A visitor from Spain asked me, “How can a country with dreams of glory be so much at peace with itself in ignoring those who are falling off the edge?”
I didn’t tell him the ratio of poor Indians, as currently measured, has fallen from 52 per cent to 28 per cent in 30 years. I didn’t tell him that prosperity might, eventually, trickle to the base of our 1.1 billion-strong pyramid.
First, there are worrying indications that the pace of poverty reduction is slowing.
This is how it works: since 1973, every survey showed a greater and greater bunching of Indians near the official poverty line (today it’s Rs 356 per month per person in rural areas; Rs 539 in urban areas). This means those below the poverty line were getting relatively richer — ‘less poor’ is more accurate — moving up and perhaps across.
The 30-year-trend had reversed when the data from 2004-05, the year it was last available, were analysed. (The latest results should be available from June.) The poorest were no longer moving up in life at the rate they were before.
It’s hard for a dim hack like me to understand a squiggly graph. So I asked the gentleman who pointed this out to me why this was happening.
“It’s difficult to give a firm answer to that,” said Pronab Sen, India’s Chief Statistician. “A lot depends on analyses and ideology. My personal bias is that, perhaps, the growth process is making demands it wasn’t earlier.”
What Sen means: the poorest need higher skills to tap into India’s growth.
It’s a phenomenon you usually see at the top of the economic pyramid. A manager with a B.Com needs an MBA to become a manager. He then needs a doctorate to become, say, an economist.
India is now placing this demand for skills on the poorest as they struggle to make a living in a globalising economy. It isn’t working very well.
When I visited underground construction sites on the Delhi Metro’s rapidly expanding network, I was surprised to see workers — I am not referring to engineers — from China and Thailand in the tunnels. An able body is no longer enough in the new India.
So, the prime minister will make a rare address to the nation today, not on terrorism, but on education. It’s no coincidence that India with its 62 per cent literacy rate struggles with endemic poverty while China does far better at 92 per cent.
Second, all through the years of economic growth, the number of people below the official poverty line has obstinately remained at around 300 million.
Yet, the general consensus is that there are many more than 300 million at the bottom of the pyramid. That climbs to 420 million (World Bank); 500 million (N.C. Saxena Committee); 600 million (Economic Survey, 2009), even 770 million (Arjun Sengupta Committee). It depends on the measures of poverty: from calories consumed per day to income, to money spent on education, to a combination of as many as 13 indices.
Unsurprisingly, the official count of the poor is the lowest, because that is what the government uses to calculate food subsidies and four other national social-security programmes (there are a total of 17) on which India will spend more than Rs 1.18 lakh crore in 2010-11.
These statistics are revealing and important. But they do not disclose the horror and scale of destitution in emerging India.
On Monday, my colleague Priya Ranjan Sahu wrote of his travels through Orissa’s tribal Balangir district: already malnourished babies being fed tea without milk, and old people left to fend for themselves because their children had either died in their 30s and 40s or migrated south to survive because the government’s well-meaning schemes were passing them by.
This when Punjab’s mountains of grain go to rot and rodents because the government cannot store it properly or get it to poorest. You will read more such stories as this paper chronicles the national effort against hunger.
India is not short of money, food or plans for the poor.
It is short on empathy.
Without empathy change is difficult. One of India’s least empathetic states is its richest, Delhi. We live comfortably with growing ranks of homeless children and destitute women, waving them away from car windows. This is a city with a government that doesn’t particularly care it has collected, but not spent, Rs 300 crore to look after thousands of migrant construction workers. Why care about crèches, dormitories and hostels?
India’s growth is vital to pay for a poverty-busting splurge on roads, drinking water, sewage, education, health and communication. We don’t spend enough on these, and what’s spent isn’t wisely spent.
Only bold intervention from the top can reorder the mess of plans and stop the horrible waste — it costs
Rs 7 to transfer every rupee worth of food subsidy to the poor. Many ask (the latest being Kaushik Basu, the government’s chief economic adviser): why not just give the money to the poor?
These are issues that Congress President Sonia Gandhi will address in her re-born avatar as head of the influential National Advisory Council. It went into limbo when she had to step down four years ago, but not before it piloted the national jobs programme and the Right to Information Act, part of the Congress vow to create a kinder nation. How well she does her job now will determine her government’s fate — and India’s future.