India's Poverty Industry: B G Verghese

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M G:  I am sadly aware that veteran journalist B G Verghese has not raised the question “Why we carp at rather than celebrate falling numbers of poor in the country?” because he is ignorant of the umpteen possible answers to the question, many of which he has himself stumbled upon while writing about several human right issues he has covered in his columns during the last several decades. He, like Amartya Sen or A P J Abdul Kalam who are still concerned about hunger and deprivation, wants to wake up those who can do something about abject poverty, but are pretending ignorance about existence of poverty itself.

The Article

India's poverty industry

B G VERGHESE | Jul 31, 2013, 12.00 AM IST, TIMES OF INDIA

India remains a poor country. No doubt about that. Its human deve-lopment 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 Rs 32 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. The question, however, remains — has poverty declined?

The latest National Sample Survey report says that poverty levels in India declined by 15% between 2004-05 and 2011-12, bringing down overall numbers below the poverty level from 37% of the total population to 22%. 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 states such asBihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

However, political critics have damned the NSS report on the ground that no one 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 Ranga-rajan 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. But 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 as well though the absolute numbers would obviously vary. Measuring a trend is a necessary and worthwhile exercise. 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 Cong-ress-UPA stalwarts argued that a man could have a filling meal in Delhi and Mumbai at Rs 5 and Re 1, respectively. The debate then goes 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, MGNREGA and RTE. Here the argument is between the growth-first and welfare-first schools, now elevated to a global level by the Amartya Sen-Jagdish Bhagwati 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 Sen that Gujarat has not done so well in the field of development as testified by its poor social development record. He also said that Narendra Modi would not be a natural choice to be India's prime minister as he did not command the confidence of a large section of minorities.

This has, predictably, outraged the BJP, even as its president, Rajnath Singh, appealed to President Barack Obama to reconsider the US refusal to grant Modi visa. 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, 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 deve-lopment and kept as a 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? Once the environmental battle is "won", tribals are left to suffer deprivation and death, quietly and unmourned in pristine surroundings. Sadly, the entire tribal question has been placed outside and beyond the poverty framework. Poverty of thinking on this issue is staggering. Real issues remain un-debated while trivia and electoral politics reign.

Things can change and will do so if the UPA presses ahead with reforms and breaks the environmental logjam on several large infrastructure projects. The formation of Telangana could change southern equations and spur similar demands for smaller states elsewhere. Things are churning.

The writer is a senior journalist.


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