Poverty is one of the most monumental yet overlooked issues of our country. Money is the end and the means of our existence. It is not bad to have an urge to earn more money, the lesson of acquiring more and more resources is embedded in the most primal parts of our brain. We want more money than the person next to us, and the urge to earn is what drives any economy forward. There is no surprise that our economy is growing by leaps and bounds. The question that rises is why are the poor so poor in our country? In a country with a predicted GDP growth rate stands at a huge 7.3 percent, why haven’t the poor already become rich?
This sudden bolt of inspiration came into my mind when I was at a market near my place, and a balloon vendor, all dressed in scraps, came to me asking if I wanted a balloon. My stature does not serve justice to my age, but then the both of us knew that I wouldn’t have bought the balloon, I am too old for that. The desperation on the face of the man made me give him a 20 rupee note. We do know that desperation makes men scale the unscalable, and the will of the man who is ready to offer a balloon to every grown up at a market really shook the workings of my inner mind to the core. The face of that man has occupied my mind ever since, and this article is a result of the many hours I have put in to research what it is like being poor in the developing nation we call ours.
According to the Census of 2010, the number of people below the poverty line in India stands at 32.7 percent, or almost 43 crore Indians. The count stood at 49.4 percent in 1994, and on paper, it could be seen as a great achievement when you reduce the poverty rate of such a huge country by almost 17 percent over 16 years. Our regional rival, China has brought down the percentage of its poor from 60 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2010, just to keep things in perspective.
This achievement is quite hollow though. According to the latest report presented by the C Rangarajan (the ex RBI governor) expert panel, the minimum daily wage stood in urban areas for qualifying above the poverty line stood at 47 rupees, which was brought up from 33 rupees per day in 2011-12 as recommended by the Suresh Tendulkar expert panel. The World Bank has set the standard at US$ 1.9 per day. Adjusted for PPP (Purchasing Power Parity, or in simple terms, the amount a local currency can buy what US$ 1.9 could buy in the US), it amounts to about 54 rupees, a little more than what our seemingly efficient (pun intended) Finance Ministry thinks is okay. The simple conclusion is, the number of poor people in India is more what the reports show.
I am not an economist or a statistician, but as an engineer, I can crunch some numbers for you.
Two young economists, Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo, studied numbers from many cities throughout the globe, and Udaipur, a huge city in the Indian state of Rajasthan was one of them. I am using their data and observations to put my points forth to the reader. Udaipur has people from both ends of the economic rainbow living peacefully among its beautiful blue walls for many years now. It is an ideal place to do an economic study, because like all rainbows, the rich found the pot of gold first.
Consider this. 65 percent of the poor in Udaipur are underweight. In a country where obesity is looked on to as a sign of healthy well-being, this data is clear enough to show that the poor in India have troubles even while trying to procure food. 55 percent of the people have some form of anaemia (deficiency of red blood cells), and 46 percent of them have been seeing a doctor because of the issue. 45 percent of the adults reported they cut down the size of their meal quite often to have enough for their children. This actually hinders the healthy development of the brain, and coupled with anaemia, we are looking a way lesser number of IQ points available for poor children to use. The rich may not be born clever, but they certainly win over the poor during childhood.
So, what do the poor people eat?
In Udaipur, the cheapest cereal is millet. 68 percent said that they depended the most on millet, 20 percent said that they had rice (which costs twice as much per calorie), 10 percent depended on wheat (70 percent more expensive than millet per calorie) and the rest resorted to sugar (which is the most expensive per calorie and has no nutritional benefits). The poor are great at managing their food budgets though. A person in the middle-class income bracket will go through weeks without even touching millet, only complaining about how quickly the prices of other staples have increased. The poor learn to manage their money better than the rich, giving up on satisfaction and taste to save a little more money.
On studying their expenses, we find that only about 2 percent is spent on their children’s education, which is quite understandable as almost 72 percent of the children in the city attend schools run by the state government, which offer free education and mid-day meals. Poor children still continue to underperform at the higher education level, a proof of the fact that our public schooling system is functioning way below par.
Almost 8 percent of their income is spent on alcohol or tobacco, and this is where the knowledge of keeping one’s body healthy comes in. A well to do, educated person has some degree of concern for his health, while a poor uneducated guy revels in the momentary pleasure his cigarette gives, not giving much thought to how great is the damage to his life expectancy. Life expectancy is a farce for a poor Indian though. Less than 5 percent of our poor have access to clean water and toilets, and you don’t expect people to live very long in those conditions anyway, which equals lesser time to earn money.
It is true that the poor are always at a disadvantage in the money game, they face a difficult childhood, coupled with mismanaged, and often missing government funds, thoughtless economic policies which have no real economic benefit to the poor. They do learn to save money, the do not take care of their health, or even if they do, their surroundings are way too unhygienic to prevent disease. At this juncture, it is quite easy to understand why only a small proportion of poor people do manage to rise up the economic ladder. The government might show that they are helping the needy, but then there is no such thing as free lunch, or a mid-day meal (pun intended).
The poor in our country are seen as scum, as people who do not belong to our country, the ones pushing our economy downwards. Yet, at the same time, they clean our houses daily, they stand in the heat to sell fruits and vegetables, they take us place to place in their rickshaws and contribute a significant 27 percent to our GDP (Gross Domestic Product, and I’m not explaining this) while doing so. It is high time that we start helping these people on our own, instead of blaming the two ineffective political parties who are always in power in our country.
We, as the people of this country can turn things around, and we should.
Though I still do wonder what would have happened if I had bought that balloon.