Persistent deprivation

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST


The failure to provide the people of India with adequate food, clothing, shelter and the basic means of self-fulfilment constitutes undoubtedly the most serious failure of public policy in independent India.

WHEN India became independent in 1947, the most conspicuous feature of the Indian economy was that hundreds of millions of India's people lived in conditions of appalling deprivation - in conditions of hunger, ill-health and avoidable disease, illiteracy and homelessness and subject to different forms of class, caste and gender oppression. Fifty years later, despite the substantial progress made in many fields, that fact remains unchanged. The failure to provide the people of India with adequate food, clothing, shelter and the basic means of self-fulfilment constitutes undoubtedly the most serious failure of public policy in independent India, and is perhaps one of the most tragic failure-stories of public policy in the post-War world.

IN a society where poverty is so pervasive and visible, it is not surprising that social scientists, particularly economists, set themselves early on the task of trying to understand the nature and extent of poverty and social deprivation - of trying to capture, by means of economic-statistical indices, the orders of magnitude of this terrible social problem.

The most widely-used measure of poverty in India, and the one that still dominates government policy and consequent public debate, is the "head-count ratio". This is a measure of income-poverty and measures the proportion of the population below a level of income defined as a "poverty line". The poverty line in India is measured by taking the income (separately for rural and urban areas) necessary to buy a rudimentary food-basket, a basket that, when consumed, yields a minimum level of calories. A poverty line thus defined, then, is something of a destitution line, since it takes into account only the expenditure required for food for subsistence, leaving out other components of the range of goods and services - housing, clothing, education and health services - needed for a decent living.

The head-count ratio is computed on the basis of National Sample Survey (NSS) data on consumption expenditure; people with an income below the poverty line are "poor" and the proportion of the poor to the aggregate population is the head-count ratio.

The inadequacies of an income-measure of poverty are apparent enough. Quite apart from the problem of determining the level of income that should constitute poverty, an income measure does not capture many important features of economic and social deprivation. A recent measure of economic and social deprivation, and one that has received much international attention, is the "human development index" (HDI) proposed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is a composite index; it seeks to combine data on three features of the quality of life - adequate levels of income, good health and education - into a single index. Operationally, income levels are measured with reference to an international income-poverty norm; access to health is measured in terms of average longevity, or the expectation of life at birth; and access to education and learning is measured by means of a composite index that uses data on average levels of literacy in a society and the average number of years of schooling that that society provides its citizens.

BY all these measures, India fares badly indeed - by international standards and, more important, in terms of the actual levels of living of its people. Public expenditure in India on health, education and social services has been low by international standards. Traditional fault-lines of social deprivation - based on class, caste and gender - continue to characterise patterns of social deprivation.

The number of people below the poverty line was 305.87 million in 1987-88 and 314.66 million in 1993-94; the number of poor thus increased by an average of 1.76 million a year in the most recent period for which there are comparable NSS data. As the accompanying piece on income-poverty shows, trends in the head-count ratio in the 1990s were very disturbing.

Life expectancy at birth has risen substantially in independent India. From 35.5 years for men and 35.7 years for women in 1951-61, it rose to 61.1 years for men and 61.4 years for women in 1994. Internationally, however, other countries have done better than India in this respect (see accompanying piece). In terms of general health provisioning - for instance, access to health facilities, particularly in rural India, and combating infectious disease - India has still far to go.

A boy on his way to night school, a 1967 photograph.

The problem of educational deprivation in India is critical. India faces the prospect of entering the 21st century with nearly half its population (and more than 60 per cent of its women) illiterate. The number of children in India of primary school age (that is, between 6 and 11 years) who were not in school was estimated to be 78 million in 1995. India is also home to the world's largest child labour force. There is no general law of compulsory school education in India; in the one State in which a forward-looking law for compulsory primary school education has been passed, Tamil Nadu, the law remains to be implemented.

WHILE this is the situation in the country as a whole, the achievement of the people of Kerala show that the well-being of the people can be improved, and social, political and cultural conditions transformed, even at low levels of income, when there is appropriate public action. In Kerala, the action of mass organisations and mass movements against social, political and economic oppression and the policy actions of governments have been the most important components of public action.

There has been a progressive transformation in Kerala of the health and demographic conditions characteristic of less-developed societies, and the State is far ahead of the rest of India in respect of these conditions. In 1990-92, the expectation of life at birth of males was 68.8 years, against an Indian average of 59.0 years, and the expectation of life at birth of females was 74.4 years, against an Indian average of 59.4 years. The birth rate in Kerala was 18.5 per thousand, against an Indian average of 29.5 per thousand. The death rate was 6.1 per thousand against an Indian average of 9.8 per thousand. The infant mortality rate was 17 per thousand against an Indian average of 79 per thousand. There were 1,040 females per thousand males in Kerala's population, against an Indian average of 927. The public food-distribution system, the best among India's States, gives basic nutritional support to the people of Kerala.

The people of Kerala have altered radically the system of agrarian relations that existed at the time of Independence (as have the people of West Bengal), and have won important victories against some of the worst forms of caste oppression that existed in the country.

Public action in recent decades has narrowed the gap in health and educational facilities and achievements between the districts of the north and the districts of the south, a gap that widened during the period of colonial rule.

With regard to the proportions of persons in the population who are literate, Kerala and the other States of India are in different leagues. In 1991, 95 per cent of males and 87 per cent of females above the age of seven were literate; the corresponding all-India figures were 52 per cent and 39 per cent. NSS data from 1986-87 on age-specific literacy show very high rates of literacy in the younger age-groups, over 97 per cent each among males and females in each age-group between 6 years and 24 years, in rural and urban areas. In every age-group below 34 years, even the rural female literacy rate in Kerala is higher than the urban male literacy rate in India as a whole.

Kerala's achievements were possible because of mass literacy and because traditional patterns of gender, caste and class dominance were transformed radically. In the conditions of contemporary India, it is worth remembering that public action, and not policies of globalisation and liberalisation, was the locomotive of Kerala's progress.

IN contemporary India, the solution that has been proposed to India's historic problems of economic backwardness is the economic reform initiated in 1991 by the Congress Government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao and associated with the name of his Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. In essence, the reform consists of the policy package of "stabilisation" and "structural adjustment" policies advocated for less-developed countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

What do these policies mean for the poor? Economic theory and the recent economic history of countries where IMF-World Bank-style policy packages have been implemented show quite unambiguously that the package contains policy devices that work in a variety of ways to the detriment of the working people, the poor and propertyless. Here are some of the ways in which the package works against them:

Reducing and "streamlining" public expenditure

State support to a range of schemes for public provisioning, which are considered wasteful "subsidies", is cut back or cancelled. Systems of public food-distribution and rationing, income-support programmes, school-lunch schemes, and housing schemes, for instance, are downscaled or cut back. A restrictive monetary policy pushes up interest rates and pushes down output, creating high-interest, low-investment conditions that are good for speculators, but which restrict new employment opportunities for the people.

Exchange rate depreciation

When exchange rates depreciate, the prices of tradable goods rise, food prices rise, and the real wages of the working people fall.

Deregulating the labour market

Structural adjustment seeks systematically to weigh industrial relations in favour of employers. "Deregulating" the labour market means giving employers freedom to set the conditions of employment, to remove minimum wage legislation, and to abolish or undermine other protective labour legislation, including laws relating to living standards and trade union laws. Thus, deregulating the labour market can lead to a loss of jobs, a fall in real wages, and worse conditions of work. An important feature of structural adjustment is the "informalisation" of the work force: organised workers face the prospect of reduced trade union rights and other entitlements, and an increasing proportion of new entrants in the work force are informal workers, with little or no legal protection of their rights as workers.

Removing price controls

Privatisation has major consequences for the poor. When private owners take over public assets, workers lose jobs. Privatisation worsens patterns of income-distribution in a society by handing over public assets to the rich. By making public services private and permitting private owners to earn profits from what should be public facilities, privatisation cuts off easy public access to a wide range of services and needs, such as health, education and transport.

Obstructing and reversing land reform

Under structural adjustment, corporations attempt to gain rights to control land and rural wealth. Governments are urged to repeal land ceiling laws and other laws that seek to control the size of land holdings, and to allow corporations unrestricted rights to own land and control the countryside.

IF the next 50 years are to see genuine economic development and an expansion of social opportunity for the people, there must be public action - from below and above - against the class differentiation and agrarian backwardness and the forms of caste oppression and gender discrimination that continue to characterise Indian society today. India's path, as Prabhat Patnaik wrote in a recent issue of this magazine, must be that of growth through social justice.

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