I am sure all of us have watched atleast one movie where the protagonist talks about the poverty of India, silhouetted against the rich and lavish lifestyle of Ambanis and Tatas, and expresses his outrage over the disparity in income levels, proceeding then to play modern day Robin Hood in the rest of the movie. For me the movie is’ Shivaji the Bose’, dubbed into Hindi starring Rajhnikant, where bald headed Rajnikant battles corruption and collects the black money of people(rather threateningly “adha mera adha tumhara nahi toh pura Income tax walon ka 😛 ) to built hospitals and schools for the poor. The plot of the movie may seem far-fetched and absurd(typical Rajnikantism 😛 ) but the theme of ‘poverty’ is a big seller. Poverty is one of the major impediments India combats today in its path of becoming the new world leader. Despite the awareness about poverty and its consequences we continue to accept poverty and go about our lives as if it doesn’t exist( we have Rajnikant to deal with it 😛 why care). But maybe we could use a little more empathy and better policy making to counter this humongous problem.
A controversial cartoon in the New York Times a few days back created considerable upheaval in India. India had just succeeded in setting the Mangalyan into orbit joining a group of elite nations to be able to do so, accomplishing this feat with a budget less than that of the Hollywood sci-fi movie Interstellar (Joseph Cooper must me face-palming in parallel universe 😛 ). The cartoon showed a man in a Dhoti holding the noose of his cow banging at a room which read ‘elite space club’. The cartoon allegedly was a racist depiction of India’s poverty eventhough it manages to make it to Mars. But I feel it is somewhat true. We continue to be home to the most number of people below poverty line and the growth which the new millennium achieved clearly hasn’t trickled down to the most destitute.
I was listening to Amartya Sen’s speech on “Poverty : tolerating the intolerable “ , late in the night yesterday (Amartya Sen’s grandfatherly voice can lull you to sleep )and Sen talked about some startling instances. He talked about the Bengal Famine (before Independence ) and how he once gave a banana to a destitute woman with a baby on her lap. The woman peeled the banana and stuffed it into her mouth, rather instinctively, and then proceeded to bring it out, with a cry and fed it to her child, who was equally hungry, remarking “What has poverty made of me, I have become worse than an animal”. This anecdote woke me up to consciousness. The situation today may be a little better, but the startling apathy with which the upper-middle class and the upper strata of the society deal with poverty is disheartening( and I share the guilt). Poverty isn’t talked about anymore in editorials and newspapers ostensibly because it has become cliched and too base for any one from the intelligentsia to talk about. But even as we ignore this great problem we are aware of its existence in our precincts (particularly mine now that I am in berhampur :P).
Having seen a fair share of poverty, growing up in a middle class home in a small town of Odisha (the embodiment of famines and droughts 😛 ), I have had the chance of looking at poverty pretty closely. Travelling in the Indian Railways, shuttling between BBSR and Berhampur, sights of malnourished people begging for mercy and food has become rather commonplace for me. I have often resisted my urge to help these people, not because of my selfishness, but because of second thoughts about the forced begging racket these individuals might be victims of. I have seen people look down upon beggars , making statements like ‘These people are the reason why India, doesn’t progress’ or ‘Helping them is equivalent to stagnating progress’ (Indians can’t resist bringing the nation in everywhere :p ). But I have also known friends ( who I hope will read this post J )who set out money separately to help these people, during train journeys. The reason behind this, rather ‘sad’ or ‘uncool’ observation is finding the reason behind poverty. Poverty is partially fueled, by people’s apathy and selfishness, coupled with apprehension about the character of the apparently poverty stricken person in question. Another reason why people are unwilling to combat poverty at their own level is the argument that poverty is a perpetual phenomenon which will go on forever. But both of them are mere mindsets and the government policy making also has a significant role to play here.
Imperial rule had a long lasting impact on India, atleast on the demographic conditions. Life expectancy dropped heavily, health facilities were scarce, per capita income decreased, even as a vast majority continued to be below the poverty line. So much so that many economists declared that this was a huge loss, not just of human capital but also of the wealth a healthy human capital would have generated. This economists said this would have a long lasting effect on India (that means the empire keeps striking back covertly 😛 ), but could be tackled with effective planning. But even as other Asian countries, who received independence much later effectively tackled poverty, India struggled to do so. Why ? is the big question , which I try to answer in the next few paragraphs ( bear with me 😛 ).
Rural employment generation was an important way of poverty alleviation. Many schemes were brought in by the government here – Swarnajayanti grameen Roggar Yojna, Prradhan Mantri grameen swarojgar Yojna, MNREGA etc etc. All of them had the same schemes but the names were different under different regimes to leave behind their legacy :P. The present policy measure is called MNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of work to one member in every family. But the nature of work done is often questioned. The workers dig a pit and often proceed to fill it , due to lack of work. Does this improve productivity ? No . Does this alleviate poverty ? To some extent, but any man will tell you that such a measure is absurd.
Another policy measure, which I feel is absurd is the policy of subsidies. Subsidies many economists argue help the rich more than the poor. Further if you look at budget allocation subsidies take up huge share of the expenditure, which could have been well used for developing infrastructure like education and healthcare. India lags behind countries like Bangladesh in its proportional allocation to health and education. Subsidies may encourage agriculture and better living standards, but real change will happen when human capital is developed and skilled labour is produced, and that needs education.
The food security bill, in my view is another major impediment to poverty alleviation. Providing rice at Rs. 2 and wheat at Rs. 3 will only demotivate the workforce. Hunger is only a symptom of poverty and the FSA combats that, even as the reason remains undealt with. Infact FSA does the job of perpetuating poverty, because generation after generation will not engage in gainful employment once they are well fed. These populist measures continue to harm the nation.
But no government will ever risk waiving these policies, because no government wants to be unpopular (unless of course you live in North Korea 😛 hail Kim Jong-un). Is this a problem of democracy then ? Yes and No. Change is slow to come in a democracy true, but atleast we are better off than North Korea which is totally a totalitarian state(atleast I won’t be killed with an anti-aircraft gun here after writing this :p maybe they will be satisfied with a sedition charge 😛 ). But China which is also a authoritarian state as Amartya Sen tells me has been successful in combating poverty. So poverty has more to do with the intent of the govt, rather than the type of government.
There is need for awareness in India, and there is also a need to do away with populist measures. I am not against state intervention, but intervention must be wise and with the intention to develop infrastructure, over providing subsidies and free travel to senior citizens( Vijaya Mallya will no doubt forgive me :p ).
So here I end this blog post thank you for reading through. Will be taking a 20 day break after this see you soon. And as they say in Berhampur ‘Khela Kariba Bhulibuni’ 😀