Going by the utterances of the politicians and economists, the poor are meant to be unequal even when it comes down to basic necessities like one square meal a day… While the upwardly mobile classes, the real beneficiaries of what is called “growth,” can aspire to fancier meals in ever-proliferating luxurious restaurants, the poor can aspire only to live and work…
Growing up, I remember seeing young couples munching peanuts, idly walking past the banks of Dhakuria Lake, across the expanse of the open fields, in the heart of Kolkata, as dusk settled in. “Poor man’s romance” ran the wry joke drawing attention to the city’s severe economic plight and the benighted Calcuttan couple’s dwindling purchasing power. Predictably, the city’s peanut-munching, hand-holding subaltern lovers featured in many Bengali films, with Bengals’ joblessness and ubiquitous impoverishment at the heart of the narratives.
Nostalgia hung over that romantic walk through the image of innocent love sustained on a cheap paper packet of peanuts. But nostalgia is undoubtedly not what’s driving our politicians to glorify dirt-cheap meals these days.
Congress spokesmen and Ministers have recently made a spectacle of themselves by claiming the poor could fill themselves with meals costing just 1, 5 or 12 rupees, no more than 20 U.S. cents. The idea here is not to evoke nostalgia of ascetic romance but to bear out the larger economic claims based on the Planning Commission’s recent reports of the dwindling numbers of the poor a phenomenon, according to these politicians, resulting from growth and its trickle-down effect.
Last month, the Planning Commission released figures stating that between 2011 and 2012, only 22 per cent of Indians lived below the poverty line. The controversial assertion was calculated by capping monthly expenditures at 1,000 rupees in urban areas about $16 and 816 rupees in rural areas. This meant that anyone who spent over 33.33 rupees per day in cities or 27.2 rupees in villages could be counted as ‘poor.’ Unsurprisingly, the commission’s numbers have been the subject of contentious debate, with many pointing out that 33 and 27 rupees would not even buy enough food for a person to sustain themselves on a daily basis.
Seen in this context, the statements coming out of the Congress Party were part of a larger attempt to gag “povertarian” critics by underlining the easy availability of cheap meals that the poor can eat in order to survive on their meager wages, which the Government claims are enough to keep them out of the poverty trap. For some policymakers and economists, “povertarianism” is synonymous with socialism and regressive thinking, and they say that by repeatedly emphasising the rising numbers of poor people in India, such thinking seeks to reverse the immense gains of 20 years of economic liberalisation. Those calling for close attention to social inequalities – malnourishment, hunger, the lack of a safety net for the vulnerable are seen as cynics diverting attention from the optimistic narrative of India’s rise as a global player.
True to form, the politicians in question Raj Babbar and Farooq Abdullah have since retracted their statements, expressing regret. By now the “sin atonement” sequence is firmly lodged in the politicians’ daily vocabulary, given that every second day someone or other shoots himself in the foot and then after hell has broken loose “regrets” his callousness. But the retraction of these statements should not make us blind to the larger context from which they emerge, one where we are constantly hammered with the slogan of an Aspirational India, even as its cheerleaders are averse to recognising the persistent (if not growing) levels of inequality in society. Take the case of Narendra Modi, one of the most prominent symbols of Aspirational India. Last year it was revealed that the National Family Health Survey discovered that between 1998/1999 and 2005/2006, the percentage of underweight children in Gujarat had increased to 47 per cent. When The Wall Street Journal asked Mr. Modi about these numbers, the chief Minister blamed Gujarati’s middle class girls for being more interested in beauty than health.
“If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, ‘I won’t drink milk, I’ll get fat,’” The chief Minister said. Nor is this problem unique to Gujarat. According to UNICEF, around 46 per cent of Indian children below 3 years of age are “too small for their age”, while 16 per cent are “wasted”. These are not figures that feature in the narrative about optimistic India.
The recent spat between the economists Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya and Amartya Sen is essentially about these divergent approaches to the India story. Caught in a debate that has unfairly juxtaposed growth to welfare, Amartya Sen has become the common point of attack for all those who have sharpened their swords against “povertarianism” over the years. In an increasingly incoherent war of words, Sen has been taken to task for personifying everything that Aspirational India fears and loathes – from communism and welfare to personal relationships with ‘foreign’ women. But the anxiety around Amartya Sen’s focus on issues like welfare is illustrative of a broader problem afflicting Indian policymakers. Like those who talk about cheap meals for the poor, anti-povertarians who swear by the Aspirational India credo are the ones who think that 1 rupee meal can be an index of poverty alleviation, and that the poor can survive on scraps of food.
It would appear that even aspirations are not about equal access to better things in life. Going by the utterances of the politicians and economists, the poor are meant to be unequal even when it comes down to basic necessities like one square meal a day. The poor can only aspire to survive; no 5-rupee peanut romance for them. Not that even a hand-to-mouth raw existence is possible in 1, 5 or 12 rupees. While the upwardly mobile classes, the real beneficiaries of what is called “growth,” can aspire to fancier meals in ever-proliferating luxurious restaurants, the poor can aspire only to live and work.
Last year in the United States, Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., did a food stamp experiment. He lived on a $4-a-day food budget for a week to show how deprived food stamp recipients are. “We have much work to do at the local level to address a legacy of structural inequities in the American food system,” Mr. Booker wrote in his challenge announcement on LinkedIn. “As more and more working people and families – many holding down more than one job – face greater and greater challenges to juggle housing, medical, and transportation costs, meeting nutritional needs becomes a serious problem and a social justice issue.”
Contrast this with Mr. Abdullah’s words: “If you want, you can fill your stomach for 1 rupee or 100 rupees, depending on what you want to eat.” One wonders what Mr Abdullah wants to eat. Perhaps cake.