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Nature of poverty

Millions of Indians need a helping hand. An ideological schism at the top reflects the uncertainty about how to do this. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 24, 2012 19:32 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

In the village of Marenahalli Bunde — a settlement of quarry workers supplying Bangalore with stone for its seemingly unceasing building boom — I recently listened to 30-year-old Kayelveli (she uses one name), a third standard dropout, who narrated how she toiled from daybreak to dusk.

“It takes a week to bash a truckload of stone,” she told me on the windswept bluff of the quarry, a giant, ugly gash about six storeys deep.

Kayelveli, an energetic woman with jasmine in her hair and a smile on her round face, was not unhappy with life. Though her husband died of a heart attack three years ago, her 10-year-old daughter, Kirtishri, was a fourth standard student at a school for poor, young achievers. The Rs 6,000 that Kayelveli earned every month was enough to buy food from local farmers for herself and her younger daughter and install a satellite-television dish on one of the sticks supporting her two-room shack. Kayelveli does not have a ration card and is not officially recognised as poor. “It’s a hard life, but it is better than before,” she said, “And I know my children will escape this.”

No optimism was evident when, a few months earlier, I met 25-year-old Rajkumar, a tired-looking, clean-shaven odd-jobs man — in other words, unemployed — as he watched over his tuberculosis-afflicted wife, Rekha (both use one name), in a spare hospital in a shabby backstreet of old Gurgaon, a 20-minute drive from the chrome-and-steel towers of its flashy, globalised avatar. Their only satisfaction was that Rekha was getting free medical care, thanks to the National Health Insurance Scheme, which charges Rs 30 and covers medical expenses up to R30,000 for families with ration cards. “This system works for people like us, but I do not know what will happen now,” said Rajkumar, an 8th class pass. “I need a steady job more than anything else, but I have no qualifications.”

As UPA chief Sonia Gandhi prepares to give her verdict next week on the uproar over India’s official poverty line — declared as the ability to spend Rs 32 every day in urban areas and Rs 26 in rural — the stories of Rajkumar and Kayelveli indicate that India’s anti-poverty measures require rewiring and alignment with a word that increasingly defines 21st-century India: aspiration.

Those on the left of the debate, including Sonia Gandhi, believe India underestimates the numbers of the poor. The official figure is about 400 million; the highest estimate is 800 million. They argue welfare spending must rise in what is one of the world’s most unequal nations. One way to do it is, some say, to withdraw tax exemptions to India Inc, now worth Rs 4 lakh crore.

Those on the right, including the prime minister, believe that India cannot afford to spend R4.5 lakh crore a year on the social sector. The benefits are uncertain (about 60% of food subsidies never reach the poor, for instance), at a time of slowing growth and a fiscal deficit tipped to hit 5% this year, instead of the budget target of 4.6%. Better, they say, to invest instead in India’s collapsing infrastructure and push the most effective anti-poverty measure — growth.

The truth appears to be somewhere in between; it requires a step back from established positions to create a blend of subsidies, investments and re-imagined public services.

First, with growing uncertainties, economic and otherwise, safety nets are vital. As a new study from the advocacy group Action Aid warns, India is ranked seventh, ahead of Pakistan, Nigeria and 21 other countries, for its vulnerability in growing food and feeding its poor. So tenuous is the existence of those just above the poverty line, about 250 million people, that it takes just one health crisis to slip below, says a 2010 report by the Independent Commission on Development and Health in India. Yet, as Rajkumar explained, without a job, subsidised food and basic health care were, at best, band aids. In his village, 16 km from Gurgaon, farming is receding and there is little on offer for a semi-educated man.

Second, welfare spending cannot be India’s long-term fix. That can only come from investments in infrastructure and agriculture. As data from the world’s largest jobs-for-work programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, indicates, the rural poor are better off than before, but digging ditches and ponds does not create strong assets, skews the labour market and could slow growth needed to generate real jobs.

Third, as Kayelveli’s story shows, India’s poor are willing and eager to haul themselves up the ladder. In Marenahalli Bunde, the grim, backbreaking job of smashing stones had delivered mobile phones and satellite dishes to most of the village, even those in shacks.

Fourth, those moving up the ladder need access to basic public services. As part of Hindustan Times’ and Mint’s ‘Tracking Hunger’ series, my colleague Pramit Bhattacharya recently chronicled the life of ‘Pipeline’, a precarious Mumbai slum — it literally sits atop a water pipeline — home to maids, drivers and others just below the lower middle-class. Most people here earn twice as much as the R32-cutoff, get no doles and can afford food. But they have no health care and sanitation. So, most children in ‘Pipeline’ are malnourished, as are nearly 80,000 in India’s richest city.

This is not to suggest that the malnourished, in general, are rich enough to buy food, especially at a time of record inflation. Poorer slums and India’s most deprived tribal areas resemble a failed State with millions consigned to real, grinding poverty. The common thread is the failure to invest in public services.

With only 1% of its GDP spent on healthcare, India will continue to house the greatest share of the earth’s malnourished people. So, too, without more and better teachers, schools and universities, it will continue to produce semi-educated young people — and the statistic that only 15% of Indian graduates are employable. India must urgently decide how it can better returns on its investments.

First Published: Oct 12, 2011 22:54 IST