Poverty the eye cannot see

By: Harsh Mander
Faye Hall

In India, there are near-constant debates about defining and measuring poverty, hunger, malnutrition and starvation. If these were merely of academic interest, this writer could pass them by in his uneducated ignorance. Any confusion could be rationalised by echoing an irreverent professor at the Delhi School of Economics, who compares statistics to a hapless and impoverished tribal man, arrested by a police inspector in a dreaded Indian police station. “If you torture both enough,” the professor tells his students, “you can force them to admit to anything!”

Yet we cannot afford to ignore the sometimes complex calculations of estimating poverty and hunger levels. Especially since the 1990s in India, these calculations have been deployed by public planners and finance managers to justify cutting back public expenditures on food security, by targeting a hitherto universal public distribution system (through a country-wide network of subsidised foodgrain ration shops) at only those who are officially ‘certified’ to be poor. The same calculations of allegedly declining poverty and hunger are used to limit public expenditures on a range of other programmes for the poor – such as pensions for destitute old people and maternity benefits – and to minimise official acknowledgement of the adverse impacts of the policies of ‘structural adjustment’ programmes.

When poverty lines are fixed by politicians and administrators with one eye on political implications and another on budgetary ones, commentator Ashwani Saith has pithily surmised that this “usually leads to a squint and to cockeyed vision”. In a passionate and cogent critique of poverty-line estimates, Saith has asked, “Are the poor from Mars and the rich from Venus?” Poverty and its handmaiden, inequality, he says, “are everywhere for all those with eyes to see”, yet academics and policymakers “have an almost existential need to know how much of ‘it’ there is, and who ‘they’ are.” In fact, they are in “every landlord’s house, in each village, every five-star hotel is surrounded by them, every posh colony has its antithesis outside its gate, where the other half strives to survive … they greet you again on the pavements after a late night … you have a brush with them at traffic lights.”

Overproduction or under-consumption
Most poverty lines are constructed around the severely minimalist premise of the least amount of money that an average person would require to buy the cheapest food that, when eaten, would metabolise into the minimum calories that he or she requires to lead an active and healthy life. Nutritionists the world over have experimented with many sets of people in order to construct estimates of the minimum calorie requirements of average populations. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of energy has been pegged by Indian planners at 2100 kilocalories for urban and 2400 for rural people per day for ‘normal’ work, based on recommendations by the Nutrition Expert Group to the Planning Commission in 1968.

On the other hand, studies have established that some people, especially poor labourers, need to expend far greater energy, thus requiring substantially higher levels of caloric intake. As such, poverty levels need to be seen as biased against those who are most deprived. A World Health Organisation study in 1985, for instance, found that a male subsistence farmer who puts in seven hours of work in his fields every day requires 2780 kilocalories; a woman who puts in four hours of housework and three hours in the fields expends around 2235 kilocalories. Heavy work such as earth-cutting, carrying head-loads, mining and pedalling rickshaws requires even higher food fuel, close to 3550 kilocalories. Less-than-subsistence nutritional intake for the impoverished can lead to avoidable illness and early death.

The Delhi-based economist Utsa Patnaik argues that even the extremely modest minimal standards of caloric intake prescribed for calculating poverty thresholds have been quietly (and, she believes, dishonestly) abandoned by New Delhi’s policymakers. She suggests that this has been done in order to perpetrate a myth about rapidly falling poverty levels in an era of globalisation and structural adjustment. Patnaik finds that the nutritional norms of 2100 and 2400 kilocalories were actually used to assess poverty levels only in 1973-74, when rural and urban poverty lines were fixed at around INR 49 and INR 57 per head per month. Since then, the National Planning Commission has never altered this baseline, essentially assuming that people’s consumption patterns would remain completely unchanged, despite the changes in diet that have taken place over the past three decades. Meanwhile, a simple pricing index has been used to adjust upwards the 1973-74 poverty line. Additionally, it is unlikely that the assumed cost of minimum food requirements fixed in the early 1970s still reflects the real cost of food in India.

What did this official practice of calculating poverty hide? In 1999-2000, for instance, the price-adjusted poverty line was INR 328 per month per rural person. By this count, the proportion of poor people in Indian villages had fallen to 27 percent, from 37 percent in 1993-1994. There are important political ramifications to this. The central government, for instance, tried to use this data to justify a cabinet decision to reduce the quantity and price of subsidised foodgrain made available through the public distribution system. This was precariously resisted by a broad range of critics, who also sought the mediation of the Supreme Court. But Utsa Patnaik points out that planners remain silent as to the fact that a monthly expenditure of INR 328 enables a person to access, at best, only 1890 kilocalories a day, more than 500 kilocalories below the modest minimal norm of 2400 officially fixed three decades ago. Patnaik is of the view that the burgeoning food stocks that characterised the Indian situation a few years ago do not represent overproduction but rather under-consumption.

The current threshold for rural poverty-line expenditure is INR 11 per person per day, with the urban level just a bit higher at INR 17 per day. Patnaik challenges the Planning Commission officials to spend even a week in an Indian village, trying to survive on this amount of money. Even exempting them from any physical labour, she observes that their daily allowance would permit them to purchase no more than one bottle of mineral water.

Purely biological
Even if the Planning Commission had been scrupulous in adhering to its minimal caloric norms, the computation of underfed poor people would still make a range of ethically and politically problematic assumptions about the behaviour and choices available to impoverished people. Nutritionists point out that when a calculation is made as to the amount needed for a particular nutrient, it is assumed that the requirements of all other nutrients are also met. For instance, if it is assessed that an adult male requires 2400 calories daily, it is assumed that he will also get the required proteins, vitamins, etc. In fact, the official poverty line fulfils only the protein requirement, if at all, from cereals.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi has devised an alternative poverty index based on expenditure required for basic needs of nutrition, health care, clothing, shelter and so on. By these standards, in 2001 a monthly expenditure was required of INR 840 per head. Yet even this would place 68.5 percent of the urban and 80 percent of the rural population below the poverty line, a far cry from the upbeat government claims of a fall of poverty ratios to 26.1 percent. Furthermore, the strict poverty-line standards of India’s planners require people to purchase only the cheapest foodstuffs, regardless of cultural and personal preference. Economist Pranab Bardhan regards this as self-evident that “in a situation of extreme poverty, as in India, one is less preoccupied with the cultural, sociological and political factors” in defining a “purely biological minimum” standard. He clarifies that people should be excluded from poverty calculations if they “forego the opportunity to buy cheaper sources of calories and protein just because these items are not tasty enough.”

Such a comparison is harsh and somewhat overdrawn, but one is reminded of the British colonial treatment of famine in India, on which Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts contains some devastating insights. Davis points out that colonial policy took the view that some people (the impoverished, aged and destitute) were expendable; though lives could have been saved in drought-struck areas, some officials felt that the free market should be allowed to hold sway, and that any state intervention would lead to unusual price fluctuations. Davis also draws a link between these practices and the Holocaust, when Nazi commanders at concentration camps continuously experimented with lowering food rations for Jewish inmates. Not only were the scientists who were performing these experiments intricately familiar with the histories of famines in India; the Nazi conception of calorie intake required by a concentration-camp inhabitant was greatly shaped by the Indian Famine Commission’s conception of the nutritional requirement of Indian famine victims hired on public-works projects.

The non-measurable
There is a whole other element to the consumption of food than pure calories. Ashwani Saith asks whether the poor are “permitted to have palates and preferences”, whether poor children are entitled to eat “fast food occasionally – not often enough to become obese, but occasionally at least to know how the other half thrives, and to harbour the illusion that they belong to the same universe as other children?” He points out that the minimal-caloric-level norms rule out social hospitality and ritual feasts. There are myriad accounts available of how dispossessed people in India experience a profound psychological and cultural sense of deprivation when they cannot feed their guests, and even people who beg on streets derive great dignity and self-esteem by being hospitable to visitors. When this writer sat down one evening, a homeless, destitute widow who begged at temples in Madurai insisted on giving him ‘colour’, Tamil slang for aerated cold drinks.

As for some other pitfalls in regarding household expenditure as a measure of well being, it assumes that impoverished people can depend on reliable, accessible and satisfactory quality services of health and education from the public sector. For instance, in 1962 a working group of economists fixed the poverty line at a level that excluded any expenditure on health and education. They justified this by making the assumption that both be provided free of cost by the state, because it was a constitutional requirement; likewise, the experts also assumed that urban housing would be subsidised by the state. Today, we know that these assumptions are light years away from the realities of most poor families, who spend enormous amounts of their scarce money on health matters, while the urban poor rarely have access to state housing.

While poverty surveys can be dismissed as laughable in their design and execution, they cannot be completely disregarded, given that they can block access to officially subsidised food and safety nets. For instance, the Planning Commission instituted a rural survey of poor families based on a 13-point scoring scale. By the norms of the survey, a household was at risk of being regarded as relatively well-endowed and consequently ineligible for subsidised food and other government aid if the dwelling had a roof and toilet; if the children attended school; if some of its members were educated; if it had access to credit; and if the family occasionally ate non-vegetarian food. The survey also disqualified forest-based Adivasis who hunted and foraged, and fisherfolk and poor people who benefited from government sanitation programmes.

The selection of urban poor families is even more arbitrary, based on local enquiries by often corrupt officials of the notorious Food Department, when poor households apply for ration cards. The procedures effectively rule out those who are most needy in any city, due to their constantly contested citizenship – migrant workers, rag-pickers, homeless populations, the mentally ill and leprosy patients, the destitute who live by begging, residents of ‘illegal’ and demolished slums, minorities (especially if they come from eastern India and therefore are suspected to be Bangladeshi migrants), construction workers, rickshaw pullers and head-loaders, sex workers and domestic workers.

For the urban poor, who constitute around one-third of poor people in India, it is astounding that the government has still not devised a way of identifying those who are most poor. It is left to officials mostly of the Food Department and Civil Supplies Department to assess the monetary incomes of people who apply for ration cards, to decide whether they are eligible. In one study, it was found that only around 150 ration cards were distributed for people identified to be living below the poverty line in Dharavi slum of Bombay. The overwhelming majority of slum and street residents in all cities have been similarly excluded from the government’s poverty-identification efforts, and consequently from accessing the official food schemes. The state government of Delhi, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, went so far as to claim that there was not a single family within the realm that qualified as “the poorest of the poor” for ‘Antyodaya’ cards, which entitles cardholders to discounted rations.

There is an old proverb that goes, What the eye cannot see, the heart cannot grieve. The capacities of governments seem acutely limited in their ability to see, and then list and measure, such issues as hunger, deprivation and want, and then to identify those who chronically live at the edge of starvation. There is, in fact, no dearth of professional knowledge and resources available to public authorities. What is lacking is integrity and compassion.



Filed under India, Inequality, Poverty

2 responses to “Poverty the eye cannot see

  1. Pingback: Will poverty increases with GDP? « Struggling Bharat

  2. Pingback: Will poverty increase with GDP? « Struggling Bharat

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