Forget the Poor

By Dipankar Gupta

Editor’s Note: Professor Dipankar Gupta has forwarded two articles to contribute to the debate on helping the poor that was initiated in the previous post on this blog. This is the first of the two articles. The second would be posted subsequently.

The best way to fight poverty is not to plan for the poor. The moment one singles them out for special services, absurdities, and worse, begin to abound. This is especially true when their numbers are large. Targeted policies work best when they are aimed at a small minority. It is not possible to have special programmes that affect anything between 50% to 70% of the population. In which case, one might as well have a revolution!

If that is a death wish that no functioning republic would like to entertain, then it should think differently about poverty. As poor seeking programmes leave the better off untouched, they are always sub-normal in their performance. The famished have neither voice nor energy to protest. Their bodies are just about stitched together.

This lesson should have been apparent from the fact that schools, hospitals and food for the poor are always way below standard. Also, poor oriented services are a natural magnet for graft and corruption.  A study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research shows that though ration shops are strictly for Below Poverty Line families, but not all their provisions go to the right address. A chunk of it regularly finds its way to more affluent homes, year after year. In fact, N.C.Saxena figures that 17.4% of the richest quintile possesses ration cards.

Yet, as the emphasis is always the targeted poor, we end up playing with numbers. If poverty estimates were like batting averages, then it would stand at roughly 50%. When Arjun Sengupta’s committee is at the crease the poverty figure touches 77%, but when the Planning Commission takes over it drops to about 29%. Suresh Tendulkar took the score up to 41% and that seemed very impressive till N.C.Saxena hit the average at 50%. This would mean that half the country’s population cannot purchase the minimum recommended caloric requirements. Current consensus is around Saxena’s finding for it is believed that Tendulkar probably doctored the pitch. He pegged the minimum calorie intake at a level well below that posted by the Indian Council of Medical Research.

But do we really need poverty statistics to tell us that India is poor?  How does it really help if Arjun Sengupta is a bigger hitter than Tendulkar or the Planning Commission? The fact is that no matter which way you look at it, between 10 to 15 crore families can barely feed themselves. If Abhijit Sen is to be believed then about 80% of rural India faces chronic starvation. With numbers as large as this can there be special programmes for a targeted group?

As these initiatives for the poor do not affect the well to do, the resources needed for them balk the administrators. When Tendulkar Committee first announced the poverty figure at 41.9%, the Planning Commission and the Ministries of Finance and Social Welfare choked on their tables. So much money would now have to be put away for those other people who are not like us. To satisfy Tendulkar’s findings the food subsidy would now cost Rs. 47917.62 crore and not 28890.4 crores, as estimated earlier. That was still high, but the government could probably live with it. Naturally, when Saxena came up with 50%, nobody in the administration wanted to hear about it.

Such exercises with numbers don’t really help when the targeted group is almost the entire society. In such conditions there are only two options. Either we let revolutions step out of history books or we get real about poverty eradication through democratic means. If it is to be the latter, we can and should learn from prosperous states. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, even Spain and Singapore, did not begin rich, but became rich because they did not devise programmes for the poor. The emphasis in these countries was to frame policies that affected the entire society, and not this or that section of it.

Of course, one could immediately object to this suggestion by hiding behind our awesome population figures. With a billion plus on the census rolls how could we possibly look like Europe? Are we then destined to remain poor, for that is what it would seem?  From Antuday to NREGA, our poverty rates keep spiking up year after year. Isn’t it time we changed our tack and started to think the way prosperous societies do? Perhaps that might help.

All across the western hemisphere one finds more things in common than differences. From public transportation to garbage disposal, from health to piped water or electricity, the similarities between rich countries are striking. Children don’t die of malnutrition, and people don’t turn up late for work. Banks may crash in Iceland, even volcanoes can go up in smoke, but babies will be born healthy and hospitals would still be clean.

To get out of poverty and look the way rich countries do, we must pay attention to their processes and systems: the results come later. Where there are no short cuts or package deals, poverty figures don’t count. Affluent societies have become what they are because they did not succumb to pretend altruism and design services for the poor. As this put policy makers and policy receivers, the rich and the indigent, in the same boat they all made it to the other end together.

This is why all rich countries look alike but poor countries look different in their own ways!

This article appeared first in the Times of India on June 7, 2010 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. Dipankar Gupta was formerly Professor of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


  • Aakar
    Posted at 07:09h, 01 March Reply

    South Asian,
    This is an excellent piece, which I missed in the Times of India.
    I have two questions:
    – My understanding is that NREGA addresses the immediate aspect of poverty: tonight’s supper. Surely something like it must exist given our hundreds of millions of starving poor?

    – Let us assume that the solution lies in process and systems. I would like to know from Prof Gupta and other readers why it is that we appear to have a problem with enforcing and following process. Is there a cultural reason, or is it something else? Or is there no special aspect and this is merely a question of making process the priority over targeted programs?

    For those readers who do not know what NREGA is, it is a scheme guaranteeing 100 days of work, at Rs 100 per day, to the rural poor. It has been in place for the last four or so years.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:01h, 02 March

      Aakar: Let me put down my thoughts on these questions to move the discussion forward:

      1. I agree that given the extent and depth of poverty something like NREGA must exist but it must be clearly designed as an interim measure. It must be accompanied by a credible program that replaces make-work with real-work (say, off farm employment). One can’t pay people forever to dig holes and cover them back up – it is legitimate as a stimulus measure in a depression.

      2. On process, I guess you must have read Lant Pritchett’s paper ‘Is India a Flailing State?’ If not, it is archived on the blog in The Best From Elsewhere section (#30) – I feel we should discuss the argument of the paper – I agree with the description (India has been woeful at implementing processes and systems) but not entirely with the diagnosis (why it is so).

    • Aakar
      Posted at 05:34h, 03 March

      South Asian,
      How can it be an interim measure if the interim is decades and perhaps a century? Surely it is intrinsic to the strategy?
      The state’s strategy is or appears to be:
      (a) give money to the poor for survival now.
      (b) facilitate the building of an economy that will eliminate the need for (a) in time.
      The problem is that the state isn’t doing (b) particularly well because it is ‘flailing’.
      But is flailing the symptom of a disease of the state or of the culture? That was my original question. Will get back after reading Pritchett.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:30h, 03 March

      Aakar: Your description of state strategy implies an interim measure: (b) is to eliminate the need for (a) in time. How long the interim needs to be is another issue. I don’t believe it needs to be a century. My own feeling is not that the state is doing (b) poorly but that (b) is wrong and not fully thought through. Implicitly it is a trickle-down strategy and given the scale of the problem, a general trickle-down approach won’t do it. Add to it the aspects of ‘flailing’ and it makes it all the more unlikely. Let’s talk about the latter when you have read Pritchett.

  • Rita
    Posted at 20:05h, 01 March Reply

    I enjoyed reading the piece. Makes a valid point.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:42h, 02 March Reply

    This BBC story raises an interesting question that gets to the heart of the nexus between poverty, aid and development. It complements the discussion in the post: It would be worthwhile for readers to think through where they come out on this question.

    Why does the UK give aid to India?

    And the UK doubles aid to Pakistan with the intention to “help millions of people lift themselves out of poverty, and to help Pakistan to grow in stability, prosperity and good governance.” How will more money help?

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:30h, 02 March Reply

    Throwing money at parenting or poverty hath never solved the challenge of either.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 05:02h, 02 March Reply

    South Asian,
    One reason aid continues could be that the donor nation/agency’s officers are quite closely associated to specific projects. Let me give an example.
    The firm I run produces a 15-minute radio show played out daily in 5,000 government-run schools in Uttar Pradesh. Just before they run off for their free mid-day meal, the kids listen to a story about a character called Mina (and her parrot Mitthu) and her friends and family. The plot is about such things as hygiene, nutrition, vaccination and so on. The message is reinforced by a song at the end of the show, composed by Bollywood musicians and lyricists. The project involves international agencies and donors.
    Research indicates that the project works well, and so the officers involved are enthused. If a cut in aid were to affect it, they would defend the spend on it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:58h, 02 March

      Aakar: I suppose the question being asked is why can’t Indians make and distribute a radio show on their own?

  • Aakar
    Posted at 09:13h, 02 March Reply

    South Asian,
    Half the money for the project comes from the UP government. Perhaps the question is why the state doesn’t fund the whole thing, and other local projects that require foreign money.
    The answer would be that it doesn’t have money.
    The problem is not that of priority (money for schools versus money for the space programme), but that of money in absolute terms. Even if we didn’t spend money on other, wasteful, things, we’d still be short because we’re a poor nation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:47h, 02 March

      Aakar: One of the questions raised specifically in the BBC report was how come, given the extreme poverty in India, the country is itself a foreign aid donor disbursing $500 million per year? The aspect that interests me, however, is whether the external aid to India over more than 60 years has really had an impact on the extent of poverty? Would the Indian government’s priorities have been different in the absence of such an easy option? Would it have been forced to adopt a more inclusive model of development that would have generated the resources internally? This comes back to the thrust of Professor Gupta’s argument.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 10:23h, 02 March Reply

    South Asian,
    You raise three points:
    – It’s fair to see the disbursement outside India as either vanity, or, in the case of Afghanistan (where I suspect most of India’s aid is currently going), as an extension of strategic policy.
    – Absolute numbers of the poor have not fallen in India, but my understanding is that the proportion of those who are poor, using whichever standard, has fallen by 20% since 1991. To what extent can we attribute this to aid? I do not know.
    – In the total absence of foreign aid would India generate that resource internally? The answer is no. We have no tradition of giving tithes and such, and corporate philanthropy in India is fairly primitive. The state’s fragmented spending would have continued and the resources to the poor would have been squeezed further.
    And so foreign aid is actually useful in India I would say.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:57h, 02 March

      Aakar: Let’s leave aside the first point. the other two are of more interest:

      1. Poverty started to decline from 1989 following the increase in the rate of economic growth which was entirely due to a change in policies. It had virtually nothing to do with aid – I doubt if anyone would claim the contrary. Incidentally, the same phenomenon was seen in China except that the starting year was 1979.

      2. I was not referring to a one-for-one swap in the source of charitable giving – local philanthropy for foreign philanthropy. My counterfactual was whether without the soft option of foreign philanthropy, the illusion that someone was attending to the poor, political pressures would have forced the government to adopt a development policy that would have yielded much higher economic growth well before 1989. If so, foreign aid has actually been a negative because it caused India to outsource the care of its poor to charity instead of figuring out a solution not dependent on charity.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 13:37h, 02 March Reply

    I agree on the first point.
    On the second, would the state have stepped in? Yes, but with targeted aid.
    I’m not sure the reforms were legislated under electoral pressure. In fact I’m certain they weren’t. The election before 1991 was about Bofors and the one after about Babri. The reforms were legislated on the side because the state was about to go bust. And it happened without debate.
    Reforming leaders – Rao in 1996, Vajpayee in 2004 – tend to lose elections. Targeted-aid leaders – Manmohan – tend to win.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:49h, 02 March

      Aakar: The counterfactual in my mind is the following: Given the extent of poverty, if the state had tried to step in with targeted aid without economic growth it would have gone bust much sooner. The reforms, still without debate, might have come a lot earlier. A soft budget constraint always delays reforms.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:06h, 03 March Reply

    This article presents a useful discussion of an alternative approach to poverty alleviation – cash transfers. While NREGA is cash for work, the alternative approach relies on cash transfers based on fulfillment of pre-specified conditions, e.g., attendance at schools or health clinics. This is intended to replace subsidies on essential goods and services.

    The author rightly cautions against an uncritical adoption of the latest development fad that has worked but in situations that differ in significant ways from those in India.

  • Dipankar Gupta
    Posted at 08:55h, 04 March Reply

    Sociology cannot understand how historic breaks happen nor can it help predict such transformations. But once they occur then I suppose it is possible to track the changes, hint at consequences and also list the possibilities of successes or failures.
    The process does not come naturally, especially a democratic one. This is because democracy is the most unnatural social arrangement ever, which is why it must be carefully nurtured.
    To insert the process requires a determined agency. This could be a benevolent monarch, but that is almost impossible today; or, as has been more often the case, because of elite intervention. If one is looking at development in modern history and across continents, I think it would be fair to say that some of the momentous changes that happened were not occasioned by the system, but were chaperoned in by an elite of calling.
    It does not always begin with process, but with other things, viz., the rule of law and universal delivery of public goods. How is that?
    Again, looking at past performances of developed countries, two features stand out. We need universal law such that everybody, high and low, must abide by it. It should not be tokenism of the kind we are familiar with. For example, there is no excuse for honour killings, communal bloodshed, avoiding income tax, or changing property regulations to suit certan interests, etc. This is easier said than done, which is why it has usually taken a long time to establish the rule of law in developed societies. Interestingly, sometimes this fact has been achieved because people we love to hate were instrumental in putting it in place. Some of these personages are: Louis Bonaparte, Metternich and von Bismark.
    If truth be told, even during Franco’s time the rule of law extended to everybody but to the dictator and a few of his closest cronies. Once Franco left, Spain was ready to take off. But this is an issue on which I do not want to be too emphatic for it is hard to be definitive on the subject with the kind of material we have at hand. The purpose of bringing in these rather uncomfortable facts of history is only to underline the reality that in many countries, including Meiji Japan, important things happened when forced from the top.
    Even so, that is not enough! The most durable way of ensuring that the process has a more or less sacrosanct position in society is by turning off the tap that nourishes patron-clientalist kinds of social relatons. To do this, obviously the general population must be secure. For that to happen, at a minimum level, public goods should be available for all at quality levels. Failing that, we all become vulnerable: the rich, the poor and whoever has been left behind.
    A thought experiment might help. Imagine you are a rich person in a society where public goods like health, education and energy are not availble universally at quality levels. In spite of your wealth, you would still need a hospital, a school and power (thermal, carbon, whatever). WIth all your wealth you cannot be sure to get the best treatment or the best school or the best energy system because the private dispensers of these provide them at questionable levels as they face no competition whatsoever from the public system.
    If you think you are getting good medical care in India because it is expensive, think again; likewise for schools, and so on. To get the best medicine and education in the private sector the public services must be so good that it will be a great effort for entrepreners to compete against it in the health and education department. This is why in most of Europe the best schools and hospitals are in the public sector- universally available and at quality levels.
    Now, just imagine again that everybody in the country has access to these quality services. Its first major consequence will be the atrophying of the patron-client set up that characterizes underdeveloped societies like ours. This would then encourage the establishment of a proper process for public interactions.
    Now, where do we begin? At the beginning, obviously.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 06:36h, 06 March Reply

    Your examples – Metternich, Bismarck, Meiji Japan – are none democratic. If historic breaks must come from above, then the determined agency in South Asia was British rule.
    Our wisdom was that this was unnatural. We chose more inclusive decision-making, and sacrificed governance. We have achieved mixed results but our debate ensues from a position, which I also take, that things remain more bad than good. They require more than the democratic process. But what?
    We do have universal law in India. The problem is that we do not apply it universally and the question must be why that is. I do not believe it was that difficult to apply in the West. The earliest Greek texts tell us this. They also tell us – Xenophon does – that the individual was different from us. Not tribal, not collective.
    My departure from your thesis comes on the point of culture. Many of the problems we have are ours alone. The West did not have to confront them.
    There is no excuse for honour killings, but honour killings are not a universal phenomenon even in South Asia. They happen in the castes that feel honour: the peasantry of north India. The Gujarati peasant does not do honour killing because his mercantile society has no honour. But the Patel will still butcher his daughters through infanticide because he can put a price on them.
    So it is not only a problem of individual crimes but that of culture. It is not a question of a lack of good men in government but of lack of good men in society.
    The trigger for corruption in India is not greed but opportunity. Where it is possible, money will be made. I do not think the West has ever been so venal. In India leaders demonstrably corrupt – caught on camera – can harbour hope for rehabilitation, unthinkable in the West.
    There is no excuse for rioting, but rioting in India is not caused by the state. What the state does is to step aside while we avenge ourselves. Our instinct and our record is to return such leaders to power.
    So we appear to need democrats who must defy public opinion, who must fight against the population’s culture, but yet must be powerful enough to have their way.
    How will we get such a leader through democracy? We cannot. To the extent that we can have someone who is positioned to resist our instinct, I believe the current one is as good as we can get. I do not believe the culture is producing enough such men for there to be a vanguard of elite. If they did appear, the best they could do is produce pockets where the conditions would be better – much like the British did. The rest would remain incapable of rescuing itself and the best you could do from Delhi would be to lob aid at it.

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