ONE SUMMER, Samvada, a Bengaluru NGO organised a brutally rigged activity called the Monsoon Game for a bunch of affluent college students. They arbitrarily grouped students into families assigning them castes, jobs and landholdings. In each round of the game a moderator —God — announced life-altering events such as failed crops, bad monsoons or new government schemes. In the first few rounds, the students giggled as if it was Monopoly. An hour later, sunshine faded and the classroom took on a grim, Battle Royale cast. Most families realised that despite their ingenuity they’d die of starvation. All except the one family with the zamindar card. For many, it was the first time they had encountered a situation they couldn’t control with the much-touted middleclass mantras of ‘hard work’ and ‘positive thinking’. The game ended in tears, rage. And some epiphanies about life in India.
This week, the government proposed an astonishingly flawed Food Security Act that will provide subsidised grains only to those who earn less than Rs 20 a day (if you live in a city and less than Rs 15 a day if you live in a village). If wishes were consciousness- raising games, we’d send our ministers to play the Monsoon Game and cry in a dark classroom. The game is certainly less arbitrary than the Tendulkar Committee that set this poverty line.
In India, every welfare scheme is linked to the term BPL — below poverty line. Governments and economists of different persuasions argue intensely over this, juggling different statistical models to back their claims. (Surjit Bhalla, for instance, claims only 13 percent of India is poor, though even a layman’s smell test would tell you he is way off track in his optimism). The reason the poverty line matters so much is because it determines how many Indian can claim welfare, which, in turn, determines the fiscal burden the State will have to bear.
But for the poor, the BPL is not some statistical term: it is a lifeline. So can we really allow the BPL to be fixed at Rs 20 a day? Rs 20 a day? The money middle-class India finds under undusted sofas is somehow supposed to feed whole families? The mind slides past these figures in embarrassed shock. We are not alone in our shock. When TEHELKA spoke to some of India’s poorest, they responded with silence and laughter: The government thinks we are not poor enough? We?
The government says it can’t afford to feed everyone – hence the manipulations with the BPL. Many economists and activists disagree. Economists Pravin Jha and Nilachal Acharya have estimated that if rice/wheat were made available to 200 million households in India at Rs 3 a kilo, it would add Rs 84,399 crore to the Budget. Not a huge cost to ensure India does not starve: just the price of two Commonwealth Games. Economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera argue the subsidy would cost even less if one, we don’t ship all our grains from Punjab and Haryana to distant states and two, if we include local grains such as bajra and ragi in the PDS. But a lack of imagination plagues our planners.
For those TEHELKA spoke to, the rickshaw-puller, farmer, waste-picker and others, bitterness came later in the conversation — after the shock passed. The precariousness of their lives is held at bay by dignity, hard work, generosity to those even poorer, loyalty to family, resilience and faith. All to be frayed again by those who have never known what it is like to be hungry.
The Planning Commission has set the poverty line at Rs 20 a day. Earn more than that and you are not poor. Oh, and if you live in a village, don’t earn more than Rs 15. The ‘rich’ Indians respond
Abdul Saleem climbs dizzy heights and claustrophobic depths for a living. By climbing coconut and arecanut trees and cleaning wells, Saleem supports his family of six. As a teenager, with the Rs 8 he earned a day, Saleem used to live well. “Those days, I could get five toffees for five paisa. I used to watch a film every month at the nearest talkies. It was Rs 2.50 for a ticket in the front row,” he recollects. Today, Saleem earns Rs 10 per tree and gets work 20 days of the month. The steep inflation is magnified in the region by Kerala’s Gulf remittance-fuelled economy. “Even though we get ration grains under the BPL card, it costs Rs 300 per day just to get by,” says Saleem. “Once we grew and ate jackfruit, tapioca and leafy vegetables. Today, no household in the village has land to grow food. Everything has to be bought,” he explains. The electricity bill, school fees and medical expenses keep the family budget teetering every month. But he believes that is no excuse to be tightfisted. “Coconut tree climbers always offer money to the needy even though we are very poor. While offering help, we only seek blessings. Because the difference between life and death for us is just one slip away on the rope,” says Saleem. He has fallen from the top of a coconut tree himself. And goodwill was more thick on the ground than money to pay medical bills.
Beginning at 8 am, Leelaben sweeps apartment complexes in an upper-middle class Ahmedabad neighbourhood. For this, she earns Rs 90 a day. She moved to Ahmedabad from her village in Dholka after her husband died. Her eldest son died of an HIV infection three years ago and she now takes care of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. “It costs Rs 6 to take a bus, so I walk 6 km to work every day. I wish I had a spare Rs 10 to buy a bar of soap. It would last the three of us for 10 days,” she says. “ Rs 20 a day is Rs 600 a month. What will I be able to buy with that? Nothing! Will I eat or pay rent?” Leelaben asks in disbelief.
Four years ago, Akash Khan moved from Silchar in Assam to the Jaintia Hills coal mines, 200 km from Shillong. The private mines in eastern Meghalaya recruit young men — and in many cases children — to go down the narrow rat hole-like mine shafts to dig out coal. Every morning at 5 am, Akash climbs down the precarious ladders, coiled like snakes, slimy with moss and rain to enter the dark burrows, two-feet high and often 1,500- feet long, to scratch coal out of hard stone with nothing but a pickaxe and a torch for tools. For every cart of coal the miners manage to fill, they get Rs 800 to be split between a team of four or five miners. “On a good day, if I work for 15 to 18 hours, I can earn upto Rs 300,” says Akash. On an average, he makes around Rs 8,000 a month, half of which he sends to his family of six back in Silchar. Each month, he pays Rs 500 as rent for a tiny shack made of bamboo and polythene, perched on a desolate hillock that he shares with five other boys. In this forsaken landscape, his simple, weekly rations soar to Rs 1,000. “It’s very expensive to live here,” says Akash. Will he be able to survive on Rs 15 per day? He smiles and says: “Here even rice costs Rs 45 to Rs 50 a kilo, potatoes are for Rs 25. You tell me, can I survive on Rs 15 a day?”
Standing amidst piles of Delhi’s garbage, the 37-year-old mother of nine giggled like a little girl at life’s little ironies. “ Rs 20 in my pocket and I am rich?” questioned the smiling Kohinoor Bai. As one of Delhi’s 3.5 lakh waste-pickers, she works with her husband and jointly earns Rs 200 a day from collecting, segregating and selling recyclables from household waste. However, Rs 200 doesn’t go far in a family of 11. She says, “Between school fees, books and food, there is nothing left. My children may be underfed, but I send them all to school so that they can choose their future. That is my priority.” She exclaims in anger, “If Rs 20 is enough, maybe the government should look after my children, I must be doing something wrong.”
Nataraj moved from Bhadrakh district in Odisha to Bengaluru four years ago. He works as a cook in the homes of IT professionals. Nataraj doesn’t have a steady income because his employers often don’t apply to him the enlightened management practices they themselves enjoy. They sometimes don’t pay him when they are travelling on work or on holiday, but in good months he earns as much as Rs 6,000, half of which he sends back home to his agricultural labourer parents. Even back home in Odisha, Nataraj says he wouldn’t survive on Rs 15 a day. He would need at least Rs 50 to just cover the basics. “In a city like Bengaluru, I need at least Rs 100 a day to get by. My rent amounts to Rs 60 a day,” he says. “I can only work in houses close by and where people treat me fairly. That really limits my options,” Nataraj says wryly.
Jasuben is a resident of Dharavi, who does what is known as chindi ka kaam (segregating strips of cloth for recycling) for Rs 125 a day. She laughs at the idea of spending only Rs 20 a day. The 52-year-old from Gujarat supports her 19-year-old son who has just finished school. Her son has always done odd jobs to bring in extra money as they scrambled to make ends meet. He will soon start working but for now she is the breadwinner of the family. Her husband, a potter who worked in Kumbharwada, passed away 13 years ago and since then she has been doing the same job. This job for which she has to squat on her tired haunches through the day, going through sack after sack of rags from 10 am till 5 pm. The family’s monthly expenses run up to more than Rs 5,000, and her daily wages are spent almost entirely towards food. She spends Rs 350 a month on rent for their home in the slums. This is a remarkably low rent in Mumbai, the result of an act of kindness by her father-in-law who owns the house. The constant ploughing at work for decades has weakened Jasuben and health problems persist. She finds her medical bills dizzying. On her last visit to the doctor, she shelled out Rs 300, and that toppled their finances for the week. Jasuben says, “If this is not poverty, I don’t know what else is.”
These days, Shankar Sharma considers himself rather lucky. The houses he paints are within a 10 km range from his home and he can cycle to work. If the job is further away, he would have to spend as much as 20 on bus fare. Fifteen years ago, Shankar remembers with amazement, his first wage was 20. Today, there are days when he makes as much as Rs 200 but inflation has soared skyhigh, way higher than his wages. His fourmember household lives in a 10×10 ? house for which he pays roughly Rs 66 a day. When told that the urban person who earns over 20 a day is not poor, Shankar speculates that this is someone’s idea of a joke. He asks straight out, “Will any of the big politicians in Jaipur be able to even quench their thirst with Rs 20 a day?”
Photo: Shirish Khare
Breswana is a small village at an altitude of approximately 7,100 ft above sea level in the heart of the mountainous Doda district in Jammu and Kashmir, still unconnected by motorable roads. The only way to reach it is by horse. Everyone in Breswana is into subsistence farming. Some supplement their income with other work — construction labour, mule transport, carpentry and masonry. A significant percentage of the young, fit male population heads to Ladakh during the summer months to work as labourers there and earn enough money to tide them over the winter. Riaz works as a helper and cook at the local government high school. He farms too, of course. Riaz expressed undiluted amusement when he heard about the BPL classification. Neither outrage nor fear. Just outright amusement because he does not believe such an absurd policy could exist. Even in this remote village with no extraneous expenses, Rs 15 a day or Rs 450 a month is not even enough to survive on.
Local landowner Mohammed Saleem Haji added his query to the mass of questions the news created. “The NREGA guarantees 100 days of employment per year to anyone. And the daily wage guaranteed under NREGA is Rs 120. That means 12,000 guaranteed per annum to all. Which works out to 1,000 per month? So no one can be Below the Poverty Line? No one is poor?”
Photo: Sabbah Haji
With every monsoon, life becomes harsher for Tarabai. Her family is one among the thousands of migrant blacksmith families who work in the cities of Madhya Pradesh. Tarabai’s family migrated to Bhopal around 40 years ago but since then they have been living in a mud hut in the city. “We make around 50 every day by making iron equipment like hammers, knives and axes. When a major portion of whatever we earn goes into buying the raw material, feeding nine stomachs in the family becomes a struggle in itself,” she says.
Tarabai’s 35-year-old husband Jagdeesh says, “We came here in search of work but no doors opened for us. So we returned to our traditional profession of making iron equipment.”
On hearing about the poverty line being set at Rs 20, they become silent. After a few minutes, Jagdeesh opens up. “What do you get with Rs 20 today? Why doesn’t anybody look at the soaring prices of food and clothes? Will politicians be able to live with Rs 20 a day? If not, then how are we to live with Rs 20 a day?” Tarabai dreams of educating her five children and buying medicines for her physically challenged sister-in-law and ailing mother-in-law. “We are barely able to feed the children. Sometimes, we all sleep hungry. I have such beautiful children but I don’t have money to put clothes on their bodies. I don’t have any money to send them to even a government school,” she says with tears in her eyes. Tarabai asks — half puzzled, half helpless — will she have to die to make the government understand her poverty?
For the elderly Meenakshi, both her emotional well-being and livelihood depend on the fisheyed goddess of the grand Madurai Meenakshi temple on the banks of the Vaigai river. Mother of five daughters, Meenakshi today is the sole breadwinner for her bed-ridden husband, divorced daughter and three grandchildren. If she stays at the entrance of the temple from early morning to 10 pm with her basket of jasmine and kanakambaram flowers, she can earn a profit between Rs 50 and Rs 100 on good days. “Even a destitute like me can get nothing for Rs 20 a day,” she says. On the not-so-rare day that ends with her offering all the unsold flowers to the deity, she earns nothing more than salvation.
Photo: Pandirajan K
Arun Pandey’s family owns four acres of land in his village. “We mostly grow chickpea and sesame. We earn about Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 every year. Of this income, we plough back Rs 4,000 into the land, buying inputs for the crops.” Arun shares this slim income of around Rs 700 a month with his three brothers. The Pandeys have never been financially stable. Like more and more farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Pandey is unmarried. He says it was poverty that made him decide to eschew marriage and a family of his own. When his brothers are taking care of the farm, Pandey works as a wage labourer for contractors, earning Rs 110 a day. Despite this, Pandey is cheerful when he says that these days he manages quite fine when he has Rs 70 a day. He spends Rs 10 on tobacco for his beedis and buys medicines costing Rs 20 to Rs 30 for his parents. What followed seems like an act of cruelty.
When asked how he’d manage if he could only spend Rs 15 a day because that is what the Planning Commission has set as the poverty line in rural India, he is horror-struck into silence. He curtly remarks, “What can anyone do with Rs 15?” Only after a little prodding does he reveal the difficult choices. “My father has respiratory problems. Perhaps I will spend Rs 10 on his medicines. With the five bucks left…,” he is defiant, “With the five bucks left, I will buy myself a beedi.”
Kishun Lohari and his family were once blacksmiths. Today, Lohari cleans cars and motorcycles on the streets of Ranchi for a living and earns Rs 1,500 a month. His blacksmith son spends his entire monthly income of Rs 600 on the family’s rent. Lohari says, “We spend my income for all our other expenses. Every day, the government hikes prices. All traces of humanity — family, friendships, festivals, weddings — are disappearing because of poverty. I can’t remember the last time I met my relatives.” He continues bitterly, “The government has no empathy for us.”
Would he be able to live on Rs 20 a day? He explodes, “Once I used to eat well on 25 paise. Today Rs 25 barely fills your stomach.” Kishun has a red BPL card but the ration he receives on it barely meets half the family’s needs. He is shocked to hear that he now stands at risk of not receiving even those meagre pickings.
Lohari says, “We can only hope to eat poison and kill ourselves. It’s a good thing in one way. The government can wipe out poverty by wiping us out. No poor people. No complaints.”
Ratni Devi is a resident of Hatma Village, she is a scavenger makes about Rs 60 every day by selling raddi. Her daughter works as a maid and makes about Rs 300 in a month. Her two sons are studying in a government school. She gets rice from her red card, but when asked if this makes things more convenient, she retorts – I get rice but rising costs of living make it very hard to run a household in that much. When we asked her if she could run her house if she made Rs 20 every day – what all would she buy? How would she choose what to purchase? She laughs uproariously “Is that a joke? How can you run a house in Rs 20 a day? Even if I just feed my family rice with salt and haldi, I won’t be able to give them three meals a day in that much. Even the lowest grade of rice costs Rs 20 for a kilo. You tell me, how can 5 or 6 people eat three or even two meals of such food and be full? They work hard to earn even this much, they live in mud huts in a village for which they pay Rs 400 a month. They barely manage to live as it is, and you are speaking of Rs 20?
Rameshwar Mahto lives on Patna’s SP Road. For the past 25 years, he has been a rickshaw-puller, plying a hired rickshaw on the streets of Patna. His family – a wife and four children – live in a village. The scrawny Mahto is dressed in a white baniyan that is torn in several places and a 25 rupee polyester lungi. On his shoulder hangs a trademark scarf orgamchha , an essential part of his life — every morning he cleans his rickshaw with the scarf, as the day wears on he uses it to wipe his sweat, or ties it around his head to protect himself from the harsh rays of the sun. Mahto earns about Rs 100-150 in a day, of which he must immediately surrender Rs 30 to the man he hires his rickshaw from. The money that remains with Mahto after he has paid for his meager meals, he goes home and deposits with his wife every fortnight. Two years ago Rameshward was added on the Below Poverty Line List and he was given a red card.
When we ask Rameshwar if he could survive on Rs 20 a day , he laughs and says “How could anyone survive on that much? If you have four cups of tea in a day, you will already have run out of money. You can’t get a single meal for Rs 20 , how can you live off that much in a whole day? Look at today for instance — I’ve had two cups of tea for Rs 10, two glasses of gram flour (sattu) and eaten a simple meal for Rs 25. I still have to work all day, and eat something for lunch and dinner, don’t I?”
When we meet Gokul in a village approximately 5 km away from Chhatisgarh’s capital Raipur, he is preparing to leave for work with a group of labourers. He began tilling soil when he was 20-years-old, and says that thirty years ago he used to make about 10-15 rupees for the same work that he now gets approximately 100 a day for. It is still a hard life. Gokul says his biggest strength is his home, a mud hut that he built with assistance from his family members. “It is a boon that I save money on rent, but even that can become a curse when summers and monsoons ravage my home and I spend most of my money on reapirs. In addition to this, I pay Rs 100 every month for electricity. When asked whether he could run his home in Rs 15 he says “I spend Rs 60 in a day’s worth of rice, pulses, vegetable and oil. The fuel for this costs Rs 15. If I add basic toiletries, the two cups of tea I drink in a day and my daughter’s school fees to that list, That means I basically save no money any way.” Inspite of the back-breaking work he does everyday, Gokul still hasn’t managed to repay his creditors. He has an account at the Gramin Bank, where after many years he has managed to save Rs 184. Hearing his story, one realizes that living off Rs 15 a day is not just a joke, it is an ugly joke. Yet, Gokul laughs, “If someone teaches me how to live off so little I will become his slave for life!”
Jaikishan’s family consists of five people, including his aged parents. After working as a labourer from the time he was a child, Sahoo apprenticed with several craftsmen before becoming a building foreman. In spite of the fact that he is an expert at giving brick homes that glossy polyester-paint finish, his own house lacks finish. He says, “A builder like me can only build castles for other people. Even the prospect of building a mud-house for oneself is a task fraught with difficulties.” By scrimping and saving for years, Sahoo managed to save Rs 50,000; all of which he spent on making his tiny house. Now, in spite of the shelter he has managed to build for them, he has no money to treat his ill and fragile parents. Fighting had to survive escalating costs of living, Sahoo is scornful at the suggestion that one could be expected to survive in Rs 15 a day. “In spite of it’s being such a fertile land, a kilo of low-grade rice in Chhatisgarh costs Rs 16-17,” he says. A family of five consumes approximately 1.5 kilos of rice in a day. If you add basic things like pulses, vegetables, oil and salt to this meal, the average expenditure on food on a single day is at least Rs 100 for the family. Jaikishan tells us that his two children study in a local government school, yet the expense of their notebooks, bags, stationery and fees runs up to Rs 2500 an year, which means he spends abour Rs 7 on his children daily. Sahoo works for the local foreman, where his daily wage is Rs 150. If he works every single day of the week he makes Rs 1050, and his monthly keep is Rs 4200. For Sahoo, the hardest period is when he completes a home and has to sit idle and wait for work — in these times, he does not even make the Rs 15 a day that we are talking about.
Sant Sukhbir Mahakal carries his home in a sack. His possessions include a plastic rug that doubles up as a makeshift tent in the rain and a mat to sleep on. Being a sant, he doesn’t work for a living and goes door-to-door asking for alms and food articles. Based in Ujjain, he makes an annual pilgrimage to Amarnath every year and Delhi’s Bangla Sahib is his pit-stop, where he can get two free meals daily. Depending on other’s kindness is definitely an uncertain prospect, but this gritty man is full of optimism. However, about the Rs 20-a-day threshold for the poor, he is perplexed. “I always cook my food on an open fire, whether I’m in Ujjain or Amarnath. Now, even if you buy firewood in the market, it costs Rs 15 a kg. Some days one needs to buy atta, which sells for Rs 10 a kilo. Even if I have two potatoes and some salt, it would cost at least Rs 5 more,” he says, adding that the “government is probably living in some era, when rice sold for aath aana a kilo.” However, he does know of people who survive on less than Rs 20 a day. “Why just 20, such people can survive on zero money for many months. They don’t eat or drink or do anything – they’re sedated and spend their waking hours looking for a daily fix.”