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?
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.