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July 13, 2010
Adverse comparisons between India and Africa with regard to development indicators always serve as a red rag to our governmental bull. So, the latest report from Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative that says that eight Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, account for more poor people than the 26 poorest African nations will make officialdom go up in a pillar of flame. But, to go into grouse mode will only serve to dig ourselves deeper into the poverty hole than we are already in. The report uses new measures like availability of clean water, sanitation and electricity to arrive at the figures. India has traditionally stuck to measuring poverty only in terms of kilocalories, 2,400 for the rural population, as a measure of being above the poverty line. This is calculated at Rs. 356, something government committees themselves have dismissed as an inadequate marker of poverty. A more realistic figure, again according to government estimates, would be Rs. 700 for rural areas where 70 per cent of Indians live. If this is applied, the number of those below the poverty line rises by a dramatic 10 per cent.

While many African countries have unstable governments and virulent epidemics that have kept them back in terms of development parameters, we really have no such excuse. Yet, India has not been able to stave off starvation deaths, leave alone malnutrition. The pain of hunger has been cited as a human rights violation by experts in the field such as Amartya Sen. The report that casts India in an unfavourable light could be occasion to examine how best to streamline interventions to lift more people out of poverty and afford them a better quality of life. There is no dearth of schemes for the poor starting from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to legislations like the Right to Education Act. The problem is that these are managed in a scattered manner and rarely, if ever, monitored.

The government, whose enthusiasm for setting up committees knows no bounds, would do well to set up yet another one comprising experts to monitor all the well-meaning schemes meant for the poor. This would enable it to identify the black holes into which money goes and who facilitates this shortchanging of the poor. If this could be done with the efficiency with which we have become a leading IT power, we would see a rapid reduction in poverty figures. The expertise is there, the schemes are there, the will is there and so is the money. They just need to come together for once. Since we are so prickly about our image on the world stage, it would, if nothing else, spare us the embarrassment of being anachronistically bracketed in company that we don’t want to be seen in. If the government that represents the ‘aam aadmi’ fails to intervene decisively even now, we certainly will be the poorer for it.