The poverty of fiction

Print edition : March 12, 2004

An undernourished boy at a rural hospital in Nandurbar district, Maharashtra. - AP

ONE sector - among hundreds - where India has become a `Global Player' in the shining years is Modern Indian Fiction.

Now I happen to be the world's leading authority on Modern Indian Fiction - I read more Government of India reports than anyone else. (I am even an avid collector of Press Information Bureau press releases.) We are talking truly creative writing here. I love their mastery in understatement. Like when: "The said amount was not used for the desired purpose" simply means that somebody has run away to Switzerland with 20 million dollars of your money. But it is on poverty that they outdo themselves.

Take Dharavi in Mumbai. Billed as Asia's largest slum, it is home to maybe a million human beings. In official reckoning, there are almost no poor people here. As of September 2003, there were only 128 Below Poverty Line ration cards serving just 740 people in this giant slum.

My favourite poverty story, though, goes back to 1995-96. (We had only just begun to shine.) The government was circulating - in the same period - two dramatically different poverty figures. At the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, the government wailed that 39.9 per cent of our population was below the poverty line. Over there, bowl in hand, we had to beg.

Over here, with elections around the corner, we had to brag. A classic front-page story appeared in a leading business newspaper. In this report, "highly placed officials", who modestly chose to remain anonymous, revealed that "poverty had dropped sharply to the lowest levels ever". As low as 19.5 per cent. Here were highly placed officials seeking anonymity for such glad tidings. Rather like Einstein seeking anonymity for the Theory of Relativity. Or perhaps the bureaucrats and economists of the time were still possessed of some sense of shame. If so, they have shed it pretty thoroughly since then. Today, many would vie to have their names on such a report.

But while poverty fell on paper, P.V. Narasimha Rao really did in the elections. Madhu Dandavate became Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and called an end to the farce. In a matter of hours - officially - poverty shot up from 19.5 per cent to 39.9 per cent. The delegation to Copenhagen got the numbers it had demanded. Narasimha Rao was supplied with the numbers he demanded. Dandavate was supplied with the corrections he demanded. I think I am starting to get the hang of this demand and supply thing economists talk about.

The percentages game is not only going to be inconclusive, it will also be more than a bit misleading while India persists with one of the worst definitions of poverty anywhere. In 1993, an Expert Group set up by the Planning Commission itself had scathing comments to make on the poverty line. Among them that it "ignored structural inequalities and other factors which sustain, generate and reproduce poverty".

It also does not "take into account items of social consumption such as basic education and health, drinking water supply, sanitation... etc." Nor does it capture "important aspects of poverty... ill-health, low educational attainments, geographical isolation, ineffective access to law, powerlessness in civil society and/or gender-based disadvantages."

Those are just a few of its problems. (The rest require another story.)

To this, we added in the Shining Years a set of methodological fiddles that further debased the measurement of poverty. As Prof. Jayati Ghosh writes: "In the National Sample Surveys, a change in survey reference periods led to much lower reported inequality. As a result, although nine surveys from 1989-90 to 1998 had shown no poverty reduction, the 1999-00 survey reported 10 percentage points reduction in the poverty ratio!"

Still, even accepting all the failures and fudging what are we left with? With an official admission that 260 million Indians still go to sleep hungry every night. If taken as a nation, they would be the fourth largest in the world.

All the shine we work up will not conceal that darkness.

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