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Defining & Depicting Poverty
A Bengali Forte

Bibekananda Ray

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is the second Bengali to be awarded Nobel Prize for economics; Amartya Sen was awarded in 1998. Abhijit shared it with his wife, Esther Duflo  and another for re-defining poverty in a new model; Sen got it for contributions to welfare economics, social choice theory, economic and social justice, theories of famine and measures of well-being of nations. Dr. Sen observes that “poverty leads to an intolerable waste of talents; it “is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being”.  Years later, Abhijeet and Duflo-   set up a laboratory, made random researches in 18 countries and changed the notions about poverty, held by most people.

It would appear, (forgive being parochial), Bengalis excel in study and application of economics; indeed, they are. Economics is a prize subject in most colleges and universities in West Bengal in graduate, post-graduate and Ph. D levels. Among their distinguished alumni before Abhijit are Amlan Datta, Sukhomoy Chakraborty, Bhabatosh Datta, Pranab Bardhan, Asim Dasgupta, Kaushik Bose, Dipankar Dasgupta, who all held high positions in the academia, financial institutions and the governments in India and abroad. Being at the helm of State departments, or just as advisors, some of them (e.g. Bhabatosh Datta and Asim Dasgupta) also influenced and helped formulate government policies. Abhijit and Amartya- pupil and teacher, respectively- came to global limelight for researches into poverty in field and laboratory studies.

Abhijit’s research is more focused than Dr. Sen’s and earned unstinted praise of the Swedish Academy. He had seen poverty in slums near his Kolkata house since childhood; later while teaching abroad, he and Esther visited colonies of poor in some Indian States, and Bangladesh, talked and lived with them, to know exactly what made and kept them poor. They took the data to the laboratory (J-PAL) they founded and through Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) deduced conclusions, wrote extensively in journals and books they co-authored. On Rahul Gandhi’s seeking, early this year, he had advised giving cash doles of six thousand rupees per month to the poorest but as Congress lost in 2019 poll, his advice could not be tested in India.  They also worked with many State governments to do research. Many other theories for alleviating poverty like ‘percolation from the top have been in vogue but Banerjee’s & Duflo’s now is the most touted and tried in the West.

Depiction of poverty too is a Bengali tour de force. In Bengali literature, poverty has been almost perennial backdrop in poetry, stories, novels and plays. In medieval Bengal’s Mangal Kavyas (between 13th and 18th centuries), Hindu goddesses alleviate poverty of devotees they are pleased with through miracles; their worships too are made affordable by the poor. In Panchalis of deities, written by Brahmin poets, there are tales of miraculous alleviation of poverty and misery by divine graces and boons. In Annada Mangal (1752-53) by Bharat Chandra Roy Gunakar, a rural housewife shows goddess Durga, disguised as a beggar, a hole in her kitchen where gruel of stale rice is kept. Many tales, novels and plays of Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath and Sarat Chandra are about poor and downtrodden people. Sarat Chandra’s tales particularly (e.g. Palli Samaaj, Mahesh, Bindur Chhele, Abhagir Swargo, Ekadoshi Bairagi) in backdrop of poverty moved generations of readers. Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyaya, Tarashankar Banerjee, Manik Bandyopadhyaya, Samaresh Bose, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Mahasweta Devi wrote tales, novels and plays in the ambience of poverty. Numerous stage and amateur plays, e.g. Neel Darpan by Dinabanbdhu Mitra and Nabanno by Bijan Bhattacharya dealt with poverty and distress; in fact, many tales of “saddest thoughts” beguile because of their milieu of poverty and backwardness. In other regional languages, particularly in Hindi, tales abound of poverty and deprivation but those in Bengali have greater international vogue through translations into English and many Indian languages.

This trend culminated in Satyajit Ray’s movies. He was an avid watcher of Hollywood movies from 13; in boyhood he pooh-poohed silent and later sound-added Bengali movies and watched very few. He decided to render Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali on screen, although he had not seen, far less lived in, a village. He aspired to make movies some day; quitting Santiniketan during World War- II he took a job with a foreign advertising company and with like-minded friends wrote scripts of Bankim Chandra’s Devi Choudhurani and Rabindranath’s Ghare Baire. Deputed by the advertising company to work on a leave vacancy, he arrived in London with his wife on 9th May 1950; the first movie they saw that day in the city was De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948). He was so moved by it that emerging from the London hall, he told Vijaya that he would be a film-maker and his debut will be Pather Panchali, a children’s version of which (Aam Aantir Bhepu) he had illustrated. On the return voyage, he wrote the script for it in wash-sketches which he later donated to Cinematheque Paris.  Pather Panchali’ is about a rural Brahmin family of five that ekes out a living amid stark poverty that grinds but does not dehumanise.

Italy’s neo-realism movement in cinema itself focused on depicting the poor and beleaguered people before and during World War-II. Cesare Zavattini, script writer for many of neo-realist movies wrote: “Neo-realism can and must face poverty ... the theme of poverty, of rich and poor, is something one can dedicate one's whole life to; we have just begun''. If anybody opposes films about poverty, he added, “he is committing a moral sin; he is refusing to understand, to learn”, and thus ‘evading reality’, which “springs from lack of courage, from fear”. Bengali cinema before Satyajit Ray also treated many sentimental tales in milieu of poverty, right from the Silent era (1912-1934), which made many movies box-office successes. More in the offbeat than in the mainstream genre, themes and tales of poverty, misery, squalor and exploitation edged out others after the global rave over Ray’s Pather Panchali; Ray himself continued this ambience in two sequels- Aparajita and Apur Sansar and much later in Ashani Sanket in 1973. This was such an outrage on Mumbai’s Hindi cinema that Nargis (then a Rajya Sabha member) and comedian I S Johar charged Ray with “peddling India’s poverty abroad”. He was so peeved with it that resolving to depict starker poverty, he chose a story by Prafulla Roy to make a Hindi movie on a low-caste rural family of Bihar that lived on left-over grains and field mice but before he could begin it, death intervened on 23rd April 1992. Before Ray, of many movies in ambience of poverty most remarkable were Chhinnamul (1950) by Nemai Ghosh, Babla by Agradoot in 1951 and Nagarik (1952) by Ritwik Ghatak. Ghatak made seven more movies, many of them set in milieus of poverty and squalor, particularly of refugee people from East Bengal.

The 2011 census gives no specific data about poverty but according to the World Bank, India halved its poverty rate over the past three decades. A total number of around 27 crore, i.e., over one-fifth of people are believed to be under the so-called ‘poverty line’ and  as per the World Poverty Clock nearly 44 Indians are escaping extreme poverty, every minute because of sundry alleviation programmes. Removal of poverty was the refrain of India’s politics too before and after Independence. Every elected government had in its agenda special programmes to alleviate poverty but no government really succeeded; international food aid like PL 480 in 1956 helped avert famine but made no abiding dent. Indira Gandhi was the first Prime Minister to give a call, Garibi Hatao in 1971; it featured in her 20-point programme during the Emergency. The Green Revolution she ushered in with help of agricultural scientist, M S Swaminathan from early 1960’s by introducing mechanisation of agriculture and high-yielding seeds etc. did increase production of food grains but did not really ameliorate the poor. The 34-year continuous Left rule in West Bengal effected many land reforms, gave land to the landless and share-croppers but did not materially changed the poverty index. The 10-year Congress rule, led by Dr. Manmohan Singh and the same period in two spells by the NDA-I and NDA-II governments, led by the BJP also failed to alleviate poverty. As Banerjee and Duflo say in their 2011 publication, ‘Poor Economics’: “many magic bullets of yesterday have ended up as today’s failed ideas”.   If the Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi was elected in 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the party would have introduced the NYAY programme, formulated by Abhijit Banerjee and each of the 20% poorest families would have started getting Rs. 6000 per month, as against Rs. 2000 under Pradhan Mantri Krishak Samman Yojana, through their bank and post office accounts but the mass hypnotism by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah blinkered the majority of the electorate to opt for it.  

Nov 3, 2019


B Ray [email protected]

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