New leader, old challenge

India’s first PM born after Independence will face the old problem of poverty eradication

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

India’s first PM born after Independence will face the old problem of poverty eradication


India may have its first post-Independence-born prime minister this June. But what difference would it make in terms of the country’s development agenda? How will the new prime minister face the challenges that have been there since before Independence? Or, what are the developmental challenges the new prime minister may find difficult to address? Arguably, as the agendas of political parties since the first general election in 1951-52 show, environment and development have been the most consistent electoral issues. And the axis of this debate is eradication of poverty.

Leaders of key political parties never fail to visit the country’s poverty pockets, like Vidarbha or Bundelkhand, during elections. It is not a coincidence that despite a fast decline in poverty across the country, these areas still have acute poverty. But no political leader has asked why. Everybody promises to treat the problem with the same government programmes and machinery. Take the case of Kalahandi in Odisha. Starting from the late prime minister Indira Gandhi to her grandson Rahul Gandhi, who currently leads the Congress’ campaign, leaders have been visiting this impoverished region. Indira gave the “garibi hatao” slogan in this district. Recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi also visited the district and pitched for poverty eradication—of course, through his “Gujarat model” of development. For six decades Kalahandi has voted on the issue of poverty eradication.

More than anything else, the post-Independence-born prime minister will inherit the challenge of poverty that has become chronic in India, particularly in the areas mentioned above, despite decades of focused development. A person is a victim of chronic poverty when he/she has to spend his/her life in poverty and there is a high probability that poverty might be “transmitted” to the next generation.

A recent report of the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN), an association of researchers, economists and policy makers of 15 developing countries that monitor and study extreme poverty across the world, says that the new push to attain global “zero poverty” status by 2030 is not tenable without eradicating chronic poverty, particularly if India does not eliminate this type of poverty. The country hosts a significant number of the chronic poor, close to 50 per cent of the global figure. So, for the new prime minister, it is not only a national responsibility but a global one. It is a challenge not just in terms of the enormity of the problem, but also in terms of understanding the decades old scourge. India suffers from a gross misunderstanding of the character of poverty that cripples close to 300 million of its people. Government treats it as simple income poverty. But the poor see it as a multi-dimensional problem, centred around access to natural resources like land and water. In simple terms, it is ecological poverty for the poor. This disconnect results in millions of poor not being able to escape the poverty trap, even though development budget has been rising fast.

The revival of economic growth is being debated intensely by political parties. Both the Congress and the BJP have been pushing for economic growth as the key electoral issue. Since the early 1990s, economic growth has been tossed around as the magic wand to eradicate poverty. It emerges eminently that despite high economic growth, people in certain areas remain poor.

The Chronic Poverty Report–2014 of CPAN finds that economic growth alone cannot eradicate poverty. It compares the poverty reduction efforts of Bangladesh and India. Per capita GDP of Bangladesh is half of that of India, but the country has scored well in social indicators like health, sanitation, education, life expectancy, child mortality and open defecation. This has meant that reduction in extreme poverty in Bangladesh has been faster than in India.

Within India, fast-growing states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and West Bengal have the maximum chronic poor. In fact, the Chronic Poverty Report compares these states’ poverty scenario with that of Nigeria, Rwanda and Sudan. It also says that if poverty is not eradicated in these states, the global deadline to attain zero poverty will not be attainable.

For the new prime minister, who is expected to win on the economic growth agenda, it will be difficult to accept this reality. On the other hand, by not doing so, he/she will perpetuate the misunderstanding of India’s poverty. This only makes the poor poorer.

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