Why do we talk about Poverty in India?

Bhaskar Majumder

One of the many words misused in the public domain is poverty; this is not much for the ignorance of the affluent about poverty but for their non-association with the people perceived as poor. One reason for revealed concern about the ‘’poor’’ could be a sense of elite guilt in living in luxury vis-a-vis observing migrant workers spending precarious nights on perilous road dividers, commoners jostling to get a space in an unreserved compartment in a train to reach a distant place to work probably as migrant workers, or the glimpse of families living on railway platforms and begging somewhere. The consequence in the processes was the Garibi Hatao slogan in the polity in 1972 and its economic translation in India’s Fifth Five-Year Plan as removal of poverty. Consequences in sequence show components of a process where the initial conditions remain concealed for the historical ‘’initial’’ is difficult to trace. Neither of the camps, the polity and the privileged, is much eager to see an end to poverty for different reasons; for the former it may imply an end to playing with people around poverty while for the latter it may imply an end to expressing occasional deep sighs on perpetuation of poverty.

Nobody denies that the standard of consumption of goods and services vary over individuals in any region in India, be it rural or urban, be it coastal belt or hilly region, be it land-locked state or be it a large or a small state. This shows both deprivation and inequality in consumption. One simple assumption could be, a process of consumption that is visible has to be shared. My contention is that inequality is a non-issue in most of the regions and for most of the people in India – be it at a high level of per capita income or be it at a low level of per capita income, based on the assumption that total income and per capita income can be calculated for the inhabitants of a particular region over an accounting period. Let me elaborate.

Over past few decades while living with people in labour colonies, spending hours with strangers to have ideas based on disguised observations, I felt privileged to know that the people looked down upon for their visibility as poor by dress code and housing do not bother about poverty. One of the workers, age in mid-fifties, in Shankargarh in the district of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP) told me a few years back, ‘Life me ye pahle baar makkhan dekhne ko mila’ (this was the first time in my life when I got the opportunity to see butter) when he was dragged to a city by social activists to strengthen the cause of the latter. I hope this is self-explanatory. One of the persons in Unchahar in the Raiberily district in UP who I found cutting a bamboo piece from a bush (CPRs) nearby told me that he needed only one piece to perform rituals and this cutting was unobstructed by the local communities irrespective of his caste. This is also self-explanatory. But these two isolated episodes perhaps do not fill-in the knowledge non-satiety of the privileged.

Social science, in fact, is more surprising than what we have recorded so far. One is, poverty is self-defence in some regions and some people in India – poverty is glorified at some places. For some revealed incivility in public space by somebody, like spitting, one responds ‘kya kare, garib admi hai’ without understanding that spiting has no link with poverty – rather it is an expression of excess liquidity (non-economic). Inability to express in English in teacher-taught relation in some Universities is also often linked with ‘Gaon-Garib’ that defends not only poverty but also long-term linguistic incapability. Let there be, however, no elastic imagination that expression in English is a superior mode relative to that in mother tongue.

My concern is not much with the above for glorification of economic poverty; linguistic poverty will continue for years to come. Innocent people in India hardly understand consequential poverty for alienation from means of production, if the analysis is shifted in the direction of owning private poverty. But what if the communities own and share natural resources rather than thinking about nature to use for speculative purposes? My own experience in moving from the district Mandi in Himachal Pradesh to the district Papum Pare in Arunachal Pradesh, staying in the ‘’forest villages’’ over the past one year (apart from living in hilly Nepal for a long duration) covering states like Uttarakhand, West Bengal Hills, Assam Hills made me convinced that the language of the academic privileged in urban India sharply contrasts the living of the people in those ‘’forest villages’’. Some of the characteristics in their living were the following:

Natural-Social Living: People lived as an integral component of nature. They had no need of police-administration for their natural-social living. It was a different question that many of the villages had no road connectivity to assist the authority to reach there. In Arunachal Pradesh it was the Gaon Buda (wise person in the village irrespective of age) worked as local administrator in case of any need. In Uttarakhand it was Seyanaa who took decisions in consultation with the local people.

Community Living: On the hills-forests in the Indian Himalayan region, it was community living though households had chulhas. In most houses, visibly from outside, there were no concrete boundary; most of the houses were single storey with a duplex system inside for safety of the dwellers at night from attack of wild animals. The upper floor was linked with the lower floor with a movable one-piece wooden or bamboo-made ladder. Bamboo was a major resource for construction of walls and floor of houses.

Resources: The resources for livelihood were mostly collected from hills-forests-rivers like water-food-fuel-feed, materials for housing. Some were transformed one-round by self-labour to prepare utensils to carry water and other private utilities like cot.   

State-support: Of late Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Programme launched by the Government of India in 2005 was observed to have been introduced in some of the areas that I visited in the Indian Himalayan region that may introduce money-based economy for the money-innocent people, mostly the Adivasis. The parallel introduction of the Public Distribution System will get back a part of that money as consumption expenditure of the households. 

In spite of the state-support, I abstained from calculating money income of the households for their basic livelihood remaining nature-based. The question of counting happiness as state GDP did/does not arise for the hills-forests living people were not concerned in the trade-off between happiness ad unhappiness. The question of unhappiness was irrelevant in the Indian Himalayan region that covers twelve states of which one is already in turmoil for transnational geo-political reasons.

The regions that I observed are known as Dev Bhumi. Nobody that I lived with talked about their poverty. Some of them declined to accept that they were ever poor for what they opined was that nature fed/feed them and they pray to God to keep nature alive. In the district Papum Pare in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, for example, Dono-Polyo (Sun and Moon) as God and Goddess were prayed by people for their safety-security and livelihood. It seems better not to read this as their knowledge-poverty.

It seems advisable if we abstain from imposing psychological poverty on these people and pledge to uplift them. They did not ask for it over centuries.

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jul 21, 2019

Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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