India’s new middle classes – friends of progress or apolitical mall-rats?

November 14, 2012

Delhi by bike; Vinobha rocks; environment setters; partnerpoint; Mayawati’s legacy; caste conundrums; wall truths; a great migration NGO: Final impressions from India

November 14, 2012

India’s Middle Class debate continued: should NGOs be looking in the mirror? Guest post from Bipasha Majumder

November 14, 2012
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On my recent trip to India, I discovered some talented bloggers – here’s Bipasha Majumder, Oxfam India’s Communications Officer inbipasha 1 Mumbai, writing in a purely personal capacity on the Great Middle Class Debate. She also writes a personal blog.

I have had discussions and I have had heated discussions.  Sometimes I have just let the question float in the air, sat back and observed what others had to say.

Whichever way you look at it, one thing is very clear. The great Indian rising middle class is just not bothered. They are largely happy and keen to contribute to the ‘growing’ economy. But when it comes to any kind of contribution to a cause, especially those related to poverty, there is a big wall of apathy around them.

As a friend puts it – there is a bubble around them…. a bubble of ipad, iphones, AC rooms and cars and what they have achieved in life on various levels. It’s not that they are ignorant of the problems afflicting the country. It’s just that it doesn’t affect them directly. If it doesn’t affect them, then there is no point bothering about it. It’s a problem which is out there and for the government to handle.  If prodded on charity, this group will probably turn around and say, ‘I can only donate when my needs have been taken care of – I still have  bank loans to pay, a second car to buy and a trip abroad to book.’

It’s not that the entire middle class is like this. There is a growing section of people who want to give back, to do something for somebody. And they do, mostly in the form of sponsoring the education of girl children or giving out books and old clothes or giving time by teaching kids in slums or orphanages. A few believe in collecting funds and giving it directly to individuals who need help, medical attention etc. Some would go and donate old computers to schools in villages. This set of people will willingly help as long as they know its directly benefiting somebody’s life.….a change that they can see and feel good about.

But this group is also very skeptical about donating to any NGO (not just Oxfam). With so many scams around politically-connected NGOs surfacing and lack of transparency in most, they don’t want their hard earned money to go into somebody else’s pockets. There is a joke that sums up this cynicism – if you want to own land, build a temple and if you want to earn money, open an NGO. During the rise in the global concern on HIV-AIDS, many such dubious NGOs surfaced, collected hefty foreign funds and then disappeared without a trace.

One can keep pointing fingers at the apathy of the middle class, but the situation within the social sector is not that rosy either. Apart from the fact that many NGOs (some known ones also) do have dubious financial histories, many others are mostly a one-man show working on the whims and fancies of this individual. (For example – a leading Indian NGO on education (better known internationally than within India) has no long term strategy or clear monitoring and evaluation system. If one fine day, the founder decides to work on improving the quality of teachers through training, then the whole system  starts working only around that. Yet, this organisation has won many awards). Quite a lot of others operate without any clear strategy or goals and work only in silos. Despite rising questions from the rest of the society, most of these NGOs are not ready to change or engage with the public (read middle class).…. which only feeds into the general distrust.

I recently met a 60 years plus Sarpanch (Head of the village local governance system or Panchayat) of Lata village in Uttarakhand (a newly created Himalayan state). This not so educated person told me, “Everybody in this country wants the others to change. We all want to earn quick money, we all tell lies and yet we look at others and say ‘they shouldn’t do it’. If you want any kind of change, you have to change yourself first.”

India’s middle class might be apathetic now, but they have a huge potential to change. But for them to change, the social sector needs to change first. A few scenes from my own experience:

  • An NGO working on education cannot have volunteer teachers (or para-teachers) who spell BLACK as BLECK and teaches kids that only one Emperor penguin lays egg while the rest huddle to give warmth to that egg.
  • A wildlife conservation NGO cannot have staff who throw plastic on the road or forests carelessly while stopping villagers (who they work with) from doing the same.
  • An NGO working on public health cannot be successful if they do not teach people how to manage waste.

Even though I am now a part of this sector and hence reluctant to pass hasty judgments on NGOs, I find it difficult to trust organizations which clearly miss out on the basics. Dealing with the over critical middle class means looking in the mirror, as well as changing middle class attitudes to philanthropy.


  1. I whole heartedly agree with you Bipasha as I myself fall in this middle class category you have mentioned and at times am completely at a loss to understand why so many educated people cannot and do not want to do something about the situation in and around us. Why is it that most of the times we are the ones who instead of taking any action wait for someone else to take the initiative to make the required changes in the society we live in. Also true what the Sarpanch in Uttarakhand told you as long as the happenings in and around us do not affect our little world it hardly matters who is suffering and how. Our society is becoming insensitive to the needs of humans over that for material things.

  2. Dear Bipisha,

    You seem to be cut from the same cloth as Duncan, looking down on others and ignoring Oxfam’s multiple faults. I’m really getting the sense that Oxfam employees are getting really frustrated by the laziness, selfishness, ineptutude and lack of integrity of everyone else.

    The perpetuation of poverty is the fault of all of the other useless NGOs and the failure of the middle classes to donate to Oxfam, is it?

    Your point on bad NGOs – My understanding of the MDGs (fully supported by Oxfam) is that the important thing is get a certain number of kids in front of a teacher, regardless of the quality of the teacher – is much of the fault therefore with the MDG approach?

    You point on mean, greedy middle classes – how about considering structural issues rather lumping millions of people together and calling them all selfish?

    I am of the belief that one of the major perpetuators of poverty is the oligarchy of ‘whiter than white’, ‘holier than thou’ western INGOs who have all the answers, blame everyone else and nevertheless have as a bottom line their own self perpetuation and growing their own market share.

    The moment Oxfam et al stop functioning on the primacy of self perpetuation, we might as a planet be able to stop the perpetuation of poverty.

    Yours with great anger and frustration,


  3. PS – your point on on the hypocrisy of illiterate teachers and littering environmentalists:

    Duncan is frequently telling us of his jetting ofF around the world on seemingly essential business (paid for by Oxfam subscribers like myself)and in the same breath castigating those who don’t care about their own carbon footprints and waste public money.


  4. Paul,

    As Duncan has mentioned in the first para itself, this is purely my personal opinion and does not reflect Oxfam’s in any way.

    I have put forward what I have observed around me. You may not agree with this and I respect your opinion on this.

  5. Hi, I am a middle class individual and i fall in the category of someone who likes to give back to the society. But, i believe in doing it my way only because i find that any kind of direct funding to an institution or organisation is not transparent enough… there is no accountability. Also being a journalist i am skeptical and question everything. So far i have never been given a convincing reply on how the fund has been used. And also i find that many NGOs take a stand on a particular issue and never want to look at the other side of the story..there needs to be a balance in whatever you do.

  6. INGOs are one of the main perpetuators of poverty in India – a country with a 1.8 trillion dollar GDP? Wow – I never knew they were so powerful!

  7. Thanks for the points relating to my comment Mandy and Bipasha, but I don’t understand why you both raised that point. I’m not concerned whether you are officially speaking for Oxfam or not. You are expressing worrying believes and opinions that are shared across Oxfam (hence Duncan’s decision to feature your blog).

    The excuse ‘they are my opinions not Oxfam’s’ is very galling. I recall Kate Raworth saying the same thing while standing in front of conference (UN I think), featured on the Oxfam website, representing Oxfam, flight and accomodation presumably paid for by Oxfam. In her speach she advocated criminal vandalism. That Oxfam have disciplined her for this rediculous publicity stunt, baffles me.

    Any way, whether they are your opinions or Oxfam’s it would be very good of you to repsond to my comments (be as critical as you like). Are you saying you can’t engage in debate because they are your opinions and not Oxfam’s? Is your blog a one-way conversation?

    What’s your take, Duncan, Kate, the guys at the Education section?

  8. Your point on bad NGOs – My understanding of the MDGs (fully supported by Oxfam) is that the important thing is get a certain number of kids in front of a teacher, regardless of the quality of the teacher
    You point on mean, greedy middle classes – how about considering structural issues rather lumping millions of people together and calling them all selfish?
    I am of the belief that one of the major perpetuators of poverty is the oligarchy of ‘whiter than white’, ‘holier than thou’ western INGOs who have all the answers, blame everyone else and nevertheless have as a bottom line their own self perpetuation and growing their own market share.

  9. Response to Pete (comment 7).

    INGOs have the power to create APATHY. They deflect any efforts for real structural change by making us all believe that the system works and they are dealing with the ironing the little problems.

    Oxfam and Bidisha are saying the system is fine, it’s just that the middle classes aren’t giving Oxfam enough money (apparently no point in giving to the other NGOs, they’re useless). Unfortunately too many people believe what Oxfam and Bipisha are saying. The result – apathy + perpetuation of poverty.

  10. By the way, has anyone got a rough estimate on how much Oxfam stands to lose when DfID stops its funding in India?

    I now see why Bipisha and Oxfam are so keen to put the screws on the Indian middle classes – got to fill that funding gap from somewhere, haven’t you. It’s all about perpetuation of the self, the system and poverty. (This is harsh of me I know and I appreciate your good intentions, but feel you must address the subconscious subtext of your compromising words and actions).

  11. Dear Reclaim Education,

    I am not very sure where you got the idea that Oxfam advocates for mere enrollment- the advocacy has always been, is, and continues to be for ensuring quality education in its bewildering complexity.

    Also, I thought what the point behind the OP was precisely pointing out that the sector needs to reform. When I read the post I actually thought that Oxfam was also an NGO and therefore covered in this critique.

    Lastly, this was a post about the engagement with the middle class in India, not about the diverse forms of global poverty. Of course structural issues cause poverty- but this isnt what the post is about.

  12. I think people have the right to decide what to do with their own money, with the money they have earned without being judged by anyone. @Reclaim Education: my sense of the article is that she’s actually criticizing NGOs and pointing out the reasons that the middle class distrust them, including Oxfam. When Bispra is describing NGOs in the 5th paragraph she’s talking about structural changes that need to take place in order to gain the trust of individuals who would be able to support their communities financially. I’m not sure that I fully understand your interpretation of the article….

  13. Thanks for engaging Angela and Brittaney. I’ve looked again and stand by my points, although I understand different interpretations are inevitable.

    One difficulty I have with understanding Bipasha’s perspective is the idea that ‘philanthropy’ is the solution to underdevelopment – social services do not depend on philanthropy in the UK or elsewhere as far as I am aware so this idea is new to me. I’m also confused by the idea that middle classes should be criticised for being ‘over-critical’.

  14. Well, Reclaim Education, lets put it this way- there are structural reasons why there is poverty. However, the poor themselves often do not have the information needed to address them, or the connections needed to leverage change. However, if poverty is to end faster than through an ongoing process of historical transformation, someone has to provide that critical information and to leverage engagement with the powers that be for positive change. This is where NGOs come in.

    Unfortunately, these efforts to ensure tangible systemic change are less directly visible than delivering things directly- “the village school doesnt work very well, lets start our own” solutions. It is the latter type of activity that gets more attention (and often money).

    The middle class is criticised for being not engaged with the real problems of society and having lost hope that change is possible. Given that it IS over-critical and given that the middle class DOES have considerable potential for leveraging change that a structural change process should tap into, it essential to address their concerns by addressing whatever warts exist within the development sector itself. Hope this makes sense.

  15. Anjela, Brittany, Pete…thanks. You have said what i wanted to convey in this post.

    Paul/ Reclaim education. I am not sure where you got the notion from this article that i am suggesting solutions to poverty or under-development. That topic requires a separate blog post.

    Also if you really need to understand….read anusha’s comments. she hails from a typical middle class background and those are her concerns…

  16. Thanks again for engaging everyone. We disagree, but we have put across our points, considered others and defended our positions. It seems we all remain with the same opinions as we started, but continued open discussion is important. I’m trying hard to view things from your perspectives and sure the same applies for you all.

    I didn’t realise that Bipasha was including Oxfam in her criticism of the NGOs she mentioned. It came across as if she was saying OTHER NGOs needed to reform, but not Oxfam – I must have misread (I’d be grateful if anyone can point out where Bipasha links her criticism of other NGOs to any possible faults of Oxfam).

    I have highlighted to Duncan (and other Oxfam staff) on many occasions his criticisms of others and his apparent allergic reaction to any criticism of Oxfam and I fear this is an instituional problem.

    I also stand by my point that it is at best unhelpful to lump the ‘middle classes’ together and call them selfish (is it ok to call the ‘lower classes’ lazy?)and still do not understand Bipasha’s point about the role of ‘philanthropy’ (her word, not mine).

    Finally, I stand by my point that a communications officer should not be making comments on an official coorporate website that do not represent the opinions of the corporation (does this happen elsewhere?)

    Thanks again,


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