By Pushkal Shivam:
“The official poverty lines do not measure poverty any more; they measure destitution”, wrote Professor Utsa Patnaik in The Hindu. In the affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission had pegged the poverty line at Rs. 4824 for a family of five in urban areas and Rs. 3905 for a family of five in the rural areas. When the monthly consumption expenditure is converted to a daily per capita figure, the absurdity of the poverty line comes to the fore. It is Rs. 32 a day for urban areas and Rs. 26 a day for rural. Even more appalling is the fact that this figure includes non-food items as well.
The amount I spent last month is very close to the poverty line for a family of five in urban areas. The amount spent was in addition to the expenditure on food, clothes, education and virtually everything else. Food is one thing I have never had to worry about in life. The life of about 450 million Indians who subsist below the poverty line is completely alien to me. Their miserable existence is nothing less than a miracle.
Cocooned inside the verdant campus of IIT-Madras, I can elude the abject reality which confronts our society today. But how will life be when one could spend only Rs. 32 a day? I have renounced, for a week, all the privileges available to me, including the food served at the college mess, to experience “how little can a person live on” in an urban area. Sleeping on the streets is the only thing that I would not take to.
On the night before the Day 1, I devoured the meal served at my college mess, putting aside every bit of grudge that I harboured against the caterers. After Day 1, I have taken a liking to the mess food. The semblance of having had wholesome meal last night kept me going till afternoon, when pangs of hunger struck me during the class on “What is Literature?” The “civilizing effect” of literature on society being discussed during the session caught me in flagrante. An ‘urban poor’, after all, was taking lessons in literature! It’s a different thing that every train of thought emerging in my mind was leading to a restaurant.
Finally, at around 3 pm I dared to venture out of my college campus in search of food. With Rs. 32 in my pocket, I had to spend enough to be able to satiate my hunger, and save money for dinner at the same time. A mere look at the prices of food served at ramshackle, scruffy restaurants took the wind out of my sail. Instead of having my lunch, I took the photo of the ‘fast food corner’ and paid the owner with a smile. To be able to have a hearty dinner, I settled for a packet of Parle-G biscuit for lunch, which cost me Rs. 3. The remaining Rs. 29 made me feel like a really rich ‘urban poor’. Now I just had to wait for dinner time.
At this point of time, the farcical nature of the exercise was revealed to me. A typical urban poor has to put in enormous amounts of physical work just to keep body and soul together. The Rs. 32 straight-jacket includes not only food but other essential necessities like clothes, medicines as well. And there I was, meandering with the sole objective of satiating my hunger (with little success though).
My eyes lit up when a lady at a ‘shop’ told me that they serve dosa at Rs. 12. I partook of a ‘hearty’ dinner and, at the same time, bought bananas, which cost me Rs. 15, for next day’s breakfast. Amazingly, I managed to save Rs. 1 at the end of the day. The readers can let their imaginations run riot as to which non-food items can be covered with Rs. 1.
Life on Rs. 32 a day seems beyond the realm of possibility let alone practicability. The fact, though, is that above lines serve only to accentuate the miseries that a substantial chunk of our population is faced up with.