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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 22, Dated 04 June 2011

The New FORTUNE List

The Planning Commission has set the poverty line at Rs 20 a day. Earn more than that and you are not poor. Oh, and if you live in a village, don’t earn more than Rs 15. The ‘Rich’ Indians Respond

Nisha Susan
New Delhi

The New FORTUNE List: Click to read their story

Abdul Saleem, 33
Coconut Tree Climber

‘It costs Rs 300 every day just to get by. It costs Rs 11 to go to the nearest hospital by bus. On Rs 20 a day, my family would die’


Leelaben , 55

‘The only ration I get is kerosene. To get it, I go to my village once a month. Travel costs Rs 30’

Akash Khan, 22
Coal Miner

‘Rent works out to around Rs 16 a day. And here, a kilo of rice costs Rs 45. You tell me, can I survive on Rs 15 a day?’


Kohinoor Bai, 37

‘I buy 2 litres of milk a day for my kids to which I am forced to add water. That alone costs Rs 46’

Nataraj, 23

‘It costs Rs 50 a day to live even in Odisha!’


Jasuben, 52
Rag sorter

‘With Rs 20 a day, I can only buy a handful of rotten vegetables to eat. If mine is not poverty, I don’t know what is’

Shankar Sharma, 30

‘I need a kg of flour daily to make rotis just for the children and that alone costs Rs 20’


Riaz Ahmed Batt, 22
Cook/Helper at a government school

‘Buying the basic flour, rice, sugar, dal, tea alone costs Rs 38 per day for my family of six. What happens in an emergency?’

Tarabai, 25

‘I’d spend Rs 20 on flour. We never eat pulses because it is too expensive for us. Most days we buy only potatoes’


Meenakshi, 70
Flower seller

‘Commuting from home to the flower market at the temple and back alone costs Rs 20’

Arun Pandey, 39

‘My father has respiratory problems. Perhaps I’d spend Rs 10 on medicine and with the 5 bucks left, buy myself a beedi’


Kishun Lohari, 65
Car cleaner

‘Once I used to eat well on 25 paise. Today Rs 25 barely fills your stomach’

Ratni Devi, 25

'Even if I just feed my family rice with salt and haldi, I won’t be able to give them three meals a day in Rs 20’


Rameshwar, 50
Rickshaw Puller

'How could anyone survive on Rs 20 a day? If you have four cups of tea in a day, you will already have run out of money'

Gokul, 50

'If someone teaches me how to live off Rs 20 a day, I will become his slave for life!'


Jaikishan Sahoo, 40

‘In spite of it being such a fertile land, a kilo of low-grade rice in Chhatisgarh costs Rs 16-17’

Sukhbir Mahakal, 36

‘Some days I buy atta, which costs Rs 10 a kilo. Even if I have two potatoes and some salt, it will cost at least Rs 5 more’


ONE SUMMER, Samvada, a Bengaluru NGO organised a brutally rigged activity called the Monsoon Game for a bunch of affluent college students. They arbitrarily grouped students into families assigning them castes, jobs and landholdings. In each round of the game a moderator —God — announced life-altering events such as failed crops, bad monsoons or new government schemes. In the first few rounds, the students giggled as if it was Monopoly. An hour later, sunshine faded and the classroom took on a grim, Battle Royale cast. Most families realised that despite their ingenuity they’d die of starvation. All except the one family with the zamindar card. For many, it was the first time they had encountered a situation they couldn’t control with the much-touted middleclass mantras of ‘hard work’ and ‘positive thinking’. The game ended in tears, rage. And some epiphanies about life in India.

This week, the government proposed an astonishingly flawed Food Security Act that will provide subsidised grains only to those who earn less than Rs 20 a day (if you live in a city and less than Rs 15 a day if you live in a village). If wishes were consciousness- raising games, we’d send our ministers to play the Monsoon Game and cry in a dark classroom. The game is certainly less arbitrary than the Tendulkar Committee that set this poverty line.


Manmohan Singh imposes gag on India’s poverty data
‘We are 30 years behind china in terms of development’
This greed knows no limits

In India, every welfare scheme is linked to the term BPL — below poverty line. Governments and economists of different persuasions argue intensely over this, juggling different statistical models to back their claims. (Surjit Bhalla, for instance, claims only 13 percent of India is poor, though even a layman’s smell test would tell you he is way off track in his optimism). The reason the poverty line matters so much is because it determines how many Indian can claim welfare, which, in turn, determines the fiscal burden the State will have to bear.

But for the poor, the BPL is not some statistical term: it is a lifeline. So can we really allow the BPL to be fixed at Rs 20 a day? Rs 20 a day? The money middle-class India finds under undusted sofas is somehow supposed to feed whole families? The mind slides past these figures in embarrassed shock. We are not alone in our shock. When TEHELKA spoke to some of India’s poorest, they responded with silence and laughter: The government thinks we are not poor enough? We?

The government says it can’t afford to feed everyone – hence the manipulations with the BPL. Many economists and activists disagree. Economists Pravin Jha and Nilachal Acharya have estimated that if rice/wheat were made available to 200 million households in India at Rs 3 a kilo, it would add Rs 84,399 crore to the Budget. Not a huge cost to ensure India does not starve: just the price of two Commonwealth Games. Economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera argue the subsidy would cost even less if one, we don’t ship all our grains from Punjab and Haryana to distant states and two, if we include local grains such as bajra and ragi in the PDS. But a lack of imagination plagues our planners.

For those TEHELKA spoke to, the rickshaw-puller, farmer, waste-picker and others, bitterness came later in the conversation — after the shock passed. The precariousness of their lives is held at bay by dignity, hard work, generosity to those even poorer, loyalty to family, resilience and faith. All to be frayed again by those who have never known what it is like to be hungry.

Nisha Susan is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 22, Dated 04 June 2011



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