Wake up. Smell the coffee. It is bitter with the acrid dregs of failure. Half of India is trapped between hunger and semi-starvation. The top fifth is high inside its bubble of complacency. The squeezed middle is confused, uncertain, and swings wildly from the balm of soap-television fed aspiration towards spasms of street insurrection.
These truths about India in 2015, culled from an exhaustive socio-economic census, are a sharp slap of truth across the visage of make-believe that smug elites use as cosmetics. One child out of three is wracked by malnutrition: compare this to sub-Saharan Africa’s one child out of five. 51% of our country is yoked to manual labour as the only means of income; I use the verb deliberately, for manual labour is synonymous with subsistence survival. 92% of village households live on less than Rs 10,000 a month. Households, not individuals. Strip that statistic further: around 75% live on Rs 5,000 or less.
There is a blur of figures across the survey, each more depressing than the other. You can, if you wish, seek false comfort in comparison: malnutrition among children has come down, we learn, from 45.1% to 30.7%, but that is a stupid number to dangle before every third child whose body is consumed by misery while mothers watch, helpless, perhaps already as feeble as their children. The UPA government tried to sell a dummy when it grandly announced, on the eve of last year’s general elections, that only 30% of India was now below the poverty line. This was manipulation in the service of electoral politics, because the line was adjusted to make the figure more palatable.
We are not on the brink of a crisis. We are at the edge of a catastrophe, if we measure our country’s economic health and social justice parameters not from where we started in 1947, but from where we should have reached by 2015. A people confident of their rights are not going to wait for generations anymore: food, and jobs, are basic requirements in a modern democracy. Hunger is the most powerful reason for rage. Hundreds of millions still live in the open, without dignity, without hope. The world uses sub-Saharan Africa into the yardstick for the poverty index. This is a delusion. Our South Asian subcontinent is the template of poverty. We are too fond of gazing at others. We need to stare at a mirror.
Poverty is not a question that seeks verbiage as an answer; it demands a solution. Three programmes offer hope: the massive housing, urban renewal and smart city projects are not merely redesigning the urban map of the country. They are also going to be huge job factories.
There will be discomfort; and if you have a conscience, agitation. But there were two reasons for satisfaction. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley refused to cushion the truth with excuses, when he presented the findings at a press conference. The first step to a solution is recognition of the problem. It was also heartening that media, which is so often accused of sacrificing facts at the altar of drama, understood the dimensions of this reality. Newspapers carried front-page banner headlines.
And here is a comparison well worth pondering over. On the day that the Times of India carried multiple stories on the survey, it also did a report on an inside page headlined “Obesity among Indian teens swells”. In the last five years, according to the World Health Organization, the number of fat teenagers rose from 13% to 29%. I quote two sentences: “More than 15 million children are estimated to be overweight in urban India. However, experts say the prevalence is still far lower in rural India.”
There is no need to wonder why. Rural India simply does not have the surpluses to eat hamburgers on an urban scale.
Poverty is not a question that seeks verbiage as an answer; it demands a solution. Three programmes offer hope: the massive housing, urban renewal and smart city projects are not merely redesigning the urban map of the country. They are also going to be huge job factories, for construction is the biggest creator of jobs for the poor. Insurance policies with premiums as low as Rs 12 a year are the kind of positive state intervention that brings relief to those who need it most. And dignity schemes like the effort to build toilets change the quality of life immediately. The Indian state has, largely, been either indifferent or intrusive; it has to become inclusive.
It is no one’s case that previous governments did not make an effort to challenge poverty. They did. The difference is in urgency and scale, in the mark-up between alleviation and elimination. The hungry have waited long enough; and the accretion of wealth to a narrow elite is heating frustration into a bubbling rage. You cannot hide inequality and inequity in an age of inexpensive communication. The poor have lived long enough in the waiting room of history. They need jobs, education, equity, dignity, or their wrath will spill over.