Why Do We Tolerate Poverty? Part 2

Gurcharan Das puts his finger on a question which Jeevika sees as vital to the whole issue of addressing Indian poverty, especially rural poverty – what is the correct role for, and expectations of, the State? Unfortunately the legacy of Nehruvian socialism still lingers on, with its implicit expectation that the state provide not only a framework for delivery of individual and community livelihoods, but also the delivery itself.

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The State – including increasingly, as Professor Sen points out, regional state governments, – should concentrate first on what only the State can do: as Das puts it 

Prosperity is indeed spreading, but it is happening amid appalling governance. Indians despair over the delivery of the simplest public services. Where the state is desperately needed—in providing law and order, education, health and drinking water—it performs poorly. Where it is not needed, it is hyperactive, tying people in miles of red tape.

As to the way forward, Professor Sen disappointingly, in his essay on tolerating poverty, concludes only that ‘there is work to be done’: we are left to infer that someone somewhere needs to persuade the Indian media to tackle its caste-based bias and better discharge its responsibility to educate its public about the symptoms and causes of India’s poverty.

Meanwhile at village level there is indeed real work to be done: at the interface with village communities, the role of the state needs to be radically redefined to synergise with the energy, compassion and ‘grass roots’ versatility of the thousands of proven NGOs active in rural India and the disciplines, technologies and enterprise of a much better engaged business sector. The BJP will now be free from the constraints of its coalition last time round, to deliver on both its pro-business mandate, and its signals to the rural poor.

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A symposium on ‘The Dilemma for Rural India’ organised by Jeevika last December at Wolfson College, Oxford (*) confronted the question – who is accountable for the historic and continuing failures to build expanding livelihoods and prosperity in village India in a way which might counter massive unplanned urbanisation?

The State is normally blamed for these failures, but are expectations of the State to both plan (e.g. the National Rural Livelihood Mission) and to deliver not misconceived? As between the three sectors – state, private and voluntary – where should poor village communities expect more effective help to come from? A properly functioning synergy between the three sectors has been missing.

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Jeevika advocated an improved ‘Tri-sector model’ for rural development, based on Schumacher’s thinking, under which a different synergy between government, business and NGOs at the interface with local communities can deliver sustainable village prosperity; they suggested that the poor track record of completed development projects based on such a synergy needs to be better understood and learned from, and the model given higher political and media debate.

To leave the last word with Gurcharan Das: In the end, India’s story is one of private success and public failure.

(*) The Dilemma for Rural India: urbanisation of village prosperity?’

organised by Jeevika and the Programme for Contemporary South Asian Studies: for papers relating to the symposium please visit the ‘Open ForumUsername indiasymposium13@gmail.com Password jeevika@hampton

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Why Do We Tolerate Poverty?

Why do we Tolerate Poverty? asks Amartya Sen: is it a failure of information, of hope, or of compassion?

Prospect magazine carries an article in this month’s issue entitled ‘Why do we Tolerate Poverty?’ by the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen. This essay echoes the book ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its contradictions’ published by Professor Sen and Jean Dreze last year, which is instructively reviewed by Gurcharan Das for the Wall Street Journal and by The Economist.

Sen’s analysis focuses on India – its unique scale of poverty and its public attitude to such poverty, – with some invidious sideways glances at China. He argues that the most convincing explanation for the apparent ‘tolerance of the intolerable’ by Indian electors is public ignorance – rather than either a conviction that poverty is irremediable or a failure of human compassion and moral sentiment. And he goes on to blame the failure of India’s media to ‘inform public reasoning’ about the reality of the country’s poverty, due to ‘hardened social stratifications of caste, class and gender’.

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Many would rather blame a failure of middle-class social conscience, arguably due to those same stratifications – or as The Economist puts it:

a ruling elite defined by caste, but also by gender, education and income, has an utter lack of interest—verging on contempt—in improving matters for the rest. Newspaper editors and readers, judges, NGO activists and academics are also drawn largely from privileged backgrounds, and care little.

Others who, like Jeevika Trust and its NGO partners, are active in rural India would say that ‘Indian poverty’ is not a single static thing, that Indian attitudes to slum poverty in exploding metro-cities and provincial towns, and to grinding deprivation in the age-old hinterland of village India, need very different explanations. Massive unplanned urban migration is changing the face of India, impoverishing both the city margins and the villages, but in very different ways.

women workers india

As authors of ‘An Uncertain Glory’, Messrs Sen and Dreze were closely involved (Mr Dreze being a member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council), in the Indian Congress government’s economic change of tack after surviving the 2008 recession: it embarked on a programme to more directly address rural poverty through such moves as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and more recently the Food Security Act, at huge cost to the state, while simultaneously de-emphasising programmes to stimulate and facilitate business enterprise and active job creation. Congress has now had its chance, and it has failed village India.

Professor Sen’s historic association with evolution of the Human Development Index as an economic measure, and with ‘human capability advancement’ via education, health-care, better nutrition and other measures of human well-being, are very much in line with what E.F.Schumacher – a co-founder of Jeevika Trust – called ‘economics as if people mattered’. As such Jeevika’s work for the building of village livelihood in India is shaped by the same instincts as those which drive Professor Sen.

However, as Gurcharan Das comments in his review

it is difficult to understand why Messrs. Sen and Drèze in particular insist that only the state directly deliver food and employment through its bureaucratic machinery ……… Instead of “make work” schemes, why not create sustainable opportunities for employment creation by eliminating regulation and other impediments? ……

This is the first of a two part analysis of India’s response to poverty at home.  The second part will be published later this week.

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[To be continued in Part II].

Life for the World’s Biggest Democracy

This is the fifth week India’s 814.5 million voters  (the worlds biggest democracy) are at the polls in a 6 week long general election. The results will arguably be swung by who can inspire the youth as half the population are under 24.  The youth are pressing for a change from successive governments failure to improve life conditions despite burgeoning economic growth.

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As it stands there has been rapid, chaotic change, with 20% of the population moving to urban zones in less than a decade. Whilst malnutrition rates in children have marginally improved since the 2009 election, in Mumbai the ratio of toilets versus population is infamously 1:30.

At Jeevika Trust we work with the most disadvantaged people in village India to slow urban drift and tackle the roots of poverty. As a small charity we can avoid expensive bureaucracy to instigate effective solutions in health & nutrition, water & sanitation, and livelihood to encourage the growth of self reliance. At our 2013 symposium at Oxford University we hosted influential multi-disciplinary experts to debate and engage with future solutions.

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The changing life conditions the media and the people are concerned with are primarily inflation in food prices and corruption. The populist pledge of the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party to have more urban planning is largely useless without a complementary rural livelihood development plan.

Despite the rhetoric of the British government that aid is no longer necessary, India is still a developing country. The New Delhi professor of economics Jyati Ghosh cites growing inequalities and a lack of job creation contributing to

failures of the development project so far: the persistence of widespread hunger and very poor nutrition indicators; the inadequate provision of basic needs like housing, electricity and other essential infrastructure; the poor state of health facilities for most people; and the slow expansion of education.

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Whatever the elections outcome, India’s people will continue to desperately need the Indian government, the business sector and international NGO’s to work together the help people on the path to self reliance.

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