Wretched of the earth

Poverty re­mains con­di­tional to one's so­cial sta­tus


If poverty is to be pre­vented from be­com­ing gen­er­a­tional, it must not be used as a po­lit­i­cal tool

AS THE world ob­serves the 25th year of the call to end poverty, a re­cent re­port on the level of hunger in In­dia does not bode well for the global ef­forts to “erad­i­cate poverty”. In­dia shows two dis­turb­ing signs: poverty level has sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced in this coun­try that hosts the largest num­ber of poor, but cer­tain sections of the poor are get­ting poorer.

Which are these sections of the pop­u­la­tion? Ex­pect­edly, they are the coun­try’s so­cially back­ward and marginalised com­mu­ni­ties. As this col­umn has re­peat­edly warned, these com­mu­ni­ties are in­creas­ingly be­ing trapped in chronic poverty. And their so­cial sta­tus, which in­vari­ably dic­tates the level of poverty, com­pro­mises their ca­pac­ity to move out of the trap.

This is de­spite the fact that in 1992, the UN in a res­o­lu­tion gave the call to erad­i­cate poverty from across the world and de­clared Oc­to­ber 17 as the In­ter­na­tional Day for the Erad­i­ca­tion of Poverty. Some 20 years be­fore this call, late Prime Min­is­ter Indira Gandhi had made the pro­found “Garibi Hatao” dec­la­ra­tion, aptly from the coun­try’s sym­bol of poverty—the Kala­handi dis­trict of Odisha. In both the cases, the tar­gets were the so­cially marginalised com­mu­ni­ties who con­sti­tuted the bulk of the poor at that point of time. In re­cent months, In­dia’s first post-In­de­pen­dence born Prime Min­is­ter Narendra Modi re­peated the slo­gan, though with a few tweaks.

What have we achieved in the 45 years since Gandhi’s call, and in the 25 years since the UN’s global call? Have the so­cially back­ward and marginalised com­mu­ni­ties wit­nessed a sim­i­lar dip in their level of poverty? A big No.

The World Bank re­cently made par­tial dis­clo­sure of an up­com­ing re­port on rea­sons for poverty and why cer­tain peo­ple never move out of it. “The so­cial sta­tus of one’s par­ents is as in­flu­en­tial to­day as it was 50 years ago in de­ter­min­ing a per­son’s fu­ture,” say the re­port’s ini­tial find­ings. It also points out lack of progress “since the 1960s in an area that is cru­cial for re­duc­ing poverty and in­equal­ity and pro­mot­ing growth”. The re­port has gone into de­tails of how ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion would de­cide es­cape from poverty and make devel­op­ment inclusive or not con­di­tional to a child’s par­ents’ so­cial and eco­nom­i­cal sta­tus. Ac­cord­ing to this re­port, only 50 per cent of chil­dren born in the 1980s have more ed­u­ca­tion than their par­ents. This is no dif­fer­ent from the 1960s level

If the world does not al­ter the way it in­vests in its chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly those com­ing from less ad­van­taged back­grounds, there is lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve that this as­sess­ment will be dif­fer­ent 10 years from now. Mak­ing an end to ex­treme poverty by 2030 is an even big­ger challenge, the as­sess­ment says. This is an alarm call for In­dia to take im­me­di­ate ac­tion and change the way it has ap­proached poverty so far.

In­dia’s so­cially back­ward com­mu­ni­ties ac­count for close to 80 per cent of the coun­try’s to­tal poor pop­u­la­tion. These com­mu­ni­ties ac­count for a sim­i­lar per­cent­age of child pop­u­la­tion. Half of In­dia’s chil­dren are poor or must have been born in poor fam­i­lies. This means, in a way, we are al­ready into the process of mak­ing poverty gen­er­a­tional. This is the rea­son the child of a poor fam­ily has high prob­a­bil­ity of re­main­ing poor for­ever. It is not just ed­u­ca­tional sta­tus that mat­ters. The World Bank re­port has also iden­ti­fied that the over­all lack of devel­op­ment and health sta­tus of chil­dren are con­di­tional to their par­ents’ so­cial sta­tus.

The im­me­di­ate call of ac­tion is to stop mak­ing poverty as the all-weather po­lit­i­cal tool. Since Gandhi’s call, as it emerges, we might have re­duced poverty nu­mer­i­cally, but couldn’t treat it for the sec­tion of peo­ple who re­main at the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. In­stead of mak­ing caste­based pol­i­tics, it is time we made caste-based eco­nomic devel­op­ment a much big­ger na­tional agenda. This is be­cause speak­ing of devel­op­ment is a sec­u­lar ac­tiv­ity, but poverty is not.


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