Numbers – 5

The Business Standard of 12th Jan 2004 carries an item on page 3 with the heading 33 million more Indians in poor list in 2001-02. The percentage of people below the poverty line is estimated to be around 25. That is, India has about 250 million people who are so unimaginably poor that they can’t cross the poverty line that is set way below what can be considered necessary for a human existence. For all the progress India is supposedly making, we have increased the absolute numbers of the abjectly poor by 33,000,000 in that one year alone.

Let’s put the number of the abjectly poor in perspective. Consider the number of people below the poverty line at the time of India’s independence. We had about 350 million people then. Assuming that 50 percent of them were below the poverty line then, there were 175 million abjectly poor people then. Now, about 55 years later, we have 250 abjectly poor people. There has been an increase of 75 million in the ranks of the abjectly poor.

Whatever else one can say about India’s progress, there is no way anyone can claim that India has made any progress in reducing poverty. Hundreds of billions of rupees have been spent in poverty reduction and yet we have not able to not just reduce poverty, we have actually seen an increase in the number of the poor.

How on earth could we have achieved this: spending huge amounts and still not being able to reduce the absolute headcount of the abjectly poor? The answer is not hard to find. The analogy I use is this: imagine trying to fill a leaky bucket. There is no way of ever filling it if the rate at which the bucket leaks is greater than the rate at which water flows into it. India’s misfortune is that the rate at which the population of the abjectly poor increases overwhelmes the resources available to lift people out of poverty.

Consider this report from the BBC simply titled 24 Children:

In the small town of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, down an alleyway off the main street and behind some shops, is the home of Mohammed Omar and his wife, Aasiyah Begum… They have 24 children… Aasiyah Begum has given birth to 29 children she thinks, but five have died.

Of the hundreds of millions of Indians who are abjectly poor, one thing we can be sure of: to a first approximation, they are poor because their parents were abjectly poor. Poverty, like riches and skin color, is inherited.

Amartya Sen, an economist who has spent some time thinking about the matter of poverty, had once remarked that if poverty were a contagious disease, the rich would eradicate it pretty rapidly. I see his point, that in the short run, poverty is not contagious. But I feel that in the long run, poverty is highly contagious. The deadweight of the poor can produce sufficient friction in the workings of the economy that even the non-poor find it difficult to survive.

Poverty is the outcome or consequence of a large number of factors. Oppression and exploitation are certainly very potent factors that keep the poor in poverty. But the most important factor for the poverty of the poor is, in my considered opinion, the real uncontrolled fecundity of the poor. I realize that in this age of political correctness and global social forums, this is not going to make me popular.

The question of economic development of the country cannot be answered without reference to the poor. We need to ask hard questions and if the answer turns out to be less than palatable for some people, so be it. But we cannot pretend that we can solve problems without understanding fully what are the causal factors that create them.

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