To be poor in India

To be poor in India you need, according to the Planning Commission to spend less than 32 Rs a day or 965 Rs a month if you live in a city! The Planning Commission (PC) suggests that spending Rs 5.5 on cereals per day is good enough to keep people healthy. Similarly, a daily spend of Rs 1.02 on pulses, Rs 2.33 on milk and Rs 1.55 on edible oil should be enough to provide adequate nutrition and keep people above the poverty line without the need of subsidized rations from the government. It further suggests that just Rs 1.95 on vegetables a day would be adequate. A bit more, and one might end up outside the social security net. For health you need to spend not more than 39.70 a month and only 99 paise a day on education. What is strange in all the numbers proffered by the PC is that they do not consider habitat as a necessary expenditure for the poor. Wonder where they are supposed to live. No this is not April Fool’s day and not a joke. Spend a penny more and you cannot benefit from welfare scheme, or get the famous below poverty line line (BPL) card! What are we trying to do: show the world that we are not poor?

Even the beggar who sleeps under a bridge spend more than the stipulated 32 rs. But let us get serious. If you are a family of 6 and you spend more than rs 5790 then you are not poor. Let me put this sum that may look large to the uninitiated into context. Ram Bachhan the guard at our women centre has four school going children and a wife thus making them a family of six. He used to work for a company but then got severely ill and lost his job. Till quite recently they were considered poor and had a BPL card. But the card was not renewed for reasons known only to the powers that be. They live in a rented room for which they pay 15oo rs, or 50 rs a day. On any given day they buy at least half a liter of milk for their tea at the cost of 16 rs, 2 kilo of rice at 20 rs a kilo, 20 Rs worth of vegetable per meal that is 40 Rs, 20 rs for pulses, 10 rs worth of flour, let us say that their daily cost on tea, spices, oil etc comes to 20 rs, 20 rs for fuel, and 20 rs for toiletries. All this comes to 238 way above the 32×6=192 stipulated to be poor. This is the bare minimum. It does not include illness, education, shoes, clothes etc. And talking of shoes the Planning Commission stipulates 9.9 rs a month for shoes or less than 120 rs a year. We all know the price of shoes and with 4 growing school going children one does need more than a pair per year! As for health, well if you spend more than 39 rs a month you are not poor! A quack in the slums charges 50 to 100 rs a visit and then there is the cost of medicine. We all know how much medicines cost!

You will agree that the figures are ludicrous. In urban India a cup of tea costs 5 rs and a meal at a road side cart 20rs. So if you have 2 cups of tea and one meal then 32 rs does not take you very far. You will agree that the figures are ludicrous and makes us wonder what goes behind the scene. At best it shows that those who make rules and laws are completely divorced from reality. Maybe the members of the commission should try and live on 32rs a day for a month. One should maybe suggest a new TV reality show in this vein. I wonder whether this is our government new way of saying that we are not that poor, or maybe simply on saving on welfare schemes. All I can say with confidence is that this is outrageous.

Ram Bacchan earns 4000 rs and his wife 1500 rs. You can see by just doing some simple maths that the earnings barely cover their expenses. Forget about saving even though they have two girls that will one day need to be married. The BPL scheme enabled people like Ram Bacchan to survive. Today he is struggling to keep life going. Saving is a word that is not in his dictionary. I wonder what will happen to him when prices rise again. Will a child be withdrawn from school to go to work? That would be terrible as all his children are exceptionally bright and doing very well in their studies and could if given a chance aim for a better future.

One never grudges the extra taxes imposed on us for welfare schemes. I suppose no one grudges such schemes as long as they reach the beneficiary but alas that is not the case. For a government that professes to be pro poor such statistics are out of sync. By no means would you call Ram Bacchan and his family ‘rich’. One would not resent it if they received any aid. Actually one would welcome it as it could possibly ensure that his children manage to break the cycle of poverty and maybe become teachers or IT professionals. They have the wherewithal to aspire to this. His daughters often top their classes. But he has lost his BPL card and looking at his expenditure he now does qualify as poor.

There are many like him and I hope that civil society that finds its voice to espouse causes dear to it – we saw it recently during the Hazare campaign – will rise to defend the voiceless poor. We at pwhy intend to take up Ram Bacchan’s case by filing an RTI to find out why he was denied renewal of his BPL card. We plan to do this as a project with the senior children of the women centre so that they can learn to be active and good citizens. Will keep everyone posted.