Poverty continues to be seen in monetary terms

Hunger in Bihar by Vijay Pandey (11)
Poor enough: More than 650 million Indians earn less than $1,850, which is India’s per capita GDP, in a whole year

The discourse on development, the policy, economics, and advocacy as well as philosophical underpinnings of the term ‘poverty’ has evolved. With evolution in meaning the measurement of poverty and the design and purpose of poverty alleviation programmes have also changed. As with most developing countries, India initially started with measuring poverty in terms of calorie consumption. The earliest estimation was based on the report by Alagh Committee (1979) that gave poverty line based on consumption of 2400 calories for rural areas and 2100 for urban areas. The Lakdawala Committee (1993) did not modify this greatly but just specified that state-specific poverty will be measured. It also differentiated between the urban and rural areas through Consumer Price Index for Industrial Workers and Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labour respectively.

The first move away from calorie consumption estimates to a more realistic and holistic methodology was made by the Tendulkar Committee (2009)to per capita expenditure which was estimated as 816 for rural and 1000 for urban areas. It also included expenditure on health and education. In 2012 Rangarajan Committee revised this to monthly expenditure of 4860 for rural and 7035 for urban with the poverty line at 1105 per capita per months. It took into account expenditure on nourishment, clothing, house rent, conveyance and education and behaviourally determined levels of non-food expenses.

However, poverty continues to be defined in monetary terms. Even when multidimensionality is acknowledged the measures are still quantitative. This is expected since non-monetary qualitative indices of development and poverty are extremely hard to capture. Yet a move away from merely looking at economic indices to more social measures and defining poverty in these terms is necessary as economic growth is not translating into development. The divergence between the two has meant that growth figures mean little to actual lives of people.

This is not limited to measurement but actual policy: how can the governments best allocate resources to achieve maximum well being for people, how can the government define goals to meet the actual needs of the populace and not just numbers. It is a question of political ideology: where do the role of state end and that of free market begin, what is the purpose of growth? It also a question of philosophy: how do we define ‘poor’ and how can the
human condition be improved?

Most economists and policy makers now agree that the state of poverty is much more complex than the mere absence of food and shelter. Thus the ‘basic needs’ provision approach has been discarded. Or rather the basic needs have expanded to include health and education. The definition of shelter now goes beyond having a roof on one’s head and includes a health living environment, clean water, air and sanitation. It has also meant aiming for a reduction in crime and violence.

More recently theories like the capability approach by economist AmartyaSen has taken credence. This is a step ahead of basic needs approach to poverty and measures aspects of human fulfilment and captures different dimensions of well-being from survival to relationships to self-direction. For measurement of poverty and its alleviation capability approach doesn’t take a utilitarian approach or an approach concerned with provision and measurement of resources but relies on what it defines as the basic objective of development; creation of an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative life.

Sen’s Capability Approach proposes that social arrangements should be primarily evaluated according to the extent of freedom people have to promote or achieve the functionings they value. Here the functionings can be defined as valuable activities and states that make up people’s well-being. They are not just related to goods and income but they focus on what a person is able to do or be as a result. Capabilities are the opportunity freedoms, i.e. the freedom to pursue various functionings that people have a reason to value. These are not limited to civil or political freedoms but positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying doing something worthwhile and valuable.

This has prompted Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative to come up with a multidimensional index that besides looking at health (including mental health and rest) and education also takes into account harmony with nature, beauty and creativity, community support, family and friendships, spirituality and inner peace, self direction and play and fun. This multidimensionality though difficult to capture and quantify gives a more comprehensive understanding of the state of the nation and its people.

These latest approaches viewing poverty and development more broadly necessitate a rethinking of policy and the role of the state. It also means re evaluating what it means to have achieved a developed nation and happy people. Bhutan has adapted this approach to an extent by measuring Gross National Happiness, which apart from economic self-reliance also takes into account environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion of good governance. A very similar Gross National Happiness Index has been adopted by the World Bank; besides its Human Development Index (life expectancy at birth, literacy and school enrolment and GDP at PPP).

Such a cohesive and plural definition of development and poverty alleviation is especially important in a country like India which besides still struggling with basic needs like malnutrition, lack of health, poor education, and paucity of clean water and spread of many infectious diseases, also has a diverse fabric. This means that not just the definitions of well being need to be broader but every person will understand and experience poverty differently.

Even the lack of resources and money, which affects majority, is harder for women, old, disabled and marginalised sections and castes. For additionally they have to face discrimination, violence, and stigma. They may also have lesser access to social networks and structures that impact their risk resilience. Consequently equitable economic policies, an effective legal system that protects the rights of SCs, STs, minorities, and women, safety and security, and an accessible environment may be valued more highly by such sections.

Lastly, such a broad and all encompassing definition and an evolved understanding of poverty will re shape the role of the state. The state should understand the difference between growth and development. The state cannot congratulate itself merely by measuring and meeting the calorific requirements of the populations. The developmental goals must be higher. The state cannot just aim for an increase in national output but a more equitable distribution of the same. Most importantly development cannot be mere one sided provision of goods and services. People have to be made stakeholders in the nation’s progress. This is especially important for the traditionally marginalised sections of society and here the legal system, the government, and the civil society organisations need to work in tandem.

Dr Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit. She has a PhD in Public Health from University of London and a MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. The views expressed are her own [email protected]