Middle class hypocrisy on the poverty line

The latest controversy over India\’s poverty line proves two things. First, statistical illusions can be spun by presenting numbers in different ways. Second, India suffers from middle-class double standards and denial on poverty.

A media storm has arisen after the Planning Commission\’s affidavit to the Supreme Court stated what all experts know—India\’s poverty line is defined as consumption of Rs 32/day per person in urban areas and Rs 26 in rural areas. Outraged TV anchors and middle class viewers asked how on earth people could survive on so little. Reports cited pavement hawkers spending Rs 32/day just on bus tickets.

The Planning Commission was driven on the defensive. One member said poverty was a relative concept and he personally might view Rs 15,000 per month as being in poverty. The Commission clarified that Rs 32 per day would not be the cut-off for benefits like subsidized food—that would be decided by other criteria covering far more people.

Fact: the current poverty line (based on the Tendulkar Committee recommendations ) has actually been re-drawn well above the historical line. Far from fiddling the numbers downward, the new poverty line increased them from 27.5% to 37.2% in 2004-05\’ translating into an additional 100 million poor.

A poverty line of Rs 32/day may outrage some, but the equivalent old poverty line was barely Rs 24/day. You saw relatively little middle class anger in past decades about that: many were in denial on the width and breadth of poverty.

If consumption of Rs 24/day (at today\’s prices) was the poverty norm for decades, why does Rs 32/day sound so low today? Mainly because we don\’t usually think in terms of consumption per day. The average family size in India is five members. Poor people have more children, so an average poor household will have around six members. If six members consume Rs 32/day, it adds up to almost Rs 6,000 per month.

I find most people are surprised that Rs 32 per person per day (which looks so low) translates into Rs 6,000 per household per month. They lose their initial sense of outrage\’ and think Rs 6,000 per month is a reasonable poverty definition.

However, there\’s more to this than statistical illusion. Foreigners find Rs 6,000 per month scandalously low. Why not our middle class? Answer: they often pay hired help just Rs 4,000-5,000 per month, and complain if servants demand more. Middle class folk don\’t want to calculate the per capita daily spending of their servant\’s family. They resent servants constantly wanting more pay, even if this falls short of the very level they find outrageous when specified by the Planning Commission.

This double standard is not restricted to paying servants. When middle class folk go to Dilli Haat to buy a sari, they will beat down the weavers to the lowest price possible. If told that the weaver earns only Rs 4,000 per month, will they change their attitude or agree that they have helped keep the weaver poor? No chance.

Don\’t be too harsh on the middle class: double standards exist in almost every group of humans. The middle class is correct in blaming poverty mainly on the government. Enormous amounts are allocated to poverty alleviation by politicians shedding crocodile tears for the poor, but the sums are largely wasted or stolen.

The middle class strongly supports poverty alleviation. But it also wants massive subsidies itself, cheap cooking gas and kerosene being obvious examples.

Does this mean India\’s progress in the last two decades has been illusory? Not at all. The poverty ratio did not change between independence and 1977-78\’ although the population doubled. So, the total number of poor people doubled in the heyday of Indian socialism (many young socialists are in denial about this). Fortunately economic liberalization, starting in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, stoked faster GDP growth and started reducing poverty.

India will probably exceed the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty between 1990 and 2015. Even so, India will be a poor country for a long time. Forget statistics —just see the horrific workers\’ hovels at construction sites. Workers nevertheless come because rural conditions are even worse.

The middle class has done a yeoman job crusading against corruption, which hits all classes. However, its main anger is about big political corruption. The poor are hit more by low-level corruption and pathetic government services. The middle class has stopped using government schools and other services. So, these topics attract less middle class anger—and TV ratings— than Big Corruption. We need more anger against lousy, corrupt government services.

4 thoughts on “Middle class hypocrisy on the poverty line”

  1. Its a nice take on the 2-faced middle class Indians. A good revelation, looking at the things from a different angle. But shouldn’t the government/bureaucrats be actually taking into the account that the subsidized price (PDS) they are using to calculate the poverty line limit (Rs 32/day), are not the actual price a normal farmer has to pay. Plus are the subsidized rates same everywhere, doesn’t it vary from place to place?

  2. I think instead of taking endlesly on the debate of Rs. 32 estimator, the govt. should bring in some measure to eradicate poverty, like it bring earlier as ‘100 days guarantee employment to all’. Morever such types of relief should be made available to them, instead of just promising.
    Morever the world bank poverty estimator is $1.50 which comes out to be around Rs 66 at current conversion rate, n which is more than double the indian estimator.

  3. Dear Sir,
    You are right in saying about the bargaining at Dilli Haat. But Let me present a case before you.
    Let say you hired 2 domestic helps for your home. They do the same work, for same hours a day and same number of days in a month. Now when it comes to pay them at the end of the month, are you going to pay them differently? I am sure that your answer would be ‘NO’. You will pay them equally for equal work. Now lets add one condition to this. The domestic Help 1 has a family of 6 and Domestic help 2(DH2) has a family of 2. Now when it again comes to their payment, are you going to consider the size of their family for paying them differently for the same labor they have done? In this case again, the answer would be ‘NO’. I agree that many of us follow double standards in many cases, but in this case where comes the double standards? You pay for the labor of that particular person notwithstanding the size of his family.

    Secondly, whenever it comes to the earning for per month by any person, does only the size of income count? It needs to be kept in mind that how many people are going to survive on that income. Is Rs.6000/month adequate for the food, health, and education of 6 persons. Does Rs6000 mean same for a family of 2 and a family of 6? In the end it is the per head expense that matters. So, the question still remains. Is Rs.32 enough for all the amenities counted above for a person per day? Is Rs1000 enough per month for a person living in urban area?

  4. Sir,
    Your arguments accusing middle class divert the attention from real issues and provide escape route for culprits.
    Criticism on low parameters is not a new thing. Even Rs 24 was subjected to criticism. But outrage against Rs 32 is due to alienation of present rulers from the masses in broader political arena and they are not in a position to turn public opinion in their favour. Hence lack of public outrage for earlier one is not a justifiable reason for present one.

    It is to be welcomed that apolitical middle class turns their eyes towards common man. Citing their treatment to servant/servant maid depends upon the overall approach of the society towards dignity of labour. Only big industries and government intervention could shape things in the present set up. So called trickle down theory of globalisation is basically undemocratic in nature and naturally those policies preach TU free world depriving TU rights and right to collective bargaining to the workers.

    you know very well that Indian corporates are enjoying lacs and lacs of crores of tax concessions. In the words of Dr Y V Reddy, if concessions are given to ordinary people it is termed as subsidy but it is termed as INCENTIVE if it is given to big corporates. He added that Market is not a democratic institution since vote is proportionate only to purchasing power there.

    I may not be competent person to debate finer points of economy. But i dont require any specialisation to conclude that chiding middle class to justify planning commission’s affidavit is not proper for eminent persons like you.

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