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India's dance with poverty

Seeking answers to eradicate the nation's endless scourge

  • Ivan Fernades, Hyderabad
  • India
  • October 17, 2013
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With a third of the world’s poorest people living in India, promises of eliminating poverty have always been a key electoral pledge since the country’s independence in 1947.

With October 17 designated as the United Nation’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, it’s a good time to examine how Indian political, religious and human rights leaders have institutionalized poverty, and what steps could be taken to help some 400 million people rise above living in extreme poverty.

Among politicians, former prime minister Indira Gandhi perfected the art of exploiting poverty with the slogan “Eliminate Poverty,” which helped her Congress Party achieve a spectacular win in 1971.

Now, ahead of India’s May general elections, her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, who leads the Congress Party that heads the federal coalition government, has launched a US$22 billion national food security program, a political gimmick designed to perpetuate poverty and make beggars of people.

The program will allow every month 67 percent of the population, or about 800 million Indians, to buy five kilograms of rice for three rupees (less than half a US cent) a kilogram of wheat for two rupees and a kilogram of millet and other cereals for about a rupee.

But delivering on promises and programs is another matter. Indira’s son and Sonia’s late husband Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister, famously pointed out that so rampant is corruption that it would be lucky if a fifth of every rupee allocated to help the poor actually reached them.

As a result, more than 33 percent of India's 1.2 billion people still live below the poverty line, earning less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank estimates.

“Beyond definitions and calibration of poverty lies the fact of the matter – little or nothing has been done to alleviate poverty,” writes Debaki Nandan Mandal, a former joint secretary with the state government of West Bengal.

Poverty also makes good copy. Dominique Lapierre made a sizable fortune on his City of Joy novel that romanticized the ugliness of Indian poverty. Satyajit Ray shot to fame with his debut film Pather Panchali because of its portrayal of poverty.

And there is Blessed Mother Teresa, the 20th century’s Catholic ambassador who achieved fame helping not the poor but the “poorest of the poor," giving rise to the debate over whether her primary calling was to keep her Missionaries of Charity society in existence.

I had the opportunity to ask her if it was better for her to teach people to stand on their own feet than to dole out charity. “Obviously, if you give a man a fish, you have fed him for a day but if you teach him to fish, you have fed him for a lifetime,” I asked.

Without hesitation she said that teaching people to fish was not her calling. “No, that is not my job. My job is to feed the poor, the hungry when I see them. There are other societies to do the educating,” she said.

It was Mother Teresa’s single-minded devotion to the poor and poverty and not poverty eradication that made her an international icon.

Her Missionaries of Charity society has remained strictly to that spirit.

When I phoned her headquarters to ask for help in dealing with a homeless sick old man staying in the foyer of our building, her nuns refused saying that he at least had shelter and was not a street case. After much coaxing they agreed to come and take him into their home for the destitute provided he remained on the pavement.

India over the years has done well in certain areas. It has become self-sufficient in agriculture, self-reliant in industry and has a respectable growth rate. However, it has done miserably in social markers like health care, education and drinking water.

But the United Nations says about 500,000 Indians die every year due to lack of clean water. Indian government data shows 22 percent of rural households have to cover more than half a kilometer to fetch drinkable water and more than 67 percent of rural households don’t have access to latrines.

Of all groups, the onus of poverty eradication lies largely with lawmakers, the representatives of the people. But they cite over population as the cause for poverty.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious. Land, labor and capital are three pillars that constitute an economy. Nobody says they are poor because they have too much land or too much capital. So why should it be with labor?

It would seem that the reason why Indians are poor is because it is not in the interests of those responsible for actually putting in place systems to eradicate poverty. For the rest, the very act of existing is so oppressive that they have not the gumption or energy left to do anything about it.

Ivan Fernandes is a commentator based in Hyderabad

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