Saturday, April 30, 2005

[Asia] Poverty on the wane?

Liberalisation of the Indian economy began more than a decade ago. But the number of poor people only seems to be increasing. Why?
by Dilip D'Souza
India's National Newspaper

THE one significant impression from two recent 24-hour journeys in second-class trains in India? Poverty.

I was simply stunned at the number and variety of people who streamed through asking for coins. Or who did so at the stations. Or who were obviously destitute even if they did not beg. Blind couples; man on his behind with a leg draped around his neck and bag of grapes hanging from his toes; young girls singing tunelessly; boys and men and women sweeping the compartment, some with the shirts off their backs; filthy mothers with a seemingly lifeless kid lolling in their arms; a silent bearded midget; men without one or more limbs, on crutches; eunuchs; teenager who picked up watermelon rinds from under the train and ate them; a smiling old man who asked for money in Tamil, then English, then Tamil again ... From early in the morning, all through the day, well into the night. On and on.

So many poor

I've travelled second-class for over 35 years, short and long journeys in every part of the country. For what it tells you about India, this is by far the best way to travel. But I have never seen so many beggars, so much poverty.

And circa 2005, that too tells me something about India. We are a decade-and-a-half into reforms and the tearing down of socialism that, we hear, is addressing India's problem of poverty in the most efficient way possible. Proponents of the process will quote any number of figures to persuade us that poverty is on the wane. But then I do this second-class journey, and I am fumbling for answers. Why can't I see this decrease in poverty? Why, in the years that I've been aware of realities in India, have I not sensed a perceptible drop in the number of poor people? On this one journey, why did I see more beggars than on any previous trip?

Anecdotal evidence, the proponents will say, smiling superciliously. Anecdotal evidence doesn't count! Look at the numbers! Then you will understand: moving to free markets is bringing more people out of poverty faster than anything else has ever before. It's a proven fact that free markets are the only mechanism to truly tackle poverty. So just give it some time. Surely you don't expect poverty to vanish overnight?

No. Yet the reforms have been in place 15 years. That's over a third of our socialist period, from 1947 till liberalisation began. Hardly overnight. By any standards, if hordes of people have escaped poverty through 15 years, I should see fewer poor people around me. Not on this trip.

Consider: let's say I've been piling my trash in my compound for a year. Let's say I've ignored the society's pleas to clean the horrible mess.

But today, I tell them I'm finally going to clean up. A huge job, but I get going. I regularly show the Chairman the number of truckloads of dirt I've carted from our compound to the city dump.

Four months into this — a third of the year that I dumped garbage in the compound — should he expect that the trash has visibly diminished? And if not — if instead it seems to him just as large or larger — he might just think, if this guy is doing anything, he's doing it wrong. Then would it make sense to smile superciliously at him? Tell him that his fears about the pile are just anecdotal evidence, which doesn't count? No. Because by themselves, figures mean nothing. The anecdotal evidence gives them weight and believability.

Judging levels

Or consider: If I had never seen Indians defecating on the rocks at low tide, by the side of the road, in fields — if I never had seen these sights, I would find it hard to believe the dismaying fact that nearly seven of every 10 Indians lack access to sanitation. But I have seen them, as you have. That's why I know that the figure is likely to be true. What's more, it's the only way I have of judging its truth.

In the same way, meeting poor Indians is the anecdotal evidence that allows us to understand poverty levels, judge for ourselves if they have decreased.

What's more, they are the only way we have to judge that. Reforms must happen; of that, I am certain. But 15 years after they began, I wonder if we are doing them wrong. For I find it hard to see the effect they must have above all: a visible lessening in the scale of Indian poverty. Fewer miserably poor Indians.

On this train journey, Indian poverty streamed past me like a surreal alternate Republic Day parade. And that says something about my country.