While commuting in air-conditioned cars in the sweltering heat of Delhi to the new swanky mall or the latest gourmet restaurant, the scores of men, women and children in tattered clothes one encounters at traffic signals has become as normal as coming across potholed roads, flyovers and trees. A substantial rise in the disposable incomes and purchasing power of a large part of the population has become a new reality in Indian cities and towns witnessing a boom in the construction of fancy apartments and entertainment spaces. However, another new reality is the alternative world that exists right outside the well-guarded walls of luxurious buildings — of extremely impoverished people, including a large number of children, who are malnourished, uneducated and cannot afford two square meals a day.
Seventy years after India’s independence, there are two competing and contradictory narratives of the country’s economics — one is exciting and highlighted more often, and the other is closer to ground realities and not paid enough attention. India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a GDP of 7.9 per cent in 2015, is also home to the largest population of poor in the world; one-third of the world’s total number of poor live in India. According to the World Bank, thirty per cent of the country’s population or around 224 million people live below the poverty line as per data available in 2013. However, official statistics on poverty are always underreported because of discrepancies in the definition of the poverty line, which is the amount of money needed for a person to meet her basic needs and is defined by taking into account the monetary value of goods and services needed to provide basic welfare to an individual.
As per the Indian government, if a person earns more than Rs 32 in rural areas and Rs 47 in urban areas per day, she is considered to be living above the poverty line. This implies that a family of five that earns over Rs. 4,800 and Rs. 7,050 in rural and urban areas respectively per month is counted as not being poor. The determinants of poverty in India are much below the international poverty line set at a daily income of USD 1.90 (Rs. 122 approx) and used by the World Bank. A large number of impoverished people are left out from the ambit of official poverty levels.
According to statistics, 58 per cent Indians in 2014 were living on less than Rs. 200 a day or Rs. 6,000 a month, an amount which is highly inadequate to access basic necessities including food, education and health care. Even then this number was much higher than the number of those officially declared to be poor. In reality, the number of extremely poor people in India like elsewhere in the world is much higher than the official figures. Then there is also a substantial chunk of the population that is not necessarily impoverished but lives a hand-to-mouth existence.
As we proudly celebrate our 70th independence day, it is necessary and important to be concerned about our ever-increasing population and the rising inequalities between people. Since major economic reforms were introduced in 1991, official poverty rates have declined sharply and there has been a spurt in consumerism. However, the pattern of income distribution across various segments of society has been largely unequal and the income gap between the rich and the poor has widened substantially. Today, India is the second most unequal country in the world, after Russia, with the top one per cent of the population owning nearly 60 per cent of its wealth.
One of the biggest drawbacks in our country is inequalities in the access to infrastructure such as public education and healthcare. Government infrastructure to provide these services at subsidised prices has been growing at a snail’s pace. According to the National Health Profile released by the Centre in 2015, India has one government doctor for every 11,528 people and one nurse for every 483 people, and every government hospital serves 61,000 people with one bed for every 1833 people. The state of our government schools is deplorable with many of them lacking basic facilities such as desks and benches, blackboards, toilets, and even teachers. In fact the buildings of many government-run schools are in dilapidated conditions.
On the other hand hospitals and schools in the private sector are mushrooming everywhere, which means that those who have money can access health care and good education but not a very large part of our population that cannot afford the exorbitant costs of these services offered by private institutes. If a poor person falls sick, she has to go through a very lengthy process to get access to a doctor and subsidised medicines at a government-run hospital or clinic. At the AIIMS in New Delhi, the country’s most prestigious government hospital, the queue to get a scan such as MRI done mostly comprises of thousands of people and mostly one’s chance comes after a wait of as long as six months!
There is immense inequality of opportunity and unequal living standards in both rural and urban areas. The lack of clean drinking water and toilets in homes across the country even in the twenty-first century is a matter of concern. There is also a wide variance in dietary levels in different socio-economic segments across the country which has resulted in malnourishment and life-threatening nutrient deficiencies in a large number of people, while those with deep pockets develop lifestyle disorders such as obesity and diabetes.
The most distressing aspect of poverty in India today is that a majority of our children live in abject poverty and are undernourished. According to statistics, about half of our population under the age of 18 years lives in impoverished circumstances and our country is home to 30 percent of the world’s children living in extreme poverty. These children have little or no access to nutrition and quality healthcare. The mid-day meal scheme, which has been relevant in encouraging children to go to school, has been marred by controversies and absence of surveillance on teachers defeats the purpose of the schools. As about 40 per cent of India’s population is children, the future of our country is in serious jeopardy if most of these kids are not provided the necessary diet, healthcare and primary education. Obstacles in the access to healthcare are also responsible for our booming population as family planning measures are not being accessed by everyone, especially the poor.
Even as the poor inhabit every part of our country, they are treated with disdain by people belonging to the middle class and above as is often evident by incidents of human trafficking for domestic slavery and ill-treatment of household workers such as exhibited recently by residents of a high-rise in Noida. A country is made by people and ours is made by mostly those for whom basic sustenance is an every day battle. On the seventieth anniversary of our freedom, we need to shift our focus to the fact that real development will come only with real changes in the lives of people.