What A 10 Year Old NRI Taught Me About Poverty In India

“I don’t like my Rebook kicks!”

But you just got them last month.

“No, they’re already old! Besides, I need new shoes for basketball!”

I sit in the back of my nephew’s kitchen, wondering when a 9 year old (who’d just turned ten, and announced it every time you met him) started calling shoes kicks. When I was a teen, kicks were something that you got out of a snide Friends’ line. Something funny that Phoebe did that elicited an obtuse reaction from everyone else.

As the sordid realization that I’m turning old passes, I begin wondering why he needs new basketball trainers. Trainers! That is what us oldies call them. Had they been a simple (and cheap) affair, I’d understand. But these trainers will set my sister back over Rs. 8,000. That loosely translates to $300. Not a biggie? How about a little perspective on the problem of Poverty in India?

My sister’s driver, a family man with 3 school going children and rented accommodation makes about that much in a month. He manages to sort out food, tuition, medical necessities (there is no state managed healthcare in India). He is one of the lucky few who have managed to find a job.

The Modern Poverty Of India

As someone who inherited an Indian citizenship from their parents, coming back to the country paints a completely new picture. There still are places where your father’s story of how he would ride a fixed bicycle to school when he was my age seems plausible. In Mumbai however, the only thing I’m wondering about is, where’s the space?

India has roads. But they’re occupied by cars, bikes and the iconic bombay rickshaw. Under the minor encroachments, you can still make out the pattern that the tiles of the footpath make. The city might need a vacuuming or two, but it has a lot of infrastructure.

I live in this bubble till we get stuck in a traffic jam. Then the first beggar comes up to my car. She’s younger than my nephew. My sister is thankful that he isn’t awake to be subject to this. We head onto a bridge and as it curves over the city, I, for the first time in my life see Mumbai’s jhuggis.

I have a distinct taste of having seen something like this before. But the experience was a lot more, surgical, for lack of better rhetoric. I’ve romanticized the slums of Mumbai, borrowing association from a Bollywood flick that won a bunch of oscars. The true impact of poverty in India hits me, AP Economics be damned.

The way I see it, the definition of poverty in India seems relative. For now. Sure in the grand American Dream way India is poor, but they don’t seem to be starving. There seems to be a lot of storeowners and it vaguely reminds me of a noir Western.

The Challenge of Poverty in India

The biggest challenge of poverty in India is the other type of poverty. As someone who’s from a country where poor means you’re living in a tiny apartment and have a 20 year old car, the only poverty that I’ve seen first hand is relative poverty.

However, the disturbing trend of poverty in India is the fact that absolute poverty isn’t something that is being tackled at the speed that it should be. Those of you who favor the current political regime will proclaim the rising GDP with gumption but will drop your tones down to a whisper when it comes to the inflation rate that seems to be tracking the rising GDP.

The reason why poverty in India has becomes a sore topic of discussion is because while those living in the cities are getting the benefits of the rising GDP, it is the population below the poverty line in India that is having to deal with the rising prices of onions and wheat without deriving any economic benefit from the well-paraded rising GDP.

Gini Can Take A Hike – Hunger is The Biggest Of The Effects Of Poverty in India

“The gap on the Indian Gini index is closing!” proclaims a Forbes headline and I feel my liberal proclivities tingling – someone is doing it right in India. They’ve got a tab on things. They’ll fix unemployment and poverty in India.

Except The Hindu has run an editorial on the same day about a village where they’ve had to resort to eating wild mice because they’re out of food. If you’re smelling the Piped Piper, there is also mention of over 100,000 farmers who commit suicides every year.

Poverty and hunger in India go hand in India. No Gucci store bought from the new mall down the road can hide that. No Porsche showroom in Colaba will console my rage.

Did I Just Name The Rich As The Cause Of Poverty In India?

If this was debate club, I’d be roasted by now. I’m hoping for a gentler audience though.

The biggest reason for poverty in India is the lackadaisical education. Or the corrupt government structure where the food grains meant for the poor and the destitute end up in private godowns to be later auctioned off at wholesale prices.

I’ve been eyeballs deep in data, and it isn’t helping. The more I read, the more charts, fugues and numbers I look at, the more I begin seeing how much of a web it all is.

I just scratched off an 800 word argument and decided to replace it with this – We expect too little, and boy do we get it!

We expect too little of our government, our politicians and the system. We consider corruption to be an inevitable part of the system much like a suicidal individual would.

Just because we can never eliminate the entirety of the corrupt, does that mean we never try?

The Shifting Allegiances Of The Poverty Line in India

More than 50% of the population earns less than $1 a day. However, 25% of the population makes somewhere between ¢50 and ¢75 a day. Assume you’re a politician with an upcoming second term election. Pick the quickest way to reduce poverty levels in the country.

If you said change the definition of what falls under the poverty line so that we can report a lower percentage of poverty in India, you hit the jackpot. You’re very good mad statistician material. You should head to Wall Street and doll up your Frankenstein!

The true extent of poverty in India is massive. At a linear increase of 10% inflation year-on-year, would mean that within 10 years, anyone with a $1/day income that is unable to match inflation would fall under the poverty line.

What The “People Below Poverty Line in India” Metric Ignores

Before I go ahead and critique the government’s treatment of the poverty line, it would only be prudent to state what the poverty line in India actually is.

The World Bank, in 2005, reported that over 40% of the entire Indian population falls below what is considered the international poverty line. $1.25 a day.

On top of that, the Global Hunger Index calculation reports that 24% of India’s population doesn’t know where their next meal will come from.

Here is what is not calculated when the extent of poverty in India is being measured:

1. The ability of an individual to attain 3 square meals a day

2. The inability to pay for regular medical expenses

3. The inability to cook food using a LPG cylinder

4. The ability to send your children to school

5. Access to potable water

6. The ability to feed dependents and on and on it goes…

While it makes sense to have a measurement that generalizes the state of the poverty percentage in India, the ability and opportunity that an individual is presented with should also be taken into account. If the major cost being factored into the poverty is food, we clear have failed on our promise of a brighter India.

The UN goes ahead and declares internet access a basic human right. Hold on please, let us just figure out how to feed our hungry and poor…

The Government’s Anti-Poverty Measures In India

The policy makers haven’t been sitting idle. And neither has the opposition. The destitute make up a large vote-bank for them and this means that it is in their best interests to have anti-poverty programmes in store for the coming election year.

I will concede that reducing poverty in India, absolute poverty, not the relativistic ideal is no easy task. That and the government over the years has been working hard to do their bit. Education programmes, job schemes, the works!

Like I said before, it hasn’t been enough. And we’ve come to expect too little.

Ideas On How To Reduce Poverty In India

We build roads. We build infrastructure. We allot SEZs. And most importantly, we eliminate corruption. For every poverty reduction program in India, there are a few dozen corrupt layers of government employees.

Take, for example the mid-day meal. The government takes it upon itself to provide an afternoon meal for every child under the age of fourteen who will attend a government run school.

The kind of corruption that is expected in this case is that a few bags of wheat go missing. However, Indian politicians always go for the home run.

Instead of a little accounting juggle, what you get instead are entire schools that are made up! Schools that are supposed to be teaching over 100 children are found out to have disappeared into thin air with everyone skirting to play the blame game! Also, those schools were drawing teacher salaries and money for supplies!

Spearheading Agriculture As The Prime Poverty Reduction Method in India

Of all the measures to reduce poverty in India that have been floated around, the one that seems to make the most sense, especially with the growth that spending among the middle class is experiencing is processed agricultural produce.

Sure, cottage industry has its place but expecting it to alone feed 20% of the nation’s starving population is a pipe dream.

As of now, less than 5% of the agricultural produce of the nation is processed. In what used to be monikered first world countries, the number is close to 70%.

Pushing that number up gives us a much better shot at reducing poverty in India.

Poverty Alleviation Programmes in India

While you and I can dream of a world with no corruption and Kumbaya  filling in as the background score, the need for a system that goes behind the limits has become paramount.

Unemployment is the biggest contributing factor towards poverty. Illiteracy is the hotbed of unemployment. Therefore, education is a viable strategy in going forward.

The tax breaks and the incentives that could be given out for milestones in the education spectrum make for a lot of possibilities. Passed a standard CBSE grade 10 exam? Here’s Rs. 10,000 mailed to you.

Want to study after high school? Tax breaks for both your parents and on your future income.

Poverty And Unemployment in India

The reason why inequality in India is blamed for poverty is pretty easy to grasp. What isn’t is the fact that the true battlefield is the economic class segregation and for some reason everyone has plugged in their Maya to fighting for social equality.

Sure, the Dalits will have the same standing as enjoyed by the Hindus but outside of reservations how does it help the economic standing of the average Dalit? The minority quotas are only going to go this far…

Comparing The Rural To The Urban – Poverty Outside The Metros

When I said that India seems to have the other kind of poverty in India, that is exactly what I was talking about. While they are both macro-economic concepts, India makes for a unique case with the most debilitating poverty being pushed to the rural areas.

A cursory look at the numbers tells us that poverty in rural India is rising. A disinterested soul would blame education or unemployment alone. What we need to factor into those numbers is that there is a sizable number of people in the villages who are moving to the cities with their families in tow.

While these people will be grappling with issues like 10 people squeezing in to sleep in an 8 foot by 8 foot room, the ones that are left behind suffer from crippling poverty – the absolute kind.

Urban suicides among the poor are rare. Suicides amongst farmers are now so commonplace that they don’t make the news unless the number in a village crosses a dozen.