Meera Mitra's Breaking Through is a compilation of real life stories of people who, despite years of state planning and funding, are still struggling to claw their way out of the poverty sinkhole.
What is striking is that even people who are that poor (those who live on Rs 16 per day) are just like the rest of us in almost every way. We have the same desires and weaknesses; the poor are no less rational than anyone else - quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little, we often find them putting much careful thought into their choices: they have to be sophisticated economists just to survive (Page IX, Poor Economics, Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Random House India, 2011).
These lines often come to mind, especially the last one, when my household help, M, a feisty 45-year-old, decides to tell me about her life, her dreams and the route she is charting to fulfil them. In the last few years, I have seen her build a modest house, acquire government identification papers, a gas connection, educate her children in private schools, get three of them married and set up a kirana store for her eldest son. And yet, her struggle is far from over: So every month, she meticulously calibrates her budget and sometimes asks for a short-term loan to bridge a deficit. In "good months", she even manages to deposit a few hundred rupees in her zero-frill savings account.
Meera Mitra's Breaking Through is compilation of real-life stories of people like M who, despite years of State planning and funding, are still struggling to claw their way out of the poverty sinkhole at a time when India is at the cusp of change.
Breaking Through: India's Stories of Beating the odds on poverty; Meera Mitra (Rs 395; PP 210).
In the book, India is exemplified through individual, representational stories of innovation, endeavour, struggle and success, which may not match the definition of 'success' of people like us, but they truly are because the odds that people like M or the characters in the book - poor and orphaned Neelu, who becomes a serial house owner in Delhi; health worker Santosh who strives to meet her own health needs; penurious Nazma who, like M, is concerned about her children's education - are up against on a daily basis.
In the developing world, poverty has halved in the last three decades and the situation is no different in India. The country has brought out 137.8 million from poverty between 2004-05 and 2011-12. Despite this, the development project is hardly over and each of the stories in the book is a reminder of those challenges: Widespread hunger and poor nutrition indicators; lack of housing and electricity; lack of adequate health facilities and poor quality of general and skill education for the poor. All of these factors combine together to stall India from realising its demographic dividend.
Despite these humongous challenges, there are many who manage to flourish: Mitra, who has a PhD in economics and is a sociologist and a development specialist, reminds us that to look past these stories of struggle, despair and success will be to miss the churning that is going on within the country.
At a meeting in New Delhi this week on the Sustainable Development Goals, a proposed set of targets that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Copenhagen Consensus director Bjorn Lomborg said that there are two ways to review the MDG figures: "We could say that we have not fulfilled the goals or say we have managed to lift X number of people out of poverty... the latter is much more encouraging and effective to assess what worked and what did not." We should look at the India experience in a similar fashion. The stories in Breaking Through are a testament to that daily struggle that happens between those policy objectives and the challenges on the ground to reach a certain policy goal.
Breaking Through should be essential reading not only for those who are interested in development issues but for policymakers because they provide insights to human behaviour which could be an important tool to design public policy. In fact, the World Bank's 2015 World Development Report argues that policy decisions informed by behavioural economics can deliver impressive improvements in many parts of the world.