Panacea beyond the market

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Saturday 15 April 2006

-- Chronic Poverty and Development Policy in India Edited by Aasha Kapur Mehta and Andrew Shepherd Sage Publications New Delhi 2006

It is dead urgent. India's escape from the pulls of poverty needs an escape velocity similar to that of a rocket that puts satellite in outer space defying earth's gravitational force. Around 50 per cent of India's 260 million poor suffer chronic poverty. This section may not be able to extricate themselves from the tentacles of poverty, if not urgently aided by new policies. With a rocket scientist as its president and an economist as the prime minister, India does have the requisite people at the helm to change the state of affairs. At least on paper. But checking chronic poverty is not mere paper work.

The phenomenon is fast emerging as one of the biggest challenges confronting the country. And, since India has the largest number of poor in the world, chronic poverty in the country may well have global ramifications. Experts believe that the phenomenon could thwart the accomplishment of the millennium development goals related to poverty eradication.

So, it's not surprising that chronic poverty has emerged as a new concept in analyses of poverty. The book under review also uses this concept. The study is a major change from earlier analyses of poverty, which tended to look at the poor as an undifferentiated mass. The flaw was not just academic: it impinged on anti-poverty programmes in the country as well. Consider this: the central government spent Rs 53,630 million for rural development in 1980-1985, the tenth five-year plan's outlay for the same purpose is Rs 767,740 million. So, while money pumped on rural development has gone up by 1,500 per cent in 20 years, rural poverty shows no sign of abating. It's chronic. As the Chronic Poverty Development Report 2004-2005 -- released by the uk- based Chronic Poverty Research Center--warns, "Some poverty passes from one generation to another, as if the offspring sucks it from the mother's breast".

Experts' nightmare Chronic poverty is difficult to understand because it's actually caused by a tangle of multiple factors. Income-related causes are insufficient to account for the phenomenon. The editors of this volume are well aware of this. For them poverty is not merely a function of income but also access to land and credit, health amenities, education, water and sanitation, as well as other infrastructural facilities. They then make the following points.

The chronic poor have a right to benefit from growth and development.

Chronic poverty in India will almost surely affect the attainment of human development goals in the rest of the world.

Once poverty in general has been arrested through processes of economc growth and social development, it will be become much harder to deal with chronic poverty.

The chronic poor would have less to lose by engaging in conflict, and therefore would be easily mobilised those who engage in the politics of violence.

If the poverty of the poorest is not addressed soon, it will become much more intractable later.

All this might seem a bunch of repetitions, but they are timely given the overwhelming reliance on economic growth and free market as the antidote to poverty.

The papers in the volume were prepared over a period of three years at the initiative of the Chronic Poverty Research Center and a few premier research institutions in India. The compilation touches almost all aspects of chronic poverty in India starting from quantification of chronic poor to policy level discussions on chronic poverty. There is also a chapter on the perspectives of major political parties regarding chronic poor.

The compilation is a wake-up call for policy-makers. Whether they pay heed to it or not is another matter.

Richard Mahapatra is coordinator, Bank Information Centre's South Asia region

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