By Pushkal Shivam:
This is part 2 of our 7 part series on experiencing how it is to live on Rs. 32 a day.
“Poverty is the worst form of violence” and hunger perpetrates this form of violence against its hapless victims. The planning commission has ‘clarified’ that the welfare entitlements will be de-linked from the poverty line. However, the definition of the poverty line stays. It can either be defined euphemistically as Rs. 4800 per month for a family of five or as Rs. 32 per person per day.
Rs. 32 is grossly insufficient to cover the expenses on food let alone other items. A person living on that amount can only be considered as someone condemned to a life of self-perpetuating penury. It is during most desperate of circumstances that life reveals to us the importance of things which we would have otherwise taken for granted. Take clean drinking water for example. I realized today that besides quenching our thirst, it can also create a semblance of food in our stomach.
While trying to study last night (without any success), I gobbled up half of the bananas I had bought for this morning’s breakfast. The calm ushered in by the cheap dosa last night had disappeared notoriously fast. And for the first time it was bananas, and not books, which put me to sleep.
I did not take long to realize that with Rs. 32 in my pocket, coupled with last day’s grand saving of Rs. 1, I will be able to have only one proper meal. I just had to time it well. Or so it seemed to me. By late afternoon, a rhythmic throbbing originating from the stomach appeared in my head. It seemed as if someone was prompting me to move out of the classroom. I eventually did. But not before enduring a session on Jean Paul Sartre’s ruminations on literature- which can exhaust even an indefatigable soul.
Several of the urban ‘poor’ splurge money on liquor at a dingy bar located in a neighbourhood close to my campus. 38-year old carpenter, Murugan, is one of them. He says he has faced a lot of difficulties in life. “Even though it’s a day of festival, I have come here to forget my miseries”, says Murugan, diminutive in appearance. Seated in the unkempt bar which was teeming with blue-collared workers he confessed, “I am very selfish and I think only about myself”. But if his family is hungry, he says, he can stay away from alcohol even for six months. Murugan claims to earn Rs. 250 on days he finds work. With this amount Murugan has to look after his family, which includes his wife and three kids. This does not necessarily stop him from spending up to Rs. 200 every time he visits the bar. Not to forget he does not have any possessions and has to shell out about Rs. 2300 as rent for his house. I had my answer even before I could ask him, “Can your family live on Rs. 4800 per month?”
By this time Murugan’s inebriated friend had become restless. He felt I was not giving enough importance to him as I was not noting down his drunken blabber. Murugan gestured me and my friend, who was helping me make sense of Tamil, to leave.
Evening had set in and hunger was gnawing at me. The ‘proper meal’ which would appease my raging senses was still looming in the air. At this point I met 50-year old cobbler Roza. Her husband, now dead, left her with the crippled shop which aids her subsistence. She has four daughters, all of them married. At 50, she has to fend for herself. The onus of continuing her subsistence is on her 15-year old grandson who lives with her.
Roza says she has her own house constructed on government land in Kottur area of Chennai. Her day starts at eight in the morning goes on till six in the evening after which she has her meal. I offered to join her for dinner at a small restaurant which she usually visits for meals. She gingerly accepted my offer.
Roza’s daily earning varies from Rs. 20 to Rs. 50. In addition to this, she receives a monthly pension of Rs. 1000 from the government. However, she has to pay a ‘commission’ of Rs. 50 to the postman who delivers her pension. Her daily expenditure includes Rs. 35 for food and Rs. 20 for betel leaves. She seemed inhibited by my presence when food was placed at our table. Looking at me, she attempted to use a spoon while eating but ended up spilling the food on herself.
Roza is among those fortunate urban ‘poor’ who have ration cards. She gets 10 kg of rice every month. She also has a voter ID card using which she voted for Jayalalitha’s AIADMK during the elections recently “because they promised that they would give cows and goats for free”. The promise is yet to be fulfilled.
So does she agree with the Rs. 32-a-day assessment? Even the owner of the restaurant who watched us as we ate dismissed it. Roza has nothing to say. She just wants the government to fulfill her basic necessities. By this time I had realized what was inhibiting her. I was eating just too ravenously.