The rich in India

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The rich in India

US research has made Urvashi Butalia think about how rich people behave in Delhi.

My office is in an urban village in the middle of Delhi. In the past it was in the middle of fields of crops, but now it is all apartment blocks and shopping malls. There are still a few old houses from the village and a few offices and shops. There are still some old customs, and a strong community feeling. In the evenings, women and children all come out of their houses in Shahpur Jat and go to the village haat – a market where you can buy fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, eggs, plastic goods and almost anything else. But that was until about a year ago. I still remember the day when this market ended.


Privilege is very important in the southern Indian city of Chennai. (Babu Babu / Reuters)

It was about 6 o’clock in the evening in summer. People were shopping at the market, buying things from the carts. Some cars and auto-rickshaws were passing through slowly, being careful not to hit children and animals.

Then a large SUV (car)came – the driver was young and rich. He beeped his horn loudly for people to get out of the way; no-one paid attention. He tried again, he leaned out of the car and shouted, he made a lot of noise with his car. No effect: the market cart near him was doing good business, another cart went past and just touched his car. Suddenly, before anyone could realize what was happening, this young man jumped out of his car. He pulled the onion cart in front of his car and knocked it over. All the onions went all over the road. He picked up and threw the heavy metal scales at the seller, who quickly got out of the way. People ran away, the young man proudly got back into his car and drove away. Since that day, there has been no village market. The people are too frightened to come on to the road, children don’t play there and cars can now drive freely.

This is not unusual in India. It’s not a problem of road rage. It’s about being rich, and the privilege and hard arrogance that is part of being rich. It’s something I’ve always thought about: the rich have so much, what does this money do to their minds so that they always want more and they don’t want anyone else to have anything? Why does money make the rich people lose all their feelings of humanity and compassion?

Here is another story: my neighbour in the upper-middle-class area where I live is a man who owns luxury hotels. His house is huge, but as soon as he moved in, he took control of about half of the pavement space at the front and side of his house. This means other people have less space to park, there is less pavement for children, and less walking space for everyone. At least half of the 400 houses in this area have done the same. They have also forced the only roadside tea stall in the area to close and leave. It made tea for all the local guards, drivers, domestics and sweepers.

Who could study the rich?

Where does this behaviour come from? You think that if people have more than they need, they will be generous, and they will see that other people might want to have more as well. But this is not true. I read about the experiments in the US by researchers Michael Kraus, Dacher Keltner, Paul Piff about the social and psychological effects of money. It is very interesting.

Who in India would have the courage to study the rich?

I do not know of any similar studies in India. There are many books about poor people (because poor people have no power to refuse to be studied), but no studies about rich people and their behaviour.

So who would study the rich, or maybe who could study the rich? This society, where hierarchy (class and caste) is so important, who would have the courage, and the access, to study them?

For us in India, wealth is completely related to political power. It often involves crime without punishment. There is proof of this in all the recent news stories.

Recently, two wealthy brothers, who were fighting about property, shot each other dead. The government had been selling them licences for alcohol at very low prices. Industry is closely related to politics; and the media are closely related too – they need advertising from the big businesses.

This dangerous combination has become a ‘natural truth’ in India and people do not often question it. The behaviour of the rich is accepted - people often say: ‘that’s what they are like!’

The culture of taking

The rich feel very strongly that they deserve all this. And this has helped everyone to accept the inequalities in India. For example, in the city parks. These are the places where poor people could go and where homeless people could sleep. But people in India assume that our public parks are only for the rich, they push the poor people out and tell them they cannot enter.

Eating the children’s sweets

Recently, scientists in the US have been studying how money affects personality and behaviour. The results are always the same. The rich are different – and not in a good way. Their life experience makes them understand others less and care about others less. They are generally more selfish, according to Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘We have done 12 studies measuring in many different ways how people understand the feelings of others ... and it’s always the same result...’

For example, poorer people are better at understanding the emotions of people in photos than rich people. In videos of conversations, the rich look at their phones more often, draw pictures and do not make eye contact; poorer people make eye contact and nod their heads more often, which shows that they are interested.

In another test, when poorer people could give away points (which represented money), they gave away more points than richer people.

Keltner also studied the vagus nerve. This nerve helps the brain with emotions. When people are shown pictures of starving children, for example, their vagus nerve becomes more active. Keltner has found that this nerve is more active in poorer people.

One of his students, Jennifer Stellar, did a similar experiment using heart rate. The heart becomes slower when people feel compassion. The heart rates of the richest students did not change when they looked at pictures of children with cancer, but the heart rates of poorer students did change. ‘The rich cannot understand,’ Stellar told the New York Magazine.

In 2012 another researcher from the University of California, Paul Piff, published ‘Higher Social Class makes people less ethical’. Using quizzes, online games, questionnaires and other research, Piff also found that richer people are less ethical, more selfish, more insular and have less compassion.

One experiment put people in a room with a bowl of sweets for children. The rich people, were the most likely to take the sweets. Another experiment showed that rich people were three times more likely to cheat than poorer people.

In another study, Piff and his researchers spent three months observing drivers at a busy road junction. They gave cars a grade, from one to five, with five the most expensive. They found that drivers of grade-five cars were the most likely to drive badly, driving out in front of others. Piff then did an experiment to test how drivers think about people crossing roads. A researcher walked onto a zebra crossing as a car came along. Half of the grade-five car drivers didn’t stop. ‘It’s like they didn’t even see the people crossing,’ said Piff.

Can the rich save themselves? We need more studies to show what happens if they give away their money.

Rich people sometimes try to look moral. Recently, three poor Dalit boys started a small fire by mistake in a local community centre where they worked. Their local community leader asked the manager of the centre not to punish them. But the manager said: ‘No, you must be hard to these people, we must punish them, or they will never learn.’ All three boys probably lost their jobs. They were probably the only people in their families with a job.

In the US, the research shows that richer people learn how to take. So, for example, the richer person is more likely to take a child’s sweets than a poorer person. If we talk about money, not sweets, we see this a lot in India. Often, money for development programmes for the poor, is taken by the rich. Land that belongs to the poor is taken to build factories (the Nano plant, for example) without paying any compensation.

Why do people who have so much want more? Why do they act so badly to other people, and why do people accept what they do as ‘natural’? Maybe, soon, people in developing countries will start to look for answers to these questions.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist and historian. She started the publishing house Zubaan in 2003. She often writes for New Internationalist

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