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India The Art Of Remaining Poor


Apr 3, 2005

During the election campaigning in Bihar in October this year Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the Indian National Congress proudly claimed, "Aapki Congress party gareebon ki party hai, aapki party hai." ["Your Congress party is the party of the poor, your party."]

After 63 years of an independence that was hard fought, such a statement made with a sense of pride seemed pathetic to me.

While it mirrors the reality we live in, it demonstrates the 63 years of deliberate, orchestrated and cruel deprivation of a sixth of the world's population. It reeks of the sheer apathy and shamelessness of those that the man and woman on the street look upon as redeemers. It talks of the thick skin all of us have developed… our leaders, administrators, planners, implementers and benefactors. Otherwise, someone in the crowd should have stood up and hurled a chappal in utter disgust. Or some editor would have used the pen [or keyboard] to prise open some very bare and basic

But we continue to gather in large 'maidans' to listen to such spells being cast upon us, take our five rupees, get on to the truck and go back home. Either comfortable numb, or still in hope that the man on the stage does understand our plight and will redeem us.

I do not know about other nations and am not really bothered about them, but India has perfected the art of remaining poor.

Poverty is the lifeline of this country. It helps devise plan after plan, helps justify the government juggernaut, helps call elections and find the electorate, helps the rich and ruling class get richer. The poor are very important for our very existence and the fabric of our democracy.

Even after 63 years we do not have an agreement on how to define 'poverty' and thereby determine how many are poor. In 2005, the World Bank said 40% were below the poverty line, while our Planning Commission put it at 27%. And the Arjun Sengupta report said it was actually 70%. Anyway, to put things in perspective, the World Bank defines the poverty line at an income below Rs.21.60 per day in the urban areas [a 500 ml. bottle of Pepsi] and at Rs.14.30 per day in the rural areas.

Around 421 million people in the eight states of UP, MP, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are below the poverty line. We proudly are the largest democracy with a third of the world's poor.

According to a report on Asian economic powers, in 1947 India's per capita income was at $439 while South Korea stood at $770. In 50 years India stood at $1,818 and South Korea at $13,317! So, what went wrong with us? What stunted our development and prosperity? Our population? The British rule? The multi-party democracy? The world powers conspiring against us? The 'socialist' operating principles? Over reliance on agriculture? Faulty planning? What, exactly what?

Nothing. Actually nothing went wrong. Everything is according to plan. Right from
the time Mr. Nehru justified that some of the poorest parts of country were the ones
ruled longest by the British and systematically de-industrialised in the 190 years of
subjugation, we have planned for poverty as integral to our socio-economic-political

We have used 'socialism' as a term under which we have perpetrated protectionism,
patronage and favouritism.

We have created large public enterprises and then deliberately made them inefficient
to meet specific needs.

We had built a 'license raj' to favour a few rich at the cost of encouraging enterprise
and equitable development across the country.

We have ensured little pockets of industrialisation to ensure concentration of wealth
and power. Thereby corruption, greed and moral decay.

We have not invested in sustainable farming to cater to a few enterprises and move
people forcibly into cash cropping, thereby making them slaves of the public food
distribution system.

We let food grain rot in the open but have not built food transportation and storage
systems across the country, to allow regular import of food grain.
We encourage large-scale migration of villagers into cities to create industrial slums
and a labour force for daily menial work.

We consciously have not helped preserve the lifestyles of our tribals and helped them
sustain to allow large industrial enterprises to 'redeem' them through polluting

We spend less than 0.5% of our GDP on agriculture and less than 5% on education.
We allow more than 200,000 farmers in debt due to failed cash crops to commit
suicide but will not create enablers to sustainable rural living. In fact in 2010 alone
close to 900 suicides have taken place in Baramati while the government spends
Rs.25 crores after a terrorist called Ajmal Kasab.

We conjure up programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment
Generation Act that make millions of villagers slaves of projects that are alien to them
and displace them rather than help them lead improve upon what they do best —
farming, animal husbandry, dairy and handicrafts [sorry M/s Dreze, Sen and Stern].
We divert attention from decades of utter neglect of the traditionally poorer zones in
the country to branding acts of socio-economic rebellion as 'anti-national' [not that I
justify the actions of the Maoists in killing innocent people, policemen and blowing
up trains].

We talk of adding close to 40 million every year to the "grand Indian middle class",
but do not talk about the fact that a family's food intake reduced by 100 kgs per year
in one decade in 2007.

We talk of overtaking this economy and that economy and having some of the highest
number of billionaires, but our Human Development Index is one of the worst ever,
we have world's highest number of malnourished people and around 40% of our
children below 5 years of age are underweight.

We are systematically working towards the collapse of the villages to ensure mass
scale migration and creation of an urban poor populace that will crave for jobs, food
and shelter. And give you votes against promises of redemption.

If you just sit back and take an unemotional, detached look at the economics of
poverty in our country, you will realise that it is not the cause but the outcome.
The poverty indices are not a cause of embarrassment but are actually desired. They
are part of a greater plan. The poor are needed — for the middle class, the ruling class,
the earning class and the world-class. They are the means to an end. They are a
'necessary and sufficient condition', as an economist would say, for India to progress.
Otherwise, nobody can justify the condition more than 400 million of us are in after
63 years of self-determination. Mr. Gandhi would have felt ashamed thinking of those
words, leave alone gallantly using them, not once but 16 times while doing the rounds
of Bihar!

We are truly unique in many ways.
The art of remaining poor is one such way.

Avik Chattopadhyay is CEO, India, Saffron Brand Consultants, an automotive junkie and calls himself a 'greenhorn' of brand consulting


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