The information that India no longer houses the world’s largest number of extreme poor came out last month. But beyond the apologetic day one news stories, the celebration of India getting close to winning its seven decade-long war against poverty has gone underreported. What should have been as audacious a bang as the equivalent of India winning the FIFA World Cup has ended without even a whimper.
According to a study by the US-based think tank Brookings, “Nigeria has already overtaken India as the country with the largest number of extreme poor in early 2018, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could soon take over the number 2 spot. At the end of May 2018, our trajectories suggest that Nigeria had about 87 million people in extreme poverty, compared with India’s 73 million.”
This jump is not sudden but gradual. “In 1997, 42% of the population of both India and China were living in extreme poverty,” write Hans Rosling with son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna in their recent book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things are Better Than You Think. “By 2017, in India, that share had dropped to 12%: there were 270 million fewer people living in extreme poverty than there had been just 20 years earlier.”
Further, alongside neighbours Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, India is “On Track”, a grouping of nations that currently have extreme poverty but where at projected growth rates, it would be eradicated before 2030.
China is already in the “No Extreme Poverty” grouping, a classification defined by a poverty rate of less than 3 per cent, while countries like Brazil will remain in the “Off Track” category till 2030, and a large chunk of Sub-Saharan Africa are, and will stay, under “Rising Poverty”.
Long derided and condemned for building policies that kept the poor poor, for India to have pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty — a person is said to be living in “extreme poverty” if she thrives on less than $1.90 a day measured in 2011 purchasing power parity — shows that 70 years of policymaking in independent India has willy-nilly delivered.
Through these decades, across political hues, poverty-eradication programmes have come and gone.
The Food for Work Programme (renamed the National Rural Employment Programme) of 1977 attempted creating additional employment in rural areas using surplus food grains available as buffer stock as wages. That failed because of inadequate stocks, delayed payments and overcrowding at fair price shops. The Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme (RLEGP) followed in 1983, to improve the scheme through guaranteed employment to at least one member of every landless household for up to 100 days a year. The Million Wells Scheme of 1988–89 attempted to provide open irrigation wells free of cost to poor, small and marginal farmers belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and freed bonded labour.
Several schemes later came the UPA I’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on September 5, 2005, prefixed with “Mahatma Gandhi” through a 2009 amendment. The farm loan waivers we see as the dominant discourse in India’s political economy are part of the same attempt to weed out poverty.
Now, multiply such schemes at the state level and what we have is a policy push that underlines India’s political economy — poverty eradication is good politics.
Because of a short public memory and all discourse becoming extremely political in a pre-election year, there is a sense of celebration in the governing coalition National Democratic Alliance in general, and in the Bhartiya Janata Party in particular, that the fall in poverty from 2014 till date is due to policies crafted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This is incorrect.
No scheme can reduce poverty at such a scale in such a short time.
Modi stands on the shoulders of his predecessors. By making existing schemes like MGNREGA more efficient using technology (access to data), identity (Aadhaar) and financial inclusion (Jan Dhan Scheme), for instance, Modi has smartened the schemes launched during the tenure of Manmohan Singh, and brought administrative efficiency through reduced corruption and leakages into the poverty discourse.
His successor will follow a similar path — there is no other way.
What India has to its advantage is the tailwind of economic growth. As growth rises, poverty falls. “Poverty has declined between 1993-94 and 2009-10 along every dimension,” argued Arvind Panagariya and Megha Mukim in a 2013 paper. “Acceleration in growth rates between 2004-05 and 2009-10 has been accompanied by acceleration in poverty reduction.”
Of course, much needs to be done and our destination is still several countries away — the 73 million Indians living in extreme poverty today add up to more than the populations of Thailand, France and the UK. To rephrase it, if all the Indians living in extreme poverty were to form a country, it would be the world’s twentieth largest by population. So, the zero-poverty destination has come closer — but remains far.
The fall in poverty has also gone hand in hand with the way we measure poverty. As the June 2014 Report of the Expert Group to Review the Methodology for Measurement of Poverty noted, “The methodology to measure poverty, as devised by YK Alagh in 1979 has been improvised by the Expert Group (Lakdawala) in 1993 and then by the Expert Group (Tendulkar) in 2009.”
This evolution of methodologies will keep breaking new ground, and with big data emerging in and through an increasingly digitised India, we will move to a greater sophistication of outcomes, demographics and geographies in tackling this malaise.
In the interim, it is amusing to see that our unrelenting and unfaltering aspiration to wallow in the poverty of India, upon which an entire luxury-loving and opulence-indulging industry stands, has prevented us from looking at facts that are staring us in the eye.
In a whining narrative, carefully hammered into our minds over 70 years, with images of hungry hoards representing and defining the very idea of India, we have allowed putrefying views to overpower this magnificent change, intuitive negativity to replace this paradigm-shifting data, crafted cynicism to smother the festivity that must accompany this breakout.
India is leaving poverty behind — but cynics remain trapped in their poverty of discourse.