Poverty needs to be redefined

Oct 05, 2011, 07:35 IST | Ranjona Banerji

The last week or so we've been quite enraged about how poor is poor in India.

The last week or so we've been quite enraged about how poor is poor in India. We have a couple of problems here. One is, that much as we want to believe the hype that India is the greatest country ever, every time we step out in public, we see evidence of things which give the lie to that theory: shoddy infrastructure, dirt and grime and yes, poor people. Regardless of whether you own a Blackberry or an I-phone, take regular foreign holidays and eat prosciutto and arugula salad with pine nuts, you cannot be unaware of all this. In fact, the richer you are and the less you travel by auto and public transport, the better aware you are of the poverty of India because you probably have more domestics than the rest of us and for all I know, someone in your household still squabbles over whether to cut the pay of the dusting lady or gent for bunking work for some mysterious visit to the 'gaon'.

How poor is poor? Considering today's inflation rates, the figures
submitted by Montek Singh Ahluwalia and team seems bizarre and

Plus, some poor people invariably tap on your car window at a traffic light. The other problem is if you're one of the poor people of India. But the question we're grappling with is, how poor is poor? For a few years, we used the dollar a day principle. If you spent less than that, you are at rock bottom. The current figure submitted by the Planning Commission to the Supreme Court is Rs 32 a day if you live in a city and Rs 26 if you live in a village.

Not only is that considerably less than a dollar a day -- whatever the current rupee-dollar fluctuations -- at today's inflation rates, it seems bizarre and heartless. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, clarified that they didn't mean that people who spend Rs 33 a day are not poor but he also lamented that people were looking at a daily spending amount instead of the monthly amount - that's Rs 4,800 for an urban family and Rs 3,900 for a rural family. Thank you. Even with my miserable mathematics, Rs 4,800 a month for a family of five doesn't amount to much.

It is heartening however that we are paying attention to this issue. A few years ago, we were always aware (all right, many years ago, before we started 'shining') of it -- ad nauseum almost -- but precious little was done. Now it appears that we have the means and the awareness to deal with it. But whether we like it or not, we first have to have some idea of the enormity of the situation we're grappling with. And willy-nilly, that means some way of counting and accounting.

The dilemma is, who do you leave it to? Economists and accountants will either bury in statistical interpretations or organise the figures so that government spend is limited -- which is pretty much where we are today, at Rs 32 a day. Activists and NGOs, it is feared, will exaggerate figures to get maximum aid money. Bleeding hearts will believe whatever's worst. 'Patriots' and Indian-origin academics in foreign universities will look for a figure even lower than the Planning Commission.

I would contend that there is no dilemma. We need to have a fair count to determine where we are at and therefore, what needs to be done. We need a reasonable subsistence level figure, not this outrageous Rs 32 a day. If the socio-economic census currently underway gives us an equally absurd figure next year, we need to revive discussions on this issue. The evidence of our poverty is all around us, as is our growing wealth. The trick is in trying to connect the two.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist

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