01 Mar 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.