How Poverty Drives Some People to Crime

Mastan Haider Mirza was eight when he moved from Tamil Nadu to Mumbai along with his father in search of a better future and a life away from poverty and helplessness. However, despite working for long hours, they barely managed to earn enough for their family’s subsistence. Even two decades later, the status had barely improved. Haider found an escape in helping an Arab business man, Galib Sheikh, smuggle gold biscuits out of the Mumbai Dock. Who knew that this lucrative escape route from a life of helplessness would soon transform that innocent young man into the undisputed don of Mumbai’s underworld, one of the biggest gangsters and smugglers that India would ever see – Haji Mastan.

When we analyze the stories of hundreds of such Haji Mastans, big and small, that rise out of the abysmal poverty against Aristotle’s claim of poverty being the father of crime and revolution, we find that failed economic and political institutions stand as towering witnesses. Failure of these institutions to guarantee at least the bare minimum requirements of life to a large chunk of population leads to the vicious cycle of deprivation and helplessness. To break away from this vicious cycle, either the individual resorts to crime or he/she harbors deep contempt for the existing order. And then, revolution gears the change. Such a climax is often an end to a number of episodes of a country’s failure to create a just and inclusive society.

Statistics from Asia’s largest jail, Tihar Prisons, reveals that while 92 percent prisoners lodged there are from lower income strata with monthly income not exceeding 8000 rupees, almost 75 percent of the prison population did not earn more than 50000 rupees annually. Similarly, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports show that children from the poorest of backgrounds are increasingly taking to crime. Of the total juvenile offenders, 55.6 percent belonged to families with annual income less than 25000 rupees. Undoubtedly, poverty directly links to the reasons behind this disturbing trend.

Poverty – A State of Deprivation

While the world’s richest 1 percent population corners 82 percent of the wealth, 80 percent of the world population lives on less than 10 dollars a day, as revealed by latest report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). This leads to huge inequalities in access to resources, often deprivation to some bare necessities like food, education and shelter. Paradoxes occur when countries like India, being one of the biggest producers of food, witness millions of deaths every year due to poverty and hunger. Millions of people live on footpaths, face extreme cold and heat, but have no clothes to protect themselves from the severity of the weather. They have no access to education, basic healthcare or skills to earn for their subsistence. Lack of opportunity to grow and a life of helplessness pushes them into abject darkness. While UNICEF reports 22000 children dying everyday out of poverty, the situation stands as a challenge to big goals of zero hunger and zero poverty on sustainable developmental goals agenda.

The Forked Paths Out of Poverty

While people struggle to gather food for every single day in Dharavi, the largest slum of Asia, in the heart of Mumbai, riches and glamour of big houses with extravagant lifestyle pose a tight slap on the promises of an inclusive society by one of the largest democracies. In such a situation, a person who is struggling for a bare minimum living, is often attracted to unethical means that promises a golden future in a short span of time. The story of Vijay of Deewar movie is the story of a lot of people in India who either die of poverty or resort to criminal escapes to glamourous worlds. Not every slumdog becomes a millionaire though in reality, they are lost in the darkness of a failed society.

Government reports in India show that children subject to poverty are more into juvenile crimes. Not only children, but often women are forced into prostitution, trafficking and domestic violence. Youth resorts to illegal activities such as consuming and selling drugs, heroine and narcotics. Extortion and loot become common to such impoverished areas. When the economic and political institutions fail to support such a deprived and exaggerated situation, crime appears as panacea, providing high returns and a glamorous life.

The Vicious Cycle

When the economic institutions are not inclusive, they fail to foster economic activity, productivity, growth and economic prosperity. Economic institutions pave way for two other engines of prosperity – technology and education. Sustained economic growth is accompanied by technological improvements that enable people, land and existing capital to be productive. It is the education and skills of the workforce that generate the scientific means upon which a society’s progress is built.

The United States could produce or attract from foreign lands, the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Jeff Bezos. The supply of talent there could be harnessed because most kids and youth in the States have access to as much schooling as they need. However, in countries like India, where a major chunk of population has no access to education, or where if they manage to go to the school, the quality of education is lamentable. The teachers often do not show up for the work or even if they do, there are no resources or infrastructure. Children often drop out of school, subject to poor family conditions and lack of income sources and are provided with little or no vocational training. The institutions fail to create the incentives for parents to educate their children and the government to build, finance and support a healthy ecosystem for the development of skilled human resource. The price that such a country pays is high. Such a country fails to mobilize its nascent talent. Unskilled and uneducated, the population often retreats to poverty due to lack of income and suitable economic activities. Such countries have many potential Bill Gates and perhaps a few Albert Einsteins who are now working as poor, uneducated farmers or rotting in a poor slum, being coerced to do what is least desirable.

Poverty is like a disease that not only affects an individual’s right to a healthy and fulfilling life, but also eats up the health of the nation. A nation is as developed as the last person of its population and unless each and every section of the country participates in development, no development can be sustainable.

-Sankalp Pratap (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 13-24 Years Age Group)

Picture (Representational Only): A mother and child in a Mumbai slum (Credits – / Sajjad Hussain)

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