Fault(y) Lines of Poverty

(Sonia Singh is the Editorial Director, NDTV)

As a mother of young kids, I find myself listening to this catchy song from 'The Jungle Book' all the time, sage advice from a Bear... "Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about the trouble and the strife." Like all seemingly simple homilies, however, cracking this basic equation for India's policymakers is today the single biggest challenge we face as a nation, increasingly hurtling towards an unsustainable divide between two Indias.

Given the total amount of money spent by the Government of India on social welfare schemes (an allocation of 3,38,408 crores in the new General Budget alone) today, we are still in a situation where three in every 10 Indians are poor, or one-third of our urban population lives on less than Rs 47 a day according to a new report on measuring poverty by D C Rangarajan, former Chief Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister. A global UN report released this week, has an even bleaker picture - one-third of the world's poor, it says, lives in India, the highest number of extremely poor people in the world.

Yet, our single-minded focus on POVERTY as the most crippling problem facing India's growth today is diverted by theoretical debates every time a new poverty line figure is mooted by a high-level committee. The latest from Dr C Rangarajan (someone who's had his hands full determining both poverty figures and gas pricing formulas, ironically) says the cut-off for a family to be considered poor is Rs 4860 per month in rural areas and Rs 7065 per household in urban areas. This new figure, in one fell swoop, changes the number of people considered poor in India from nearly 270 million according to the Tendulkar committee to 363 million according to Dr Rangarajan's commitee. That's nearly a 100 million people's lives impacted in terms of whether they are eligible for old age pensions, Indira Awas Yojnas, free beds in hospital etc just by a more realistic look at what poverty means. Even more astounding is the breezy disregard with which this potentially huge human cost of exclusion of so many people had been discounted, you hear not a murmur of protest from people who have now been 'elevated' to a poor status virtually overnight, precisely because these numbers matter so little to their daily lives.

So, why exactly do we need a poverty line at all, especially when the world's largest food security scheme, India's Right to Food actually IGNORES this statistic. The act passed by Parliament makes it clear that 75 per cent of rural households and fifty per cent of urban households must have access to subsidised food, a fact which seems to contradict the government's own numbers on how many people in India are actually poor. The Rangarajan report sheds some clarity on the thinking behind this poverty line, while admitting its limitations. He says, "Nevertheless, there is need for a measure of poverty. Only then, it will be possible to evaluate how the economy is performing in terms of providing a certain minimum standard of living to all its citizens. Measurement of poverty has, therefore, important policy implications."

Yet, it's exactly because this is so crucial in terms of policy, that determining a poverty line as an aggregation of numbers based on consumption, spending patterns etc and not as a measure of human dignity is deeply flawed.

For instance, the poverty line places too much emphasis on the PERSONAL spending of an individual or a family unit, what it doesn't factor in is the cost paid for the failure of public services which are meant to be free. So, the assumption is that a person below the poverty line will have access to free health services when the reality is the heaviest financial burden for a poor family is usually health related. Poor people are being forced to pay for private health services precisely because the state is failing them in this area, yet this and expenses on, say, education are not being factored in, to determine how much a family actually needs to live an extremely basic existence.

Another crucial aspect which is too often ignored in looking at a statistical definition of poverty are the human and social implications of poverty. A poor person, especially in urban India, doesn't exist in a world filled with other people living on Rs 42 a day or even people near his level of income. He works, interacts, co-exists with people for whom his monthly income can be equivalent to a restaurant bill for one meal. Incomes may well be on the rise but statistics show that the divide between the poor and the middle class in India (forget the super rich) is also growing at a higher rate. As Professor Amartya Sen puts it, "Our vision of India cannot be one that is half California, half sub-Saharan Africa." On the NDTV Dialogues this week, Professor Abhijeet Banerjee, author of 'Poor Economics' stated his case even more forcefully, saying its "...this process of growing exclusion which is leading to volatile processes, the outcome of which is playing out even in the recent rash of rapes." In the same programme, Harsh Mander who just released the India Exclusion Report points out that a child ragpicker in Delhi can earn up to Rs 150 a day which would make him enormously wealthy as per this poverty line, yet it has no value because it can't get him a roof over his head or admission to a school.

So, are we in this debate actually addressing the key question - how much is enough for every Indian citizen to live a life where at least the bare necessities are taken care of? The McKinsey Global Institute in a recent report uses a completely different model, the "empowerment line," which has eight basic criterion including food, healthcare, energy, housing, clean drinking water, sanitation, education, and social security. Is this a more workable one for India to adopt? By 'underreporting' the poor, do government committees and planning mandarins actually do the country a larger disservice? Do we also, by adhering to textbook definitions, confine ourselves to textbook solutions without the political will to actually reboot our entire system of poverty alleviation?

Mohammed Yunus, founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank has said, "Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society."

Being poor is not an individual affliction, it's India's affliction. The poor cannot be wished away by rolling up a car window and meeting the challenge to provide every Indian a life of basic dignity. A life where at least the bare necessities are available is what will eventually be the litmus test of us as a society, as one nation.

(WATCH THE NDTV DIALOGUES ON 'THE FAULTLINES OF POVERTY, Sunday at 9:30 PM. Guests include Dr C Rangarajan, Professor Abhijeet Banerjee,TN Ninan, Harsh Mander)

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