The New FORTUNE List
The Planning Commission has set the poverty line at Rs 20 a day. Earn more than that and you are not poor. Oh, and if you live in a village, don’t earn more than Rs 15. The ‘Rich’ Indians Respond
ONE SUMMER, a Bengaluru NGO organised a brutally rigged activity called the Monsoon Game for a bunch of affluent college students. They arbitrarily grouped students into families assigning them castes, jobs and landholdings. In each round of the game a moderator —God — announced life-altering events such as failed crops, bad monsoons or new government schemes. In the first few rounds, the students giggled as if it was Monopoly. An hour later, sunshine faded and the classroom took on a grim, Battle Royale cast. Most families realised that despite their ingenuity they’d die of starvation. All except the one family with the zamindar card. For many, it was the first time they had encountered a situation they couldn’t control with the much-touted middleclass mantras of ‘hard work’ and ‘positive thinking’. The game ended in tears, rage. And some epiphanies about life in India.
This week, the government proposed an astonishingly flawed Food Security Act that will provide subsidised grains only to those who earn less than Rs 20 a day (if you live in a city and less than Rs 15 a day if you live in a village). If wishes were consciousness- raising games, we’d send our ministers to play the Monsoon Game and cry in a dark classroom. The game is certainly less arbitrary than the Tendulkar Committee that set this poverty line.
In India, every welfare scheme is linked to the term BPL — below poverty line. Governments and economists of different persuasions argue intensely over this, juggling different statistical models to back their claims. (Surjit Bhalla, for instance, claims only 13 percent of India is poor, though even a layman’s smell test would tell you he is way off track in his optimism). The reason the poverty line matters so much is because it determines how many Indian can claim welfare, which, in turn, determines the fiscal burden the State will have to bear.
But for the poor, the BPL is not some statistical term: it is a lifeline. So can we really allow the BPL to be fixed at Rs 20 a day? Rs 20 a day? The money middle-class India finds under undusted sofas is somehow supposed to feed whole families? The mind slides past these figures in embarrassed shock. We are not alone in our shock. When TEHELKA spoke to some of India’s poorest, they responded with silence and laughter: The government thinks we are not poor enough? We?
The government says it can’t afford to feed everyone – hence the manipulations with the BPL. Many economists and activists disagree. Economists Pravin Jha and Nilachal Acharya have estimated that if rice/wheat were made available to 200 million households in India at Rs 3 a kilo, it would add Rs 84,399 crore to the Budget. Not a huge cost to ensure India does not starve: just the price of two Commonwealth Games. Economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khare argue the subsidy would cost even less if one, we don’t ship all our grains from Punjab and Haryana to distant states and two, if we include local grains such as bajra and ragi in the PDS. But a lack of imagination plagues our planners.
For those TEHELKA spoke to, the rickshaw-puller, farmer, waste-picker and others, bitterness came later in the conversation — after the shock passed. The precariousness of their lives is held at bay by dignity, hard work, generosity to those even poorer, loyalty to family, resilience and faith. All to be frayed again by those who have never known what it is like to be hungry.