“Mother India” – Hunger and Poverty of Indian Orphans

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For this film review on hunger and poverty, I chose the documentary “Mother India: Life Through the Eyes of the Orphan.” The documentary, released in 2012, followed a group of about 25 orphans in Tenali, India, living on the streets. The film depicts the challenges the children – ranging in ages from 3 years old to early 20s – face living on the streets. In order to make money, they beg at the railway station and on the trains. The children are homeless, living in abject poverty. Many have contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of sharing needles and/or having unprotected sex. Many of these children are missing limbs as a result of train accidents; many die as a result of train accidents or overdose. Clearly these children – a small representation of the 31 million orphans in India – face many challenges. However, according to David Trotter, one of the documentary’s directors, “One of the biggest challenges the kids face is just getting enough money to eat on a daily basis.” The children may manage to gather a few rupees from begging, but not always enough to buy food. Sometimes they can get food from hostels, but several of the children reported having been chased from hostels or threatened with arrest, so the hostels are not a stable source of nourishment. As a result, many of the children are thin and frail and definitely malnourished. By the end of the documentary, the two youngest children are adopted by Harvest India, a non-government organization (NGO) that serves as an orphanage and charity.

Despite the happy ending for those two little children, those children who remain on the street continue to face difficult challenges. These children reported being victims of abuse, usually from their parents or other family members; once on the streets, they report becoming the victims of both physical and sexual abuse by police, other adults, and even other street kids. This is unfortunately not unusual for children living in poverty. Karen Carlson, a professor of social work at Ohio University, reports that “Poverty is considered to be a possible contributing factor to violence exposure in urban settings” (87). The plight of these children is public and well-known in Tenali and other parts of the country. Unfortunately, as the documentary showed, most authority figures will not take responsibility for the children; the filmmakers met with the police in Tenali, and their conversations with the police chief make it clear that no one is willing to assume responsibility for the children. Suresh Kumar, the President of Harvest India, observes in the film that part of this unwillingness is connected to the caste system which is still present in India; many of these children, Kumar states, are Dalit, also known as Untouchables, meaning that members of other classes will not help these children essentially because of socio-economic-cultural reasons. While this is undoubtedly true, research on poverty and the “role of gender and caste based discrimination in maintaining poverty cycles” does not provide good information on how these factors influence the plight of children specifically (Saith and Wazir).

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However, it seems obvious that gender and social factors affect the ability of these children to find equitable opportunities to alleviate their poverty and their hunger. Because they are essentially invisible, they don’t stand a chance of easily overcoming their situation. At least two of the female children reported being abused as a result of their gender; one lost two fingers as a result of an abusive partner, while the other was forced into sex slavery (though she was subsequently freed). But there were evidently many more male orphans than female ones. This film clearly demonstrated that equity, “an ethical concept, grounded in principles of distributive justice,” also known as social justice or social fairness, is not available to these children, regardless of gender (Braveman and Gruskin). These children, through no fault of their own, found themselves orphaned and on the street, attempting to escape abuse and torture. They continued to be victimized even after they escaped difficult home lives, since the government – including the police – does not appear to be taking an active approach to alleviating the poverty or suffering of these children for reasons which are not made clear in the film.

The movie indicates that by 2025, India’s population will surpass that of China. At this time, there are a purported 31 million orphans in India; as the population increases, this number is likely to increase as well. The implications of the film are that without intervention – which the filmmakers make a plea for at the end of the film, in the form of sponsoring children – these children will continue to live in poverty and continue to face hunger. They will continue to be denied opportunities because of their caste or because they cannot provide references when applying for jobs, or even a fixed address. These factors demonstrate a lack of equity in India which has resulted in children living in poverty, facing hunger. It also underlines the problems that continue to plague India as a result of the caste system, which also promotes inequity.

These children living in Tenali were given a voice as a result of this documentary. The filmmakers made a point of getting the children to tell their stories, in their own words. Though organizations like Harvest India and the film “Mother India” have given these children voices, the children are still very much being marginalized in their own country. This is deeply disturbing to me, as children are helpless; their parents should take care of them, feed them, and protect them. These children have been forced into homelessness, poverty, hunger, and drug use because of the lack of social justice. More needs to be done – potentially through the intervention of more First World countries – in order to improve conditions and change policies to help these children. As the filmmakers assert, children deserve a home and a chance of happiness.

  • Braveman, Paula, and Sofia Gruskin. “Defining equity in health.” Journal of Epidemiology and
    Community Health 57.4 (2003): 254-258. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Carlson, Karen Townsend. “Poverty and Youth Violence Exposure: Experiences in Rural Communities.” Children & Schools 28.2 (2006): 87-96. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Saith, Ashwani, and Rekha Wazir. “Towards Conceptualizing Child Wellbeing in India: The Need for a Paradigm Shift.” Child Indicators Research 3.3 (2010): 385-408. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

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