Poverty of Living and Thinking


By B.G. Verghese

India remains a poor country. No doubt about that. Its human development indices are a shame. We know that. How do we measure poverty? Opinions vary, but there is agreement that the bar was set too low at Rs32 per day per capita, adjusted for inflation, under the old Tendulkar formula. The revised Rangarajan formula remains work in progress and has yet to be announced. But, the questionremains, has poverty declined?

The latest National Sample Survey report saysthat poverty levels in India declined by 15 per cent between 2004-05 and 2011-12 bringing down the overall numbers below the poverty level from 37 per cent of the total population to 22 per cent. This is a commendable achievement but still leaves some 270 million poor and millions just hovering above that line and likely to fall below it in a year of severe flood, drought or other calamity. There is therefore no cause for celebration, but rather for greater effort. Yet there is reason for comfort, especially as the decline in poverty levels has been manifest in some of the more backward stares such as Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

However, political critics have damned the NSS Report on the ground that none can make both ends meet on an income of Rs 32 per day or Rs 160 for a family of five. The purpose of hurrying with the current finding instead of waiting for the revised Rangarajan poverty norm, the argument goes,is to indulge in window dressing and boost the UPA’s sagging image before the 2014 polls. This is carping criticism. The purpose was to establish a trend rather than to measure actual numbers which will undergo revision whenever the Rangarajan-based survey results are known. And if the previous NSS figures for 2004-05 were now adjusted to match the new Rangarajan norm, the trend in poverty would show a decline though the absolute numbers would obviously vary.  Measuring a trend is a necessary and worthwhile exercise and to cavil at that is to betray poverty of thought and political pettiness.

The problem is that all too many critics trade emotionally and ideologically in poverty. They fear that if poverty goes down or if the “oppressed masses” are liberated they might be out of business and face a sharp fall in their political and social stock. So a perverse survival instinct drives them to exaggerate poverty in order to stay in business. Such poverty of thought is manifest in many fields and poses a public danger as such attitudes constitute a national depressor, affecting both morale and endeavour.  

As usual, the discussion on the NSS report produced its own crop of absurdities.  Three Congress-UPA stalwarts argued that a man could have a filling meal in Delhi and Bombay at Rs 5 and Re 1 respectively. As usual the debate went overboard instead of being caricatured and dismissed for the nonsense it is.

The discourse on poverty has another dimension. This revolves around whether falling poverty levels have been brought about by greater growth or by rights-based pro-poor state-funded programmes such as food subsidies, NAREGA and RTE? Here the argument is between the growth-first and welfare-first schools, now elevated to a global level by the AmartyaSen-JagdishBhagwati debate.  The truth most likely lies between the two extremes and is not an altogether either-or choice. As in most things, balance is important.

An offshoot of the poverty debate was a remark by AmartyaSen in response toa question that Gujarat has not done so well in the field of development as testified by its poor social development record. He also said that NarendraModi would not be a natural choice to be India’s prime minister as he did not command the inclusive confidence of a large section of minorities. This has outraged the BJP, with ChandanMitra going further in advocating the extreme view, a non-sequitur, from which he has since resiled, that Sen’s Bharat Ratna Award should be withdrawn by the BJP should it form the next national government.  

In the midst of all this, the BJP President, Rajnath Singh, has appealed to President Obama to reconsider the US refusal to grant NarendraModi a visa on account of his dismal 2002 human rights 2002 record. Not to be outdone, another lobbyist wrote to Obama under 50 signatures, some found later to have been forged, asking him to continue the visa ban on Modi. Who it grants visas to is for Washington to decide and it is demeaning to have Indian party presidents and MPS pleading their cause before a foreign power.

Meanwhile, as the poverty debate raged, word came of tribal children in Attapady in Palghat district dying of malnutrition in a state like Kerala which boasts the highest HDI in India, standing comparison with the best in the world. Likewise, in the adjacent Silent Valley, home to other tribal communities.The Kerala tribal belts have been kept outside the purview of the protective Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Silent Valley has been shielded from development and kept as a climax nature reserve as a result of the exertions of many environmental champions. But who answers for or protests tribal deaths there and elsewhere in Kerala – or India? Tribal India is horribly malnourished and keeping out development in the name of preserving the way of life of tribal peoplesand the local ecology has cost them dear. Once the environmental battle is “won”, the tribals are left to suffer deprivation and death, quietly and unmourned in pristine surroundings.  

Just a fortnight ago, the Law ministry sent out a circular to say that the Governor enjoys discretionary powers in matters of tribal welfare under the Fifth Schedule. This had been clearly stated earlier by the Attorney-General as being the authoritative constitutional position. Yet this ruling was overturned by his junior before the Chattisgarh High Court and only “corrected” for public purposes though not for the Court record after protests by the Tribal Affairs Minister.  What is going on? Special packages are being announced for development in the 27 worst affected Naxal districts while the constitutional and legal framework of government in these areas is in shambles. Who will monitor and take responsibility for delivery?

Sadly, the entire tribal question has been placed outside and beyond the poverty framework. The poverty of thinking on this issue is staggering. Real issues remain un-debated while trivia and electoral politics reign.

The latest poll prospect assessment for2014 is the current talk of the town with the NDA and UPA running neck and neck but needing coalitional partners. These are hardly definitive judgements as things can change and will do so if the UPA presses ahead with reforms, such as easing FDI norms as  just announced and breaking the environmental log jam on several large infrastructure projects. The formation of Telengana, seemingly imminent, could change southern equations and spur similar demands for smaller states elsewhere. Things are churning.  



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