The dismal face of poverty

The dismal face of poverty

The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 tells us that poverty in India is worse than previously estimated. Half the households in rural India are landless, dependent on casual manual labour, and live in deprivation.

The face of poverty in India is grotesque and dismal; it is repulsive and revolting to anyone who has a little human sympathy left in him. Poverty is not relative deprivation. It is absolute deprivation. The vicious circle of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment has nullified all efforts to wake up a population that has become insensitive to environmental degradation.

There is a vested interest in poverty and nowhere is it as rampant as in India with its special emphasis on a life of very few wants. Only the poor know what it is to be poor. Some religions teach the masses that poverty is not a crime and that the poor shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.

The Hindu doctrine of Karma advises that there is no point in fighting poverty, because the people are poor by virtue of their deeds in a past birth, while here and now, those who amass fortunes indulge in every form of malpractice.

The continuing poverty, illustrated by the persistent begging, must disturb us most. Emaciated men, women and children are lying hungry in the streets of large cities. Filth, insanitation and squalor reign in the villages and towns. They underline the atmosphere of poverty that bears down heavily everywhere. Worst of all, the people seem to lack all initiative to better themselves or their environment: they seem to accept their degrading conditions of life as inevitable.

This country won its political independence not without commitment, and that commitment was to emancipate its millions from grinding poverty imposed by the social and economic structure built under the colonial rule. Yes, it was a commitment to wipe out the shame of poverty, the gnawing pangs of hunger and the denial of basic amenities.

This is the pledge that successive generations of the nation's leadership have taken but have made only marginal advance towards its fulfilment. Instead, there has come about, over the years, a startlingly widening gulf between the rich and the poor.

There was a time when millions of our people were eagerly looking forward to the end of grinding poverty. They were made to live on promises, platitudes, shibboleths and resolutions. Promises have come the way of the poor in impressive array at periodic intervals during the past 50-odd years. Nobody can but be overwhelmed by the impressive record of sweeping promises. And yet, with all this majestic cascade of words tumbling upon words, the discomforting question still persists: what about the elimination of poverty?

We have created an oasis of prosperity in the vast desert land of misery and shame. And all this has been happening when the heavens have been rent asunder by the cries of socialism until the 1990s and since then, globalisation and privatisation. The result: 240 million undernourished people in a country with over a billion people!

Interdependent society
In a complex and highly interdependent society like ours, policies based on freedom of economic choice are almost bound to benefit the strong at the expense of the weak. To tell them that they have the freedom to choose a way of life for themselves is meaningless. The right to choose is meaningless without the power to choose; and, in a society as riven by unfairness, any approach to a real ability to choose requires constant intervention by the state.

In the real world, communal action is not the enemy of individual freedom, but a guarantor. The pursuit of individual economic freedom to the exclusion of all else may increase freedom for a few, but only by restricting the real freedom of the many.

Gross and stubborn inequality is incompatible with a just society and we cannot hope to bring it into being until we launch a major attack on the unjustified disparities that still divide us from one another. Some levelling down will be required, but levelling up is far more important. We cannot be content with nothing less than elimination of poverty as a social problem. It is a formidable task but not an insurmountable goal.

We have to break the mould of custom, selfishness and apathy, which condemns so many of our fellow-countrymen to avoidable indignity and deprivation. To do that we have to recast the mould of politics. In place of envy, we must place the politics of compassion; in place of the politics of cupidity, the politics of justice; in place of the politics of opportunism, the politics of principle. Only so can we hope to succeed. Only so, will success be worth having.

After 67 years of failing to eliminate deprivation, isn’t it time to look for new ideas? Did we have to wait for 67 years to understand the causes of deprivation? Or is it possible that the question is not about understanding causes at all? That what really concerns policy-makers here is not the problem (poverty) but the solution (growth/development)?

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