During my school days in rural Kerala in the 1940s, life was spartan and luxuries we take for granted today were unknown. My village had an agricultural community. There was no electricity in my house or anywhere else. We used to walk to school barefoot, though it was more than 5 km away.
Small shops sold bare essentials, things which were not locally produced. For buying other commodities, we had to travel to faraway towns. New clothes, the bare minimum required, were bought only once a year during the festival season.
If somebody got sick, only local remedies were at hand. Modern medical facilities were available in towns where one went only if absolutely necessary. Transport facilities were limited.
In my childhood, epidemics such as cholera and smallpox were not unusual, and when they happened, they ran their course taking many lives. Viral and bacterial diseases which we today take in our stride, were often fatal. Lifestyle and age-related diseases were less common than today, probably because only the fittest lived to a ripe old age. “Old age” then was young by today’s standards.
Were we “poor”? My family and those at that economic level did not consider ourselves poor mainly because our needs were limited. We had enough food, clothing and shelter. Medical and recreational facilities were considered adequate. Family ties were strong. Our parents were able to provide us basic education and in some cases, even higher education. Agriculture provided a livelihood if one was ready to do hard work, and salaried jobs were available for the privileged few.
This happy state of affairs was enjoyed by only a few. The majority of the populace lived below the poverty line, drawn well below “acceptable” standards.
Poverty was there all around me. People suffering from hunger and diseases, high infant mortality and children dying or stunted by malnutrition and life in squalour and poor hygiene too were all around me. My generation grew up witnessing a new technological revolution, into privileges and lifestyle changes which took place at a bewildering pace, mind-boggling compared with the range of advances that my parents experienced during their lifetime. I am fully conscious that people like me are enjoying the benefits of advancements brought about mainly by the developed nations at a considerable cost to natural resources and by causing environmental degradation. The people of the less developed world are certainly not trying to slow down in this race towards progress, but are trying to fast catch up. Development experts and environmental activists assure us that unless drastic action is taken, earth is fast moving towards destruction, be it due to global warming, climate change, resource depletion or other disasters.
Do I feel guilty about it? The answer is, “yes” and “no”. “No”, because the suffering and deprivations that I have experienced during the early days of my life are fresh in my mind. Just as the world of more than two centuries ago accepted and enjoyed the fruits of the Industrial Revolution without a thought for the negative side of the changes, people of my generation accept the upward spiral of lifestyle changes as our right without guilt. It has always been like that, the onward march with the slogan “Excelsior”. The weak may fall by the wayside, the earth may change irreversibly, there is no stopping progress. Did you ask, “How dare you? We are on the brink of a mass extinction and all we can talk about is material comforts and eternal economic growth”, to borrow Greta Thunberg’s words. In my deep conscience, such questions raise their heads. I have learnt to close my mind to such inconvenient thoughts. Yes, in my heart, I feel guilty.
(The author is a retired Professor