Slum Dwellers or Mil­lion­aires?

Most In­di­ans continue to live in ab­ject poverty with the gov­ern­ment do­ing lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate their prob­lems. Is this sim­ple neg­li­gence or a cal­cu­lated po­lit­i­cal move?

Southasia - - Contents - By Sa­dia A. Ahmed

Will In­dia es­cape the poverty trap?

Ever since In­dia took a gi­ant leap in be­com­ing the fourth largest econ­omy in the eco­nomic world or­der, not only has its GDP grown sub­stan­tially, but the coun­try also claims to have con­sid­er­ably re­duced the in­ci­dence of poverty within its bor­ders. Ac­cord­ing to the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, 29.8% of In­dia’s 1.21 bil­lion peo­ple live be­low the na­tional pover- ty line -- a sharp drop from the 37.2% in 2004-5. De­spite its 7.6% growth, In­dia re­mains the poor­est among the G20 nations. A BBC re­port sug­gests that around 360 mil­lion peo­ple still live in ab­ject poverty in In­dia. Other eval­u­a­tions in­di­cate poverty lev­els to be as high as 77%. How­ever, no mat­ter what these num­bers in­di­cate, the fact re­mains that the poor in In­dia are get­ting poorer by the day.

Lat­est Plan­ning Com­mis­sion data re­veals that the ur­ban pop­u­la­tion is now try­ing to sur­vive on Rs. 28.35 per day as op­posed to Rs. 38 per day (the na­tional poverty line a few years ago). Now, any ci­ti­zen who is sur­viv­ing on Rs. 28.35 per day in ur­ban ar­eas (this ex­pen­di­ture is said to be as low as Rs. 22.42 per day in ru­ral ar­eas)

is not con­sid­ered to be liv­ing Be­low the Poverty Line (BPL). As a re­sult, the Na­tional Com­mis­sion of In­dia has set lower stan­dards for an in­di­vid­ual not to be con­sid­ered as poor, and this has gen­er­ated quite a de­bate across the na­tion.

“Any­thing with an engine was out of bounds, we had to travel ev­ery­where on foot. Any kind of pro­tein, even eggs or dairy prod­ucts be­came un­af­ford­able,” said Tushar Vashisht, a 26-year-old In­dian who, along with his friend, con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment and tried to live on the sug­gested Rs 28.35 per day BPL level.

Al­though the de­bate on poverty has mostly been an­a­lysed in the eco­nomic realm, its so­cial char­ac­ter and de­mo­graph­ics are left un­ex­plored. Poverty is more of a so­cial marginal­i­sa­tion of a group or community rather than an in­suf­fi­cient in­come to ful­fil the ba­sic needs of a house­hold. More than half of In­dia’s poor are con­cen­trated in the states of Ma­ha­rash­tra, Bi­har, Orissa, Mad­hya Pradesh, Ch­hat­tis­garh, Ut­tar Pradesh, Ut­tarak­hand and West Ben­gal. The dis­turb­ing fact, how­ever, is that over the years, the poor­est states in In­dia continue to be the same. Preva­lent in these states (in­clud­ing Ra­jasthan and Kar­nataka) is also an alarm­ingly large per­cent­age of sched­uled castes and tribes. Agri­cul­tural la­bor­ers (mar­ginal farm work­ers in vil­lages, ca­sual work­ers in cities), tribes peo­ple, Dal­its (for­merly low caste un­touch­ables) and mi­nori­ties (for ex­am­ple Mus­lims), are all part of the sched­uled tribe sys­tem and re­main the poor­est of In­di­ans. A strong cor­re­la­tion can be found be­tween such vul­ner­a­ble groups and poverty — poor en­dow­ments of pro­duc­tive land, sub-stan­dard ed­u­ca­tion, health fa­cil­i­ties, liv­ing con­di­tions, and caste-based dis­crim­i­na­tion have all re­sulted in these groups be­ing prone to chronic poverty.

The in­for­mal sec­tor of the In­dian so­ci­ety, which con­sists of the hun­dreds of shop­keep­ers, farm­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers, taxi driv­ers, street ven­dors, rag pick­ers, tai­lors and more, is re­spon­si­ble for ap­prox­i­mately 90% of In­dia’s an­nual eco­nomic growth. Iron­i­cally enough, these in­di­vid­u­als — the back­bone of In­dia’s boom­ing econ­omy — are the ones whose hu­man con­di­tion is the most ne­glected in the coun­try.

UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki Moon said, “Now, more than ever, we need to con­nect the dots be­tween cli­mate, poverty, en­ergy, food and wa­ter. These is­sues can­not be ad­dressed in iso­la­tion.” In or­der to live at all, one needs clean wa­ter, food, shel­ter, cloth­ing and ba­sic med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties. A life with­out these ba­sic es­sen­tials is in no way com­pat­i­ble with hu­man dig­nity and the stan­dards of a demo­cratic state. Con­trary to in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights norms that state, “ev­ery­one has the right to a stan­dard of liv­ing ad­e­quate for the health and well-be­ing of him­self and of his fam­ily, in­clud­ing food, cloth­ing, hous­ing, and med­i­cal care” (Ar­ti­cle 25, Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights), the In­dian gov­ern­ment has shown se­ri­ous neg­li­gence in ad­dress­ing the grow­ing in­ci­dences of star­va­tion and ap­palling liv­ing con­di­tions found in shanty slums across ur­ban and ru­ral In­dia.

Ac­cord­ing to a news story in Bloomberg, Ram Kishen, a starved 59-year-old man and many oth­ers like him are legally en­ti­tled to the food stored in gov­ern­ment ware­houses on sub­sidised prices (as lo­cal food prices climbed more than 70% over the past five years, de­pen­dence on sub­si­dies has grown). In­stead, through scams, around $14.5 bil­lion in food has been looted by cor­rupt politi­cians over the last decade in Ut­tar Pradesh alone, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg’s data. The five-decade-old pub­lic dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem has failed to de­liver record of har­vests, and thou­sands of fam­i­lies starve to death, while politi­cians go un­pun­ished. Al­though In­dia runs the largest pub­lic food dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram, only 41% of the food set aside for feed­ing the poor reaches house­holds na­tion­wide. As a re­sult, 21% of all adults and al­most half of In­dia’s chil­dren, un­der five years of age, are mal­nour­ished and about 900 mil­lion In­di­ans eat less than gov­ern­ment-rec­om­mended min­i­mums, ac­cord­ing to World Bank sta­tis­tics.

Indira Khu­rana, WaterAid In­dia’s Di­rec­tor, Pol­icy and Pro­grams, says “Ev­ery year thou­sands of chil­dren die in In­dia due to a lack of ad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion and clean wa­ter. The Gov­ern­ment must in­crease the level of spend­ing on wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion... so that all stake hold­ers can work to­gether to turn around the sit­u­a­tion.” De­spite pri­vate sec­tor in­ter­ven­tion, re­duc­ing poverty lev­els re­mains slow, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral In­dian vil­lages where hunger, wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion con­di­tions are worse than those in most cities. Laws and sys­tems that pro­tect hu­man rights need to be im­ple­mented and put in to prac­tice so that the re­al­i­ties of a glob­al­ized econ­omy can be dealt with more ef­fec­tively.

“Eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity in In­dia still lies, to a large ex­tent, in ur­ban ar­eas,” says Eswar Prasad, a lead­ing econ­o­mist. Is it in the gov­ern­ment’s own in­her­ent in­ter­est to keep those in ru­ral parts des­ti­tute, il­lit­er­ate and let cor­rup­tion, bad gov­er­nance and mis­placed pri­or­i­ties be­come an over sight? Is vote-bank pol­i­tics at play here, so that ex­treme dearth, emo­tions and pathos of the poor­est in the so­ci­ety can be toyed with dur­ing times of elec­tion? In a New York Times ar­ti­cle, jour­nal­ist Jim Yardley summed up the re­al­ity of In­dian slums as “One slum. Four lay­ers. Four re­al­i­ties. On the ground floor is mis­ery. One floor up is work. An­other floor up is pol­i­tics. And at the top is hope.” If each slum is a true mi­cro-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of In­dia and its dwellers the most vul­ner­a­ble in its so­cial struc­ture, then hop­ing to live ac­cord­ing to ba­sic hu­man rights stan­dards, al­though the most fun­da­men­tal of hu­man in­ter­ests, has sadly be­come the destiny for mil­lions of In­di­ans. Sa­dia A. Ahmed is a grad­u­ate of Mount Holyoke Col­lege and has a post grad­u­ate de­gree in Hu­man Rights Law from SOAS Univer­sity. She is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and has pre­vi­ously worked for The Ex­press Tri­bune.

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