Poverty as a Challenge in India
Since the dawn of human history, the problem of poverty has been an inherent and perpetual characteristic of any type of class or society based on private ownership of the means of production.
Poverty is the chief target of socialism. It can be defined as a social phenomenon in which a section of society is unable to get even its basic necessities of life. When a substantial segment of a society is deprived of the minimum level of living (to use the phrase of classical economists, “a bare subsistence level”) that society is said to be plagued by mass poverty.
Poverty is sheer-want – want of food for a growing family, want of clothes, and want of a shelter and want of medical help. Poverty is still prevalent among millions of people in India. People living in abject poverty constitute 40 to 50 per cent of the total population.
Various estimates have been made of the number of poor people.
The existence of mass poverty on such a large scale is incompatible with the vision of an advanced, prosperous democratic, egalitarian and just society implied in the concept of socialistic pattern of development. Despite the implementation of several plans and programs, poverty seems to have expanded. The growth strategy adopted by the planners left more than two-fifths of the population below the poverty line. Glaring inequalities of wealth and income, both in urban and rural areas, industrial and agricultural sectors, resulting in a vast difference in the standards of living of the people were quite noticeable. The countries of the Third World exhibit invariably the existence of mass poverty, although pockets of poverty exist even in the developed countries of Europe and America.
Attempts have been made in all societies to define poverty, but all of them are conditioned by the vision of minimum or good life obtaining in society. The concept of poverty is relative and subjective. No universal index of poverty has yet been evolved nor does this seem possible. The poverty index for the USA, for instance, would be quite different from that for India, although the poor in both countries would certainly be poor. It does not seem as if even a more widely applicable index, such as standards of minimal good, clothing and shelter requirements, would help us; for the luxuries of one society’s poor may well be considered necessities by the poor of a more affluent society. Each society’s poor would therefore have to be defined in relation to its own rich. There can be no absolutes.
In India, the definition of the poverty line emphasizes a minimum level of living rather than a reasonable level of living. This attitude is borne out of realization that it would not be possible to provide millions of people even the minimum basic needs for some decades; therefore, to talk about a reasonable level of living or good life may appear to be wishful thinking at the present stage. Thus political considerations enter the definitions of poverty because programs of alleviating poverty may become prohibitive as the vision of a good life widens.
The deprivation of a significant section of society of minimum basic needs in the face of a luxurious life for the elite classes makes poverty more glaring. More than 65 years have passed since we attained political independence; still most of the people lead a sub-human life, while a microscopic minority lives in excessive luxury.
Even Gandhiji’s hopes have not been fulfilled. In spite of our Plans, “Garibi Hatao – oriented programs”, Green Revolution, etc., we have created only a few islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty. In our cities, we are able to see skyscrapers and palatial buildings side by side with the ramshackle houses and huts of the poor. We are able to see a direct correlation between those getting poorer and those getting richer.
But, in spite of overwhelming odds, by adopting planned development we have doubled our agricultural production and established and enlarged our industry. We have built a great network of dams and canals, powerhouses and steel mills and machine-building plants. We have increased the area of irrigation by millions of acres. This has involved vast investment and has helped to reduce poverty by providing employment to lakhs of people and providing more food, clothing and better housing.
But the question arises why is it that the plans in India failed to eliminate even degradation, not to speak of removing poverty? This was due to the fact that the planners assumed that the “growth plus” strategy aiming at increase of national income, and supplemented by policies of progressive taxation and public expenditure, would lead to a rise in the level of living of the poor. But the production-oriented approach of planning, without altering the mode of production, resulted in the appropriation of the gains of development by the owners of the instruments of production – the richer class.
No programme for removal of poverty can succeed in an economy plagued by inflation and plagued by inflation and spiraling prices. Inflation, by its very nature, accentuates inequalities, eats into the income of the poor classes and thus leads to deterioration in their economic condition. A poverty eradication programme, therefore, must mop up surpluses with the elite classes (landlords, money-lenders and capitalists). Since the bulk of the surpluses exist in the form of black money, it is necessary to adopt radical measures to unearth black money so that resources are not diverted to luxurious consumption.
The problem is one of providing employment and raising the productivity of low-level employment. In this connection, the basic issue is to make employment the focus of planning; the policies of production have to be woven round this central objective.
Indiscriminate mechanization will result in much smaller increases of employment in comparison with the amount of investment undertaken. The factors proposed by the country’s political leaders and by many academies to lead the country out of stark poverty are: higher investment, improved health and spread of education. But these are in turn influenced by poverty to a great extent and cannot be expected to eradicate it.
Cities are growing at an unprecedented rate in developing countries. Half of the urban growth is due to natural factors and the rest due to migration from the country-side.
The Twelfth Five Year Plan has targeted for more a 8% growth rate.
The deep-rooted and traditional poverty of India poses a colossal problem which cannot be solved by any magic wand. Gradual eradication of poverty has been the aim of five-year plans, but the disparities between the rich and the poor have increased even as the Government sought to bridge the gap.
Attempts to launch “crash plans” against unemployment and poverty have often crashed, and this is a lesson that has to be constantly kept in mind.
Implementation of the various planks of this programme has already made a notable impact on the poor people and has helped to improve their lot. For instance, the very first item – fighting the challenge on the price front by stimulating production and distribution of essential commodities – has brought much relief to people, especially in the lowest income brackets. Similarly, the series of measures to ensure relief to rural people – agriculture laborers, through distribution of surplus land, liquidation of indebtedness, provision of housing sites, ending the barbarous practice of bonded labor, supply of books and essential commodities to poor student, and more employment opportunities through development – all help to relieve poverty. The battle goes on.