and wants to study in the prestigious IIT. Believe me the kid knew this and also wanted to touch the tab I was carrying in my hands. I gave him that opportunity and he thanked me with all glitter that he could generate in those small eyes. I continued to talk to him as he fondled with my machine. I was a little scared about it but then Shyam was one kid who knew how to handle machines, he gave that feeling at least.

So how do you study I asked at home? “Oh that is not a problem at all, we have a light just outside our house which works almost all the time, that is where I study”. Remember the stories our mom’s used to say of IAS officers having become what they are studying under the streetlights. Why go far, don’t we remember the kind of struggles APJ Abdul Kalam undergo while he was studying to become India’s best weapons scientist.

So what kind of problems do you face I asked and what are you scared of. “My father beats me when I get home with less money.” It is here that I felt a pain pang in my heart. Such a sweet kid, wants to study, helps the family at a tender age when kids his age would be playing in the sun and still gets beaten up, I thought. How many times does he beat? Almost daily he said.

Leaving the beating aside our Shyam was happy with everything life has bestowed on him. He was happy to be sitting outside the restaurant with a wild snake while people eat in air-conditioned restaurant inside. But yes he has big dreams, he has dreams of gifting his mother a restaurant like this because he says that his mom cooks awesome food and he would like everyone to eat what she makes.

Moral of the real-life story is simple. Life outside is as tough as anything can get. Only the toughest can and will survive but the one’s that will be remembered would be the ones who survived it with a smile. I will thus definitely for all my life remember Shyam, the 11-year-old snake charmer.

It was time to say good bye and again the thank you that he said when I gifted him packets of chocolate, biscuit and money was the biggest gratification I could have received for anything I had done till date. Shyam, I would again meet you and pray that you step up the gas further and become India’s biggest and bestest engineer ever.


सब खवाब हुए धूमिल…..


पैदा हुवा मै जिस दिन, माँ-बाप मुस्कुराये I

थी तंग घर की हालत, लड्डू ना बाँट पाये I I

बस आस उम्मीदों में, बचपन भी मेरा बीता I

हर हसरत रही अधूरी, लगता रहा पलीता I I

ना शिक्षा मिली ढंग की, ना काम ढंग का पाया I

संघर्षों ने जर्जर, कर डाली मेरी काया I I

शादी भी मैंने कर ली, पैदा किये दो बच्चे I

हालात अपने फिर भी, हो पाए नहीं अच्छे I I

महीने से हफ्ता पहले, घर में ना टिकता राशन I

तब खाने को मिलता है बीवी का केवल भाषण I I

पीता हूँ ख़ूनी आंसू , है ह्रदय मेरा ज़ख्मी I

जीवन में सदा मुझसे, रूठी रही है, लक्ष्मी I I

सब खवाब हुए धूमिल, अरमान सारे टूटे I

है आखिरी तमन्ना, ये प्राण तन से छूटे I I

हे ईश!  मेरे मुझको, बस इतना डर सताता I

जिस राह से मै गुजरा, बच्चों का ना हो नाता I I


Conceptualizing Urban Poverty: A Case Study


Malathy Madathilezham has conducted a tour among communities of the urban poor. Here is a case study on urban poverty – the health, housing and livelihood problems of the urban poor.

The Moragaon community, located in Juhu, which initially developed as a community largely dependent on fishing and fishing related activities for their livelihood has grown both in number and diversity. There are about 400 households currently in this community which comprises of the Kolis and migrants, including Christian migrants. This has resulted in conflict within the community, more so because of the increased land value and also increased commercial interest on this particular stretch. During the visits to Moragaon for an assignment, I was able to build up a rapport with a Koli family which gave me certain insights on urban poverty.

The first time I had the opportunity to interact with them was during the initial visit to conduct a pilot survey of the community. The family was generally friendly and open about answering all my questions. The living conditions were not as dismal as many others in the same place, but their ‘home’ consisted of a single room of about 120 sq. ft. which had all of their belongings neatly arranged in it.The structure was made of brick and the roof was of tin. They told me that they had renovated the earlier structure about ten years back and after that could not afford any further modifications. This is where they slept, cooked and washed. The lane outside was barely a metre and half, covered.

While dealing with the urban poor, housing is one of the major concerns. With the increased urbanization, there is increased cost of housing in terms of land, construction etc. Thus the poor are left with no options but to convert unused, unsafe kind of land to meet the need of shelter.

The responsibility of managing the household falls on the shoulders of Laxmi Mangelga[1]. She used to sell fish till last year when she had to stop because of chronic health problems. She did not disclose the exact problem. In spite of this, she now works as a domestic help in the residential complex nearby and earns about Rs 3000-4000 per month. The husband, Asok Mangela, works in a boat and draws a salary of Rs 3,500. I asked him about what he did during the off-season time, he said there is nothing to do during those times and he prefers to rest. There may be some maintenance work which crops up which he undertakes. So basically during those two three months, Laxmi is the sole earning member.

Here it can be seen that health and livelihood are the other main concerns of the urban poor who are mostly engaged in informal work which denies them the benefits of formal work such as insurance. In addition in this family, the burden of income falls on the woman which makes this family even more vulnerable to the traps of poverty.


Laxmi said that she had to collect water from the common tap some distance away as they could neither afford a common nor a single connection as normally done in the community. She said that she was recently only able to get a valid gas connection for cooking. They did have a direct electricity connection, but complained about high bills in spite of using only one CFL lamp and a fan. They had to use the public toilet that was built for the community which neither had direct water connection nor electricity. She also complained that the toilets were poorly maintained.

Services to urban poor residing in such ‘slums’ or ‘gaothans’ are given the least priority by the authorities concerned. One of the reasons that is often given by officials is the non payment of user charges. With the advent of neo liberal policies, the thrust is towards reducing expenses and increasing revenue.Thus most of the common taps in Mumbai are becoming dysfunctional and there is a rise of water mafias in most of such settlements. This actually means that the urban poor have to pay more than they would have for government services. In addition even the amount of water that the urban poor have access to is much less than the required per capital consumption and they also lack the space to store water in case of shortages.

Whenever I have gone to their house I have found Asok in a semi-inebriated condition and Laxmi in charge of the situation even though she looked resigned and exhausted. They have three children; 2 daughters, Devi and Bhanumati and Hiren who is about 4.  Devi is the eldest one, 12 years old and Bhanumati is 9 years old. Laxmi told that even though both of them were illiterate they want their children to study. She added sadly told me that they were sending both of them to an English medium school nearby till last year but because of her health problem and financial constraints, they had to put them in the municipal school. She said that hopefully by next year they would be able to put them back into the English medium school. Hiren is to join school next year. I asked her whether she would want her daughters to work when they grew up. She said that is the reason that she wanted her daughters to get a good education so that they could get a stable job and marry good men who would be responsible and also have a stable job. She also wanted her son to study and get a stable government job. When I got an opportunity to talk to the children, I asked them about what they wanted to do when they grew up. Devi, who seemed to be wise beyond her years, said that she wanted to be teacher while Bhanumati said that she wanted to be an athlete. Hiren, like most boys his age, wanted to become a bus driver.


Laxmi had a bank account in her name and tried to save at least Rs 500 per month. Talking about their monthly expenditure, Laxmi said that they were rarely able to save anything nowadays because major part of the income was spent on food and her medicines. According to her, they spent about Rs 4,000 per month on food. She said it was very difficult with three growing children in the house to compromise on food. In addition they spent about 2000 per month on the girls’ education. As she enumerated their expenses I realized that they actually exceeded the amount they had quoted as their income.

When I asked Asok if he is happy with his current situation he said that he is happy because he has a roof above his head and this is the best they can achieve with the given constraints. But Laxmi said that though there is a limit on how much they can improve their current condition, she would want her daughters to have a better life. She was ready to take on extra hardship for that.

It can be seen that the family has high aspirations and wants to come out of the exisitng situation. They very well understand the importance of nutrition, savings and education in this. This actually is against the concept of the ‘culture of poverty’ which in a way blames the poor themselves for their dismal conditions. One of the problems they face is that of alcoholism in men which pushes back their ability to cope up and increase their incomes. This could also lead to additional expenses in the future due to potential health risks.

Laxmi was more actively involved in the community association than her husband and once the interview had to be cut short since a man from the association had called her to be present in a meeting. I asked about this and she said that in times of need she could always fall back on the community. Thus she wanted to maintain a good relationship with the community and take part actively for the good of the community

Conceptualization of Poverty 

While interviewing Laxmi Mangela and her family, there are various perspectives of poverty which can be understood. In terms of the official definition of poverty the family is definitely above the poverty line in terms of income.  But let us try to apply the nine point index of urban poverty that Kudumbashree has used in identifying those vulnerable to poverty.A family is treated as a ‘risk family’ if it satisfies at least four out of the nine point.

Conditions                                                               Are the conditions are met?

1        No Land /Less than 5 cents of Land                                                  Yes

2        No house/Dilapidated House                                                  No

3        No sanitary latrines.                                                                            No

4        No access to safe drinking water within 150 metres                          Yes

5        Women headed household/ Presence of a widow/ divorcee  No

/ abandoned lady / unwed mother

6        No regularly employed person in the family                           No

7        Socially disadvantaged groups : SC/ST                                              Yes

8        Presence of Mentally or physically challenged person /                     Yes

Chronically ill member in the family

9        Families without colour TV                                                                Yes

Based on this framework, this family can be categorized to be in the risk family category. But analyzing their situation we can realize how even this seemingly broad framework ignores aspects of alcoholism, education, variations in income, occupational risk etc.

According to me, due to Asok’s alcoholism, for all purposes, Laxmi was the head of the household. All the responsibilities were on her shoulder.  It was she who had to ensure that she could take care of the current needs and also save for future requirements. In this case she contradicts the general thinking that the poor live a day to day existence and do not plan for the future. The condition was such that in spite of her recurrent and chronic illness she was forced to work to provide for her family. This shows the vulnerability of the family to poverty. The health risk that Laxmi is taking for the good of her family could have a backlash in case she falls so sick that she is not able to work. This would put the family in a dire situation.

In terms of access to amenities, they do have access but it is questionable in terms of the price they have to pay and the quality of these amenities. It is a drain on their limited resources or requires an added effort to obtain (eg : water).

The aspirations part is also interesting to note. There is a resignation and realization that she may not be able to achieve a better standard of living but at the same time she wants her children to live a better life. There is understanding about the importance of education in providing a solution to their current condition. They do not want their children to follow the same livelihood that they are forced to choose because of various constraints. It can be said that they want to prepare their next generation for a better future.


By understanding the situation of poverty in the case of Laxmi Mangela, it can be seen that there are many dimensions to poverty which needs to be examined. This can help not only to understand the problem of poverty but also to tackle the manifestations of poverty.

[1] Names have been changed