Seen, obscene and unseen

The poverty line fiasco

Poverty of the worst kind is hidden in those parts of India — or indeed the world — where it is outside the provenance of government, and beyond the interest of individuals and institutions who fuel the engines of modern life, like business concerns or bureaucracy or media.

Those of a liberal persuasion do feel the occasional moral twinge at the passing sight of near-starvation, but poverty does not appear on any balance sheet, liberal or conservative. The cure for liberal guilt is aversion. We take our eyes off the hungry. We leave the responsibility to government.

Government is a curious mixture of personal interest and impersonal decision-making. We know from experience that the best service that government provides is lip service. Do not sneer at lip service. It has been developed into a science. Statistics are the data of this science. They seem to have the legitimacy of fact, as if facts were synonymous with truth.

But it is a good alibi, a perfect vehicle for the psychological postponement of a decision, since no one is really desperate for a solution. Data keeps whirring away in some dark corner of government, giving the illusion that someone is actually doing something about anything. In our case, data is the preserve of a cavernous Planning Commission, headed at the moment by an impervious “foreign-returned” bureaucrat who confuses self-importance for governance. It would be a good idea to introduce Montek Singh Ahluwalia to India. Both he and India would benefit from greater familiarity, since Ahluwalia will remain the effective head of the Planning Commission as long as Manmohan Singh is prime minister.

The interesting part of the story is that Ahluwalia, now even more famous as the father of the Rs 32 a day poverty line, does not apply the criterion for measurement of poverty that nations like America and Britain observe. We take the bottom-up approach: the minimalist cost of a handful of essentials required for basic survival, in effect a computation of calories sufficient to keep you alive. The richer nations calculate poverty as a percentage of average wealth; if anyone slips a certain percentage point below that average then he or she is deemed poor, and therefore in need of help. This is why the poor in those nations never fall into a starvation net, or are forced into a subsistence existence.

The argument offered for changing the parameters seems plausible. A rich nation, ipso facto, has the ability to raise the poverty line because of its economic surpluses. How about a different perspective? Rich nations are rich precisely because they have changed their definition of poverty. What makes a nation rich? The creation and appropriation of wealth by a thin community at the ozone layer of society, which then uses its power to prevent dissemination of this wealth downwards to the extent it can? Or the creation of what might be called a more generous, and therefore general, wealth that ensures a better life to the hundreds of millions at the lowest economic levels?

There is a harsher Indian response, a violent theory barely disguised in smug accusation, that the poor deserve what they get, that they are responsible for their own fate. When logic confirms that this is absurd, that the poor are victims, that poverty cannot be dismissed as a self-perpetuating punishment, we resort to silly fallacies like destiny, the ultimate argument for complacency. We have got away with this in the past because the hopeless were also helpless, bereft of the ability to challenge the injustice that was killing them, in slow, tortured stages. It is one of the great achievements of democracy that such devastating inequity is not sustainable. Political rights are a means to economic empowerment, or they are nothing.

Feudalism and colonialism could get away with long periods of brutality, of which famine was an extreme symptom. But the best of emperors and viceroys knew that empire ebbs when the poor are driven to death by economic apartheid. An American museum edition of Jahangirnama in my library is liberally illustrated with wonderful reproductions of Mughal miniatures. Among the heroic scenes there is one very unflattering portrait of Jahangir, given pride of place on a full page. The emperor has drawn his bow, not while on a hunt, or in battle, but in order to kill an ugly hag. This is hardly an image that the lord of India would want to preserve for the future. It puzzled me until I read the caption inscribed around the picture. The hag represented poverty, and the emperor was killing poverty.

Diwali is around the corner. Maybe we should raise a collection and send this edition of Jahangirnama to each member of the Planning Commission as a Diwali gift.

Liked the story?

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0