26 July, 2013


[Journey or Goal]

Non-Economists’ Notes on On-going Debate on Poverty Reduction

This significant debate has been reduced to petty politicking by the Opposition and to ridiculous proportions by a metro-centric media. And not without valuable help by some Congressmen.

Originally the debate involved a question as to whether India has made progress in tackling poverty? When the Congress claimed it did, the opposition questioned it. In the heat of the moment some Congressmen cited numbers that appeared rather far-fetched as enough money for a meal. From that moment the nation has been embroiled in the controversy, ridiculing the entire subject with utter insensitivity towards its significance.

So, has India progressed on the poverty front lately?

Taking the Suresh Tendulkar benchmark, duly adjusted against inflation, India has achieved remarkable progress. Indeed, government friendly economists can present data showing that around 170 million people have been lifted above poverty going by that earlier definition.

It is said that even by World Bank norms of $1.25 per day per person for determining abject poverty, the Indian equivalent in terms of purchasing power parity [PPP] comes to a mere Rs. 22. Even working at the other higher determinant of $2.0 the poverty reduction has been remarkable during the last 7 years or so. Eminent economists have conceded that by any given set of recognized criteria poverty has definitely declined. By how much, will depend upon what criteria one lays down to compare.

As I tweeted earlier: The on-going #Poverty debate should distinguish SAFAR [journey] from MANZIL [goal]. We have certainly journeyed much, but do have a long way yet to go. To compare and evaluate our performance we DO NEED an earlier benchmark, suitably adjusted against rising inflation, and not an abstract definition. That can come later.

But the poor also need healthcare, basic education, decent nutrition… This “inspirational” poverty line is a rather subjective concept. Who can be “not poor”? What minimum of health care, access to education and sanitation can suffice?

Time was when “Roti” alone was enough to be “not poor”. This slowly worked upwards to “Roti and Kapda”, and later again to “Roti, Kapda, Makaan”. Housing shall remain a challenge for at least a decade. And in these terms India shall overwhelmingly remain “poor” for a good decade or two.

So, has poverty declined? Can anybody dealing with the poor deny, it did? I can’t. Indeed, it is a big story of our times that poverty as benchmarked earlier has been vastly reduced. Undoubtedly, however, inspirations have also risen. Hence in relative terms happiness may still elude the poor.

Let’s celebrate what good we did. Yes, we wish we did more. Let us now decide to do more, and how.

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