Pulling India Out Of Poverty Pit

‘Hungry India Prays for Rain’, a headline in The Times, London, deeply embarrassed me during my first trip out in the 197Os. The reality was not unknown. But it hit hard as it needed explaining to foreign friends who would wonder: India won a war in 1971, but how come its people remain hungry?

Half-a-century hence, India still prays for rain. Dependent on the monsoon cycle, it swings between droughts and floods, at times visited by both in some regions. Home to rivers, big and small, but divided into adversarial states, India has failed to share available water resources.

But India is no longer ‘hungry’. Two ‘revolutions’, ‘Green’ (food and farm), and ‘White’ (milk) have made all the difference. No reports of starvation death have come for many years. ‘Extreme’ poverty, it is now claimed, has reduced to less than one percent.

India is better-off in a world where over 735 million people live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day. But, extreme poverty isn’t just about economic hardship and lack of opportunity. It also leads to malnutrition, chronic illness, disease, violence and abuse. India’s record is mixed.

In the 2021 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 101st out of the 116 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2021 GHI scores. With a score of 27.5, India has a level of hunger that is still serious.

Poverty persists, no matter how high India flies with its burgeoning list of billionaires, its economy growing, its trade scaling top positions of many items, including in food et al. 

From a country that imported and even received free food (remember the American PL 480?), India’s food grain exports are impressive enough to make it a food-giver to the world. Wheat exports alone have risen from 200,000 tons to hit record 7.85 million tonnes in 2021-22. There is food security, even though the consumer does not always benefit as several factors determine retail prices.

No longer left to “God’s will” poverty remains a sensitive issue. India grappled with it even when colonized. Dadabhai Naoroji damned the British rule in his scathing book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, something Shashi Tharoor does today, embarrassing Britons – only slightly, if at all. Naoroji, who died in 1917, would have damned the British again had he witnessed the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s, caused by just one man – Winston Churchill.

India could then blame the British, but felt responsible post-Independence to have what is called the “Great Indian Poverty Debate.” It remained a hotly contested topic in the statistical as well as the political realm. Garibi Hatao was the slogan on which Indira Gandhi won her parliamentary election in 1971.

The debate accelerated through the 1990s, post-liberalisation. The claim that India’s extreme poverty reduced from 36 per cent to 26 per cent of the population thanks to the economic reforms generated several academic studies.

In 2009, economist Suresh Tendulkar’s report furthered the debate by including expenses on healthcare and education as part of poverty determination. This report set ₹4,824 and ₹3,904 as the urban and rural monthly income levels for a family of five as the poverty baseline. It triggered one of the earliest loud discussions in the then-nascent Indian social media.

Narrating the evocative debate’s time-line, economist-diplomat Aashish Chandorkar quotes late journalist Anil Padmanabhan who wrote in the Mint newspaper in 2013 – “The business of fixing poverty runs into billions of dollars and there is obviously a lot at stake if poverty is no longer the country’s primary social and developmental challenge.”

The “great Indian debate” has been revived this month. Two different estimates of poverty and inequality were published by authors affiliated to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). The IMF one, co-authored by its Executive Director for India, Surjeet Bhalla, with Karan Bhasin and Arvind Virmani, places the population still suffering extreme poverty at 0.8 percent, while the one for WB says it is 1.4 percent.

The World Bank paper’s title is self-explanatory. “Poverty in India has declined over the last decade but not as much as previously thought,” Sutirtha Sinha Roy and Roy van der Weide argue in their paper. While the levels may vary, the conclusions on the trend in poverty reduction, although reached through the use of varying data and methodology, are not very different.

Both conclude that poverty reduction has slowed down in the last seven years of the present NDA government compared to the 10-year period of 2004-2014 of the UPA. While Bhalla reports 26 million people moving out of poverty every year during the UPA regime, this number is one third at 8.6 million for the NDA government. In terms of percentage point per annum (PPA) reduction in poverty, it is 2.5 PPA for the UPA declining to one fourth at 0.7 PPA for the current NDA.

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Both are being hotly contested on several counts. Most controversial, perhaps, is in IMF study that concludes that India eradicated extreme poverty even before the 2020-21 Corona-19 pandemic.

Those who disagree, argue that the economic growth had declined well before the pandemic, from 8 percent in 2016-17 to 3.6 percent in 2019-20. Unemployment had increased. Ten million people turned jobless migrants. Real wage growth declined. How could the poverty have declined at the bottom?

While the broad conclusion of a sharp slowdown in poverty reduction during the present NDA government compared to the UPA period may be valid, there are differences in the level and extent of poverty reduction claimed, with some studies actually showing a rise in poverty. The real issue is not just what happened to poverty and inequality but also what factors contributed to poverty reduction.

There appears to be a consensus that many of the initiatives during the UPA era, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREG) programme and the Food Security Act have contributed to improvement in the lives of the poor, pulling them out of poverty pit. Bhalla also agrees and documents the stellar role of the in-kind transfers through the subsidised food scheme under the Public Distribution System (PDS).

The expansion of the PDS during the pandemic certainly contributed to reducing the misery of the poor who suffered through a sharp slowdown of the economy and the subsequent disruption in economic activity during the pandemic. This calls for strengthening the social safety nets and expenditure on food and livelihood schemes given the challenge of economic recovery coupled with rising inflation.

The IMF study assumes that the ‘in-kind’ food grain transfers to the poor can be tabulated in monetary terms since those who have food in surplus can barter it or sell it. Is this really possible when economic conditions are adverse for a rural beneficiary?

Finally, one is tempted to make a political comment. Much of the poverty alleviation is attributed to the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which is currently in its fourth edition. Welcoming that with a hearty applause, one is tempted to recall rejection by the present rulers of past poverty alleviation welfare measures, named after one set of leaders, as ‘doles’ that denied the recipient ‘dignity’. Does the change of label now ‘dignify’ a ‘dole’?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Covid Has Deepened India’s Poverty Pit

Stark poverty and hunger is stalking contemporary India but no one wants to see it or talk about it, especially the establishment and its economists. If statistics could tell stories of infinite sorrow, then nothing less than a mass tragedy, devastating, invisible and ghettoized, is currently stalking the inner lanes of an unhappy Indian landscape, and spreading with as much deathly intent as the deadly delta virus. 

First, let us talk of the ‘missing women’. The unorganized sector, with practically no rights for workers, operated by cold-blooded sharks outside official labour laws, with not even job protection for fixed days, or fixed wages, shelter and crèches for children, no maternity and health benefits for women, no provident fund/gratuity/pension, or trade union rights, etc, constitutes more than 90% of the Indian workforce. Barring some states like Kerala, Delhi and West Bengal, workers in the unorganized sector largely don’t have fundamental rights. Half of them are women – and most of them are from the poorest communities – landless Dalits, adivasis, extremely backward castes, Muslims.

The fact is thousands of women seem to have disappeared from the work force since the pandemic. So where have all the women gone?

It’s a fact that majority of domestic helps, working in the gated societies, for instance, lost their meager income since March last year. Many of them were socially ostracized, unceremoniously sacked, not paid their wages, and banned from entering the gated societies. Many were compelled to ‘migrate’ back to their jobless small towns or villages with eternally stagnant economies.

Workers were told by their employers to leave the dingy tenements in urban ghettos, where 5 or more would share a room, because they could not pay the rent. Their children opted out of schools. Many women, and their kids, were seen ‘begging’ outside the posh markets in Noida, even as the rich filled their cars with goodies during the relaxation in curfew hours.

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Many families have been starving, or eating one meal. All of them want to work and earn with dignity; others are afraid to stand in long, crowded food queues because of fear of the virus. For a long period those who did not have Aadhar or ration cards, had no clue how to get food from the public distribution system, even in a city like Delhi.

Consulting firm Dalbert, in a study conducted during March-October last year, reported that women have reduced their food intake because of less income, their rest hours have decreased and ‘unpaid care work hours’ have increased, at least a tenth of the women said that food is in very short supply and they are eating less, 16% had limited or no access to menstrual pads, while 33% of married women had no access to contraceptives as the pandemic disrupted public health outreach programmes. More than 43 per cent women were yet to recover their paid work. While it was terrible last year, the second surge devastated them. The study surveyed 15,000 women and 2,300 men from low-income households in 10 Indian cities.

“If the virus does not kill us, poverty will kill us,” said a balloon seller last winter in Noida. The invisible working class ghetto inhabited by Dalits and extremely backward caste people from Bengal, Bihar and UP, in Noida, surrounded by swanky highways and palatial houses, became jobless overnight on March 24, 2020. The street food vendor found no buyer, rickshaw-pullers no passengers, traffic light sellers no customers, even as thousands of construction workers were rendered jobless as the real estate industry crashed. Workers in the unorganized and small-scale industry, its back broken by demonetisation and GST, found a quagmire beneath their feet – rapidly sinking, and not a straw to hold on.

Stark poverty and hunger has been systematically turned invisible in India in the neo-liberal era, especially in the metros. Therefore, it was disconcerting for the cocooned affluent society when images of thousands of migrant workers suddenly emerged on highways, walking under a scorching sun. Pray, who are these condemned and exiled people?

With their worn out clothes, sacks and plastic bags, mothers holding their children, often barefoot, hungry and thirsty, with absolutely no relief from the central government, they were escaping the stark social/economic uncertainty after a lockdown was suddenly declared by the Centre. Among many enduring images of this Indian reality was the image of a dead mother at the Muzaffarpur Railway Station, her little child tugging at her sari. She was a migrant worker trying to go ‘home’ – from Ahmedabad to Bihar.

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Delhi is classified as the most urban state (98%) in India. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Delhi reported the lowest labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women during the pandemic. Female LFPR was as low as 5.5% compared to the male LFPR of 57. Unemployment among women was 47%, compared to 21 among men.

As many as 10 crore people reportedly lost their jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. While in the pre-election scenario in 2019, India marked the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years, a reality the Modi-led government tried to fudge, currently, it is estimated, approximately 140 million people are jobless, and this includes the corporate sector. The jobless figures are hazy; unemployment has shot up to 11.7 %, last year it was 8. Job losses have been higher in Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, due to the impact of Covid.

A new Pew Research Center study states that consequent to the ‘deep recession’ in 2020, the middle class has shrunk by 32 million. This substantiates the speculation that millions of middle class households have been pushed into low income groups. The 32 million listed by Pew accounts for “60 per cent of the global retreat” in the number of people in the middle-income tier (defined here as people with incomes of $10-20 a day).

The number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) has increased by 75 million because of the COVID-19 recession. This factor also accounts for 60% of the global increase in poverty.

According to the Pew study, only 19% women remained employed and a high 47% suffered a permanent job loss, not returning to work even by the end of 2020. That is, almost half of the women workforce has effectively ‘disappeared’.

The study reported: “Prior to the pandemic, it was anticipated that 99 million people in India would belong in the global middle class in 2020. A year into the pandemic, this number is estimated to be 66 million, cut by a third. Meanwhile, the number of poor in India is projected to have reached 134 million, more than double the 59 million expected prior to the recession…”

Surely, there are millions of micro cases spread like unwritten stories of infinite inequality and economic/social discrimination across the remote rural terrain and in urban ghettos. They need to be documented, filmed, and written. The scale of this human tragedy could be epical.

Indeed, Mamata Banerjee made a cryptic point recently in Delhi: she said that it’s high time we have ‘sachche din’ in India –we already have had an overdose of ‘achche din’.