You can live on Rs 27 a day, you can eat a full meal for Rs 12, you can put growth before development and survive or maybe you cannot grow without development and at the end of it all, it’s silly season in India all over again. Rates and figures are thrown at people but everybody knows the reality. When tomatoes are Rs 40 a kg then some people stop eating tomatoes. And when multiplex movie tickets are Rs 300 a seat then some people stop watching movies at multiplexes. Neither tomatoes nor movies are vital for survival but they are not really luxuries either. Luxury perhaps is cinnamon-flavoured vodka with gold flecks, a hot (or cold) favourite with Mumbai’s mwah-mwah crowd I understand.
India’s poor could be 24 per cent of the population or 67 per cent of the population. Either way, there’s nothing to be proud of. Some argue that the 24 per cent are actually destitute and the rest are just regular poor. What is amazing is that we need to hear this from experts, economists and talking heads on television. Because evidently, we cannot look out of our windows and see for ourselves how “developed” we are.
The fight between acclaimed economists over growth and development and poverty is a bit of a joke really. When they look out of their windows, they see what we in India pretend to see: developed countries. Every new fancy glass-fronted office block in India barely hides the half-dressed construction worker who made it. I am not being maudlin. The workers are there if you just look. They are never going to enter those buildings as equals in their lifetime.
The quarrel over the state of governance in this part of India or that boils down to this: the system is groaning from the weight of government schemes to solve just about every problem we have. But none of them can or will be implemented to even 70 per cent completion because no one is really that interested. The anti-corruption protestors scream about corruption in crores or electricity bills in the national capital. But those are problems for the elite.
How about those who live in the Thane district just outside Mumbai who don’t even have electricity or whose children are still dying from malnutrition?
Most NGOs and social activists who work in the field have found that one effective way of dealing with this morass of inactivity is empowerment of those for whom benefits are intended. But what can the urban voter do? Perhaps become more aware? Every year, states return unspent the bulk of the money meant for various improvement and poverty alleviation schemes. Money is clearly not the problem. The problem is callous indifference on the part of the bureaucracy and the clear understanding that political grandstanding at election time will get you out of most problems. Why not check and see how your state did or the track record of your favoured political party? If you care, that is.
The debates about poverty happening around us are all smoke and mirrors. As long as we are lost in statistics and percentages, it allows us to ignore the not-so-pretty picture outside our windows. As for our politicians, they are going to work as hard as they can in the next few months to confuse us even further. The tragedy is that at the end of it all, we are stuck with almost no choice at all. When in power, the behaviour of most individual politicians is very similar. Some parties may be more secular or less obviously discriminatory than others. Some parties may suit our ideas of caste or region. But no political party in India stands for anything any more. So if there is no informed choice, then there is at least informed demand. And to be effective, it has to include those outside your window as well as those within your home.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona