India is already Asia’s third largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It’s the second fastest growing country in the world after China. It’s one of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, which optimists think, are rated to become world’s leading economies in the coming decades. Consumer surveys repeatedly talk of upbeat Indians, who are hopeful of the future. The country is young, and that adds more potential to its growth curve. Its dynamic software industry and huge internal market add to its attractiveness as a place to do business. Combined, all this presents a very rosy picture of India. However, this is only a part of the story.
Prevalence of poor people in India
Preliminary figures from the latest (2011) census estimate a population of a little over 1,210 million (1.21 billion). This means, between 17-18% of world’s population lives in this relatively tiny piece of land (an interesting point here is that India is less densely populated that the UK and South Korea). At the same time, however, a publication from journalist and TIME Editor Bobby Ghosh points out that one in three poor people on the planet lives in India. This makes India home to the largest poor population in the world. Though there has been a reduction in the relative number of poor people in the past few decades, the percentage of those living below poverty line still remains shamefully large. Data from the Planning Commission of India shows that while there were a little less than 40% Indian living in poverty during the mid 1980s, it had fallen to 26% some twenty years later in 2005. That is a giant leap forward. However, in recent years, questions have been raised on the government’s methodology to measure poverty.
Definition of poverty
A couple of years ago, a report by Arjun Sengupta based on data collected by government agencies caused a great uproar in India when it announced that an outrageously large proportion of Indians were earning less than INR 20 (~US $0.4) a day. The report estimated approximately three in four Indians were poor. It has been heavily criticised and defended since then. There are other reports, including one by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. It uses a slightly different methodology and concludes that one in two Indians are either “severely” poor or “vulnerable to poverty.” Despite being so ubiquitous, poverty is not spread out uniformly in the country. Some religious communities, regions and castes do better than others.
Distribution of poor people in India
Remember India is a continent in its own right. You’ll find deserts in one corner and beautiful beaches on the other side and snow capped mountains in yet another. India is kept together by strong cultural and societal fabric. There is huge disparity amongst the people of India. On one side India has one of the largest middle class of people in the world which is also a measure of a nation’s strength; Indians are always in the top richest people in the world while it also houses the poorest people in the world.
Of the major religious communities in India, the Sikhs do particularly well while Muslims are a disadvantaged lot. Outdated caste system plays a major role too. The people from lower castes and the adivasis (aborigines) are more likely to be poor than those belonging to the upper castes. There are also regional dimensions. While some states and Union Territories boast of a respectable per capita income (Punjab, Himachal Pradesh) and others of a Human Development Index (Kerala, Chandigarh) comparable to those in European countries, conditions in some states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) are worse than in even some Sub-Saharan countries. This party explains why grand policies fail to eradicate poverty; quite often they do not take religious, regional and caste based peculiarities into account.
The future of the poor in India
The Indian government has several well-intentioned giant poverty reduction schemes. Unfortunately most of them don’t work, including the revolutionary Right to Employment, Right to Education, and now the much discussed but yet to be implemented, Right to Food schemes. However, there are some state level schemes, Midday meal in Tamil Nadu, that do an exceptionally good job of alleviating poverty. Thanks to these local approaches, India is well on its way to meet its target of reducing poverty to less than 22% by 2015. And it’s there a new generation of leaders inside and outside the country is focusing on, a decentralised approach to reducing poverty.
For those travelling to India must realise that poverty is a reality in India. You will actually feel the poverty as you travel across the country. The film “Slumdog Millionaire” was somewhat true depiction of poverty in India and some of the issues poor people of India have to face. However, movies like these that show an image of India that is still frozen in poverty and slums sell like hot cakes in the West which is not entirely true. There are efforts and attempts to change the whole thing. Therefore you must come to India with an open mind and leaving your preconceptions behind.