Dealing with Poverty in India

Dealing with Poverty in India

Dr. Gnana Robinson – Peace Trust Poverty in the midst of Affluence

Dr. Gnana Robinson
Peace Trust
Poverty in the midst of Affluence

India is marching towards attaining its goal of joining the elite club of super powers, some say by 2010 and some, including Dr. Abdul Kalam, the President of India, say by 2020.  The national growth rate is steadily on the upward scale.  For the fiscal year 2006-2007 it is 9 per cent, and for the coming year it is estimated to be 9.2 per cent.  India is excelling in all fields – in economic performance, defence technology and in scientific achievements.  India’s industry is booming and the Indian industrialists have started competing with the industrial giants of the world’s super-powers in global markets excelling in size and scale (The Week, February 11, 2007, p.36). “On January 31, 2007 , Ratan Tata grabbed world attention by bagging the world’s ninth largest steel maker, Corus, many times the size of his Tata Steel, in a breathtaking $12.1 billion (at an enterprise value of $ 13.7 billion) deal, easily the largest by an Indian enterprise”. (The Week, February 11, 2007, P.36).  Other industrialists of India have also started competing in the global market.

All these are indeed achievements on which every Indian citizen can take pride.  But one question that arises in the minds of all sensible Indians is by what indicators we measure our development, growth and achievements. We still hear of “starvation deaths”, “farm suicides” and of deaths due to mal-nutrition in India.  The following are some of the headlines in Indian newspapers: “Children die of chronic malnutrition” (The Hindu, April 21, 2006, p.13); “Famine,  an affliction of the Poor” (The Hindu, August 5, 2005, p.15), “Life on the fringes” (The Hindu,  August 1, 2004, p.14), “Poverty-stricken farmers……eat rat meat” (The Hindu, February 2003, p.3). According to an U.N. report, more than one-third of malnourished children of the world are in India.  It is estimated that around 6,000,000 children under five die each year in India.

The level of poverty in which the poor in India live today in the midst of India’s growing affluence all around is unheard of anywhere else in the world.  Many eat inedible things like rat meat, mango kernels, grass, etc., In Orissa 20 tribals died in 2001, after they consumed a paste made of mango kernels.  I was startled when I saw an old woman, who came to me begging in the city Madurai, suddenly opening the small bundle tied at the end of her sari, taking the dry mud she had kept in it and eating it.  She said, because she had nothing to eat, she used to eat earth and drink water.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  That many starving poor in India try desperately to survive by eating earth like this old woman is further confirmed by a newspaper report on the suicide of a mother, Ramani by name, with her four children in my own district Kanyakumari in South India. Before they took the extreme step of committing suicide, for some days they were eating earth and drinking water (Dhinamalar July 5, 2005, p.7)

A major section of India’s poor are to be found in the big cities of India.  According to one press report almost 50% of Mumbai’s population live in slums, but they occupy only 7 per cent of Mumbai’s land mass (The Indian Express, February 6 2005, p.5). The slums in big cities are increasing in number year by year and the poor in slums live in sub-human conditions due to the inhuman treatment meted to them by the elite society of big cities.  The slum dwellers are  “no people”, because they do not enjoy any of the fundamental rights of Indian citizens. They have no place to live and therefore no address, no voting right, no ration card and no access to civic facilities.  In India they are known as “invisible people” (The Hindu, November 3, 2005, p.11).  They squat under bridges; on pavements, in huge abandoned drainage pipes, in ruined buildings and near sewage drainage lines.  They are harassed by authorities and they live under constant threat of eviction.

In a hut on a five to six square feet area covered by rags, sacks and plastic sheets, a family of four to eight people lives. They cook, eat and sleep in the open. When it rains, they run to nearby railway stations, bus stands and to the verandas of closed shops.  It is a mystery, how the women folk in slums, living in the midst of the hustle and bustle of crowded cities, manage with no toilet facilities.  The condition of the aged and the sick among them are still pitiable.  There is no safety or security for young women in slum communities.

Working among a community of pavement dwellers in Bangalore for some years, we wanted to save at least some of the school-going girls, by helping them to finish their high school studies and some professional courses and then to find for them some jobs.  We identified two girls to start with and supported them for some years and they completed the 8th standard.  We were happy; we wanted them to continue the schooling up to the 11th standard, But to our great disappointment, we heard, one girl became pregnant illegally and the parents of the other girl arranged marriage for her.  The pregnant girl gave birth to a girl – child, and the child is now four years old. The mother still remains unmarried, and she never wants her daughter to end up with her fate when she grows up. She wants us to take her daughter out of that slum and put her in a hostel and help her to have good education.  Krishnamoorthy, another member from this slum informed us recently that his daughter attained puberty and wanted to celebrate the event.  We sent some help to him. But he called us again within a week and informed us that they had fixed the marriage of this daughter, who is only 12 years old.  We were shocked to hear the news. Slum dwellers think that marriage is the only way of saving or protecting their daughters. Thus, most of the girls living in slums are given in marriage at young ages.  Consequently there are more children in slums.

 Moral and ethical values cannot be demanded from people living in slums, because the society has not provided them the conditions that are needed for the practice of such values. Many of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol.  Some of them, who get caught in petty crimes, are in the record of the police.  Whenever crimes occur in cities, these people are arrested and harassed as suspects.

The Insensitivity and the Indifference of the Rich in Cities

The slums are located right within cities.  The well-to-do people of the cities pass through these slums every day.  Still, they do not seem to have noticed how these people live and what they do.  They have never made an attempt to know what they need and what they want.  As the prophet Isaiah put it, they hear and hear, but do not understand, they see and see, but do not perceive “because their heart has become fat” (6: 9-10).

Religions too, including Christianity, which claim to work for the salvation of the souls of people, are insensitive and indifferent to the sufferings of the poor in the country. The pavement-dwellers community in Bangalore, which the United Theological College adopted as its extended family, when I was its Principal, is living next to the Christian Mission Hospital.  They live over the pavement under which drainage water flows. The waste-water from the hospital flows into the drainage through some of these huts, exposing the people living in the huts to many health hazards. We therefore thought of talking to the hospital authorities with a view to getting their cooperation in doing something jointly for the amelioration of the suffering of these people. When I sought an appointment with the superintendent of the hospital to discuss about the pavement dwellers, the manager of the hospital was very happy.  He welcomed me very warmly.  But when I talked about the problem of the hospital sewage water flowing through the huts and requested the hospital to change its flow, he was not happy.  He suggested that we should jointly take steps to evict them from their neighbourhood.

For many among the rich, including the authorities, slums are an eye sore; they spoil the beauty of cities.  Hence, they all want the slums to be removed from their sight. No one thinks seriously of providing alternative accommodations for the people living in slums and thus transforming their living conditions.

Callous attitude of authorities

Though leaders here and there talk of combating and alleviating poverty, no realistic, sincere efforts have been made to deal with poverty in India.  According to Brinda Karat, “The entire process of poverty estimation by the planning commission is characterised by arbitrariness and manipulations”. “Lower estimates become the instrument to bully state Governments into accepting a smaller share of nation’s resources for poverty alleviation” (The Hindu, November 1, 2006, p.10 ).  Thus the number of people below the poverty line (BPL) are lowered in a number of states intentionally, for the purpose of reducing resource allocation.  This means, the real number of people below the poverty line are much more than the national estimates.

Many slums, which are considered to be illegal, do not figure on in any national survey.  As such, people living in these slums are considered to be illegal people, and even if all of them disappear the nation will not notice it.  Neither politicians nor authorities are interested in illegal people.

Since such illegal people are in large number in big cities, and their participation in local and national elections might change the political destiny of parties as demonstrated in Mumbai, politicians do not want to legalize the poor in the slums and give them voting rights. ( Mumbai’s slum dwellers played a critical role in defeating the BJP-Shiva Sena in the 2004 Assembly poll – The Hindu, February 5, 2005, p.10).  In 2004, 11 prominent Maharashtrians moved the Bombay High Court to bar slum dwellers from voting.  In 2005, Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation itself asked the Chief Electoral Officer to drop residents of the demolished slums from the voters’ lists.

Eviction of the slums seems to be the primary objective of all city administrations.  Some of the sites occupied by slum dwellers are gold mines in the sight of real estate dealers, and they are ready to pay any price for them. Dubious means are being used to evict the voiceless slum dwellers. Terrorizing the people with the help of the rowdy elements in cities is one tactic. In Madurai, when I was the Principal of the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in the eighties, attempts were made to evict around two hundred families living in the slum next to the Seminary.  More than 200 armed thugs came in the early morning hours of one night and demolished the elementary school in the slum and scared the poor people in the slum with the warning that unless they vacated the slum within one week, their hutments also would be reduced to the ground just like the school.   Setting the hutments in fire ascribing the blaze to accidental fire is another technique.  The hutments near the railway bridge near the cantonment station in Bangalore were reduced to ashes one night due to fire, alleged to be accidental.

All slum dwellers in general ask for better housing with civic facilities and easy accessibility to working places.  Finding such alternative sites in cities is not easy.  Still the authorities concerned both at the national level and at the state level have to give serious thought to resettling the urban poor living in slums with dignity and respect.

The connection between Rural Poverty and Urban Poverty

The urban poverty is very much the outcome of rural poverty.  The rural poverty is the breeding ground for urban poverty. All the first-generation slum – dwellers in cities are migrants from nearby villages.

India still remains a country of villages and nearly 80% of India’s population live in villages.  People in villages are mostly farmers, and they lead a dignified, contented life as long as they get enough water for irrigation.  Even landless agricultural labourers do not starve when there is enough water for cultivation. As long as trhere is enough water, they get enough work.  Problems arise only when there is scarcity of water for cultivation caused by failure of seasonal rains.  Since the Government has not provided any security for farmers, and since the villages do not offer any alternative job opportunities, farmers find their very survival a problem when there is scarcity of water.  In order to save their wives and children, they migrate to cities, and in the cities they become “no people” losing their identity and dignity.

The cities absorb them, not out of humane considerations, but because of their growing need for cheap labour.  Fastly expanding cities need thousands and thousands of construction workers; the families of the swelling middle class and upper class look for cheap domestic workers; the city administration wants workers to keep the city clean and tidy.  The migrants from villages meet all the above needs of cities, still with no recognition and appreciation of their contribution.  They are exploited and used to the core; like bugs the rich suck their blood.  But they are denied of their basic fundamental rights for food, shelter, health care, education and voting rights.  They are frowned at as untouchables.  How to bring about a change in their life?  When will the rich and the well-to-do in cities accept the slum-dwellers as fellow-citizens with equal dignity and honour, recognizing that they in their own way contribute to the development of the city, as well as the Country?

Dealing with Poverty in India: Some Measures for Consideration

I am neither a social scientist nor an expert on development planning.  Still as a lay person in the field I suggest some measures, which, in my opinion are important, if poverty in India, both rural and urban, has to be dealt with meaningfully.

Combating rural poverty

i.                    Ensure enough water for cultivation in villages

As the son of a farmer I know that in villages no one will starve and die, if there is enough water for cultivation.  As seen above, all people will have enough work to do.

Water management has become the primary concern in India.  The government should focus its attention on effective water management.  Currently, some of the states are disputing over sharing water from common rivers.  It is high time that the central Government takes up the matter of linking some of the major rivers in India seriously and distributing water to all the states in need equitably.  In water management India can learn a lot from countries like Israel, which harvests every drop of rain water, desalinize see water into potable water and use the same for cultivation.  Thus deserts are being transformed into fruit gardens. In India so much of river water flows in the ocean.  During rainy seasons, much of the rain water is also wasted.  Thousands of lakes and ponds, which one conserved rain water and thus contributed to the rise of under-ground water level and also helped the farmers in their cultivation, are now filled up because of the expansion of cities.  Many of the lakes and ponds, which are still available, are not de-silted for years, and consequently they do not hold much water.  A ban on filling in traditional natural lakes and ponds and de-silting and maintaining them with proper bunds or walls will help in harvesting rain waters effectively.  More and more irrigation dams should also be considered to store as much rain water as possible.   

ii.                  Abolish in absentee holding of agricultural land

We hear that the rich, living in big cities, own huge estates of agricultural land in villages.  They lease the land to landless agricultural labourers in villages who are bound to supply to owners a prescribed number of bags of the yield or its equivalent price in cash.  During times of drought and crop failure, the workers do not get any compensation and they starve. This kind of absentee lordship over agricultural land should go.  The principle of land to the tiller should be implemented. 

iii.                Recognize agricultural labour like the labour in the industrial sector and bring in regulation to safeguard the interests of farmers and agricultural labourers

All people in India, whether they live in cities or in villages should be given photo-identity cards.  Now that photo-identity cards are introduced for voters, making it available to all citizens should not be a problem.  This will facilitate the process of listing down all farmers and agricultural labourers. 

During crop-failures due to floods or droughts, these people should be adequately compensated and thus saved from starvation and death. As in the West, as the society at large advances in modernization and development, people in villages are attracted towards life in cities.  Children of farmers do not stay anymore with parents to take care of their farms.  The time is not too far when we will not have enough people to work on the fields.  The state should therefore give enough incentives to farmers that they continue working on the fields with contentment and happiness.

iv.                Locate new industries in villages and make the advantages of modernization available to villagers

One reason why farmers migrate to villages is that none in their families finds alternative employment in villages.  If at least one member in a family is employed in an occupation other than farming and makes an earning, that would come to the rescue of farmers at times of distress.  It is therefore important that some industries at least, if possible some agro-based industries, are started in villages.  This will give an opportunity for villagers also to be exposed to modernization and industrialization and enjoy their benefits.

Combating Urban Poverty

i.                    Regulate immigrant population in cities

With the introduction of photo-identity cards for all the citizens of India, it should be easier to regulate people from outside coming in cities.  People with identity cards should be required to register their names locally with the police or with the office specially created for that purpose whenever they change their residences.  This will help officials to know the number of immigrants coming into the cities and to have an oversight on how they live and where they work.  On the part of the immigrants, this should help them to approach the right officials to get what they want – accommodation, ration card, registering their names in the voters list, etc. In short, the new comers in cities will not remain “invisible” people; they will continue to live as citizens of India with equal dignity with the other residents of the city.

ii.                  Regulate and facilitate job-opportunities for immigrants

Though construction works in growing cities employ large number of workers, there is no proper labour union to safe-guard the interests of immigrant labourer’s in cities.  Contractors and sub-contractors engage them as daily labourers and exploit them in many ways.  They have no job security; they can be hired and fired at the whims and fancy of contractors.  The wages given are not in proportion to the profit earned by contractors.  The employers show no concern for the housing and health care of these workers.  They are not bothered about the education of their children.  Because both mothers and fathers work as labourers in many families, and because they move from place to place depending on the works available, they do not send their children to schools.  Elder brothers and sisters in a family do the baby sitting for the younger ones, until they reach the age when they too are able to join the construction works and earn a few more rupees for the family.

The Government should create a special department to look into the welfare of immigrant workers in cities. The concerned department should attend to all the above mentioned needs of migrant workers.

iii.                Provide alternative accommodation for people living in old slums

All cities are expanding rapidly; new industries are being started at the outskirts of old cities.  These outskirt areas soon become part of the city with all amenities.  Therefore people now living in old slims are ready to move to houses constructed in the new expanding areas of the city.  Thus the pavement dwellers in Bangalore mentioned above, are now offered accommodation near Whitefield, which area is now fast developing, and the pavement dwellers are now ready to move.  But they are required to pay Rs. 15,0000/-  per family, which amount the slum dwellers find difficult to raise.  The concerned authorities should examine the affordability of slum dwellers before fixing such demands.

iv.                Arrange for the education of the children of immigrant construction workers

If the parents are expected to move from place to place, the employer should make arrangement for school-going children to stay in hostels and attend schools.  The Government may think of starting special schools with hostel facilities for such children.

Combating Corruption

Corruption in a country is like cancer in human body.  Corruption  eats away all that has been achieved in the area of development.  India is rated as the third among countries where corruption is most rampant.  Corruption has entered into all parts of Indian administrative system–judiciary, administration, police, etc. The victims of corruption are always the poor, because the rich, who are corrupt, know how to circumvent laws and escape from punishment. Combating poverty and combating corruption should therefore go together hand in hand, if the poor have to enjoy the fruits of development in the country.


We are happy to note that the present UPA Government is taking some measures to alleviate the suffering of the poor in the country.  The historic National Rural Employment Gurantee Bill moved in the Lok Sabha in August 2005 aims at providing 100 days of guaranteed wage employment for rural households in 200 districts.  This would be extended to all 600 districts in the country in five years, it is hoped (The Hindu, August 12, p.1). This bill aims at banishing poverty through assured employment.  We are also happy to note that the 11th Five-Year plan addresses poverty and aims at bridging the rural-urban divide, as assured by M.V.  Rajasekharan, the Minister of State for planning (The Hindu, December 28, 2006, p.5).  The people of the whole nation should rally around the Government on its war against poverty, both rural and urban. 

Poverty dehumanizes people.  As long as we have people in our midst who starve and die because of poverty, we cannot boast ourselves as a developed nation or as a super power.  Empowering the poor and restoring them to full humanity should therefore be our primary task.  We therefore have to wage a war against all dehumanizing forces, whether in the rural sector or in the urban sector, a war against exploitation, manipulation and corruption. 

A corruption free India, where all live in peace and prosperity with equity and justice alone can make India a great nation.  India should emerge not as a military super-power to terrorize other nations, but as a moral super-power, where all people live in contentment and happiness, as a nation which other nations can see and emulate.