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India’s blank spaces

A quarter of the nation’s poor now lives in cities. More stream in every day. The nation must recognise what it does not now and urgently reform its inclusiveness imperative, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Jun 04, 2010 15:36 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

‘Beggar type.’

Like most of us, Smita Jacob had never come across that pithy official phrase before. It’s a classification in the records of the police of New Delhi, India’s richest city, used to describe a dead homeless person whose death is too insignificant to investigate.

The police are as sensitive as you and I to the cripple on the pavement, the child at the car window. They mean no insult by the category ‘beggar type’. It is a reflection of the invisible people who inhabit modern, urban India’s widening blank spaces — people and situations we see but do not want to know or accept.

Jacob and a colleague, Asghar Sharif — both of whom work for the commissioners to the Supreme Court in a seminal nine-year-long case that seeks for food to become a fundamental right — painstakingly uncovered statistics that should (but unfortunately may not) shock Delhi: at least 10 homeless people are dying on the streets of the nation’s capital everyday, 94 per cent of them are working men in their early 40s — not, as we might imagine, old people or junkies.

These figures suggest that thousands on the streets of urban India are slipping all too easily between the cracks of flawed social security and urban-planning systems. The ‘beggar type’ nomenclature suggests the government cannot explain why this tragedy is unfolding. A nation that aspires to greatness cannot say it does not know why and how men in the prime of their working years are dying in urban India. The suspicion: many are dying of malnutrition and the myriad types of susceptibilities it causes in the human body.

In January this year, the commissioners in the right-to-food case observed in a letter to the Supreme Court: “Any death occurring on the streets and any unclaimed body, not resulting from an accident, must be treated as a possible starvation death unless proved otherwise.”

This will not easily happen. Malnutrition and its cousin, starvation, are words Indian officials deeply hesitate to use. To acknowledge such failings in India’s capital city would be anathema.

It is clearly time for the UPA to launch a great, urban reformation: to recognise the blank spaces occupied by the growing ranks of India’s urban poor, and to urgently recreate programmes meant to provide them with a basic standard of living at a time when the fundamental nature of Indian society — and so poverty — is changing from rural to urban.

By 2030, nearly 600 million Indians will live in cities, predicts a report from the McKinsey Global Institute. That’s twice the population of the United States. Sixty-eight cities will hold more than 1 million people, up from 42 cities today. To avoid further decay and collapse, India will require a 300 per cent increase in its gross domestic product (GDP) allocations on urban infrastructure.

Our cities are already crumbling from inadequate investment and a failure to recognise that more people are entering the blank spaces. About a quarter of the poor — more than 80 million — now live in crumbling towns and cities. Within 20 years, half the poor may live in urban India. Inequality, as the economist Himanshu (he uses only one name) pointed out in March, is growing twice as fast in urban areas as in rural areas. And inequality, as many global experts indicate, slows growth. The degrading life — and death — our cities offer cannot be allowed to worsen. “Addressing life in India’s cities is clearly not an elitist endeavour but rather a central pillar of inclusive growth,” said the McKinsey report, noting that 75 per cent of urban citizens are poor, living on about Rs 80 per day.

Two days ago, the prime minister confirmed what most now see as inevitable: a direct transfer of subsidies to the poor once the world’s biggest national unique identity (UID) programme kicks off later this year. This is a great opportunity, but it will require a Herculean reform effort.

An as-yet-unreleased study of four urban areas (Delhi, Cuttack, Jaipur and Anantpur) points out that India’s social security programmes are failing the urban poor. Titled ‘Darkness under lamps’ — a term derived from the Hindi proverb ‘diya tale andhera’ — the study reveals that the worst failures are in Delhi, ruled by the Congress, whose leader Sonia Gandhi has made ‘inclusive growth’ the cornerstone of this government. But how do you include someone whose existence you do not recognise?

“The reach and quality of implementation of these programmes are often the most feeble and insufficient in areas that are physically the most proximate to centres of public policy and formulation, namely cities and towns,” says the study, co-authored by one of India’s most prominent hunger experts, Harsh Mander, and his colleague Manikandam, the lead researcher. These programmes are mainly tailored for rural areas. Yet, administrative will can eliminate the blank spaces. The authors found subsidised food, childcare centres, maternity benefits and mid-day meals reaching the poor in Anantpur, an Andhra Pradesh town of a quarter-million people and a drought-prone hinterland.

I see hope because the corridors of power accept, albeit reluctantly, advice from people like Mander. One of the Supreme Court’s commissioners in the right-to-food case, Mander is a former bureaucrat who resigned after the 2002 Gujarat riots. He works silently with Delhi’s homeless and inspires and leads a band of young men and women. It is they who reveal to India’s courts and civil society the ‘beggar-type’ deaths we do not know, those blank spaces we do not see.

First Published: Jun 02, 2010 22:10 IST