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Why The World’s Largest Democracy Continues To Push Millions Into Poverty

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Why does India’s democracy continue to deliver uneven outcomes?” is one of the many questions Anirudh Krishna raises in his new book “The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and Potential of India’s One Billion”. And it should make all thinking Indians critically reflect upon the content of our democracy even as we complete seven decades of political independence. A logical companion to this question could be “what explains the uneasy co-existence of democracy and extensive poverty in India?

The answer to this perhaps lies in the paradox underlying the two institutions that are indispensable for a liberal society – political democracy and the market. While both these institutions allow individuals to exercise their choice, the former works on the enlightened principle of ‘one person, one vote’ and the latter works differently for different individuals depending on the number of votes they bring in the form of purchasing power. The book under review seeks to unravel the key paradoxes that inform our society.

The first chapter is titled “The Dollar Economy and the Rupee Economy” and it is a telling caricature of the widening gulf between the privileged upwardly mobile lot and the encumbered disadvantaged class. By focusing on education and social mobility, the author shows that layered economic development is a logical upshot of a segmented society. Imposing a globalized economic order on this deeply divided society will invariably result in lopsided development outcomes. Taking wealth data provided by the investment bank Credit Suisse in its “Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report” for the year 2013, the author shows that:

A significant share of India’s population is contained within the top, the bottom and every other 10-per cent segment of world wealth distribution. Few other countries have the same spread between the space-age rich and the stone-age poor.

But this depiction doesn’t fully capture the extent and intensity of inequality in India. The richest 1% of Indians now own 58.4% of the country’s wealth while the bottom 70% of Indians together now own just 7% of the country’s private wealth, according to the “Global Wealth Report 2016” released by the same investment bank’s research wing. The respective shares of the top 1% and the bottom 70% were 36.8% and 13.9% respectively in 2010. The richest 10% of Indians have increased their share from 68.8% in 2010 to 80.7% by 2016. Clearly, India is clocking the highest rates of growth in inequality among all developed and developing countries, save Russia.

Photo by Soumitra Ghosh/The India Today Group/Getty Images

The central issue the book explores and explains is the lack of social mobility among those who are at the bottom, particularly those living in the ‘beyond 5 km villages’, the ones that lie beyond 5 km from the nearest urban centre. The author notes that “nearly 70% of all rural people – i.e. nearly half the population of India – lives in beyond 5-km villages” and it is precisely for these people that “the ladder leading upward is broken in many places. Very few are able to climb high after starting from a low position.” Available empirical evidence lends credence to the author’s observations. Using the India Human Development Survey, 2011-12 data, a recent article by Tadit Kundu in the business newspaper Mint showed that there is very low occupational mobility across generations:

Specifically, there is a one in three chance that a son born to a father who was either a farmer or an agricultural labourer or a construction worker moves out of these three occupations. In our analysis, even a job as a factory worker is counted as an improvement. Despite such a low threshold, the probability for upward mobility is only around 33%. Moreover, this probability has not improved much for sons born in recent decades compared to those who were born in the 1950s, suggesting a high degree of stagnation in society.

One of the most curious and worrisome aspects of the Indian economy is its inability to transfer labour from the agrarian sector to the industrial sector and consequently affect a natural movement of the population from the rural to the urban. This is not wholly surprising when seen in the light of the development strategy India adopted after independence as against the strategy followed by successful East Asian economies. As the author notes, “governments in East Asia, in the 1960s and ‘70s, energetically built high-quality infrastructures in rural areas, both to develop rural talent and draw it into workplaces in cities and to increase the competitive advantage of rural locations.” Indian political leaders and policymakers, given their fascination for big cities, modern industries and cutting-edge science, showed a pro-urban bias in policy focus as well as resource allocation and clearly failed to focus on land reforms, rural infrastructure and high-quality primary education. The result of such a blind spot in the vision of successive generations of leaders is “the different transition that India is undergoing in converting the grandsons of peasant farmers into an army of itinerant mazdoors and their granddaughters into part-time marginal farmers.

The author argues that, given the lack of lucrative employment of opportunities at the high end of the organized sector, the rural migrants who flock the urban centres end up as the precariat, with very dim prospects of improvements in living standards and upward mobility. In his opinion, “the rural question has to be solved in situ“, which requires arresting the outflow of labour by giving them gainful employment in their own villages and according “equal priority in resource allocation between cities and villages and equal standards of infrastructure provision.” That the countryside is in deep distress is so glaringly obvious when one looks at farmers’ agitations in state after state.

Data from different surveys point to abysmal conditions of rural livelihoods: NSSO’s Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households in India for the agricultural year July 2012- June 2013 shows that the average monthly income of a farm household in that agricultural year was estimated at ₹6,426; the SECC 2011 data show that 74% of rural households survived on a monthly income of less than ₹5,000 of its highest earner and the National Crime Records Bureau data reveal that economic distress is a much bigger cause of farmer suicides in most states. The recently released Volume II of the Economic Survey 2016-17 openly concedes that the manifestations of the distress are easy to see.

One of the most insightful chapters in the book is “Preventing Future Poverty” where the author draws our attention to the fact that poverty reduction and poverty creation happen in parallel, which doesn’t get reflected in the official statistics on poverty in India. For instance, when in 2013, the government of the day claimed that poverty rate declined from 37% in 2004 to 22% in 2011, “it could have been, for instance, that a much higher number, 25% rose out of poverty, but simultaneously 10% fell into poverty – leading to the same net change of 15%. But the underlying flows weren’t measured, so officials are not able to tell the difference.” To put it simply, the vulnerable groups of people who are just a shock away from descending into poverty suffer from low prospects of upward mobility and high risk of downward mobility. The author also questions the unfairness in setting the poverty line so low and argues that the existing poverty alleviation measures don’t contend with the challenge of preventing people from falling into poverty. Such measures are palliatives at best, not a panacea.

Connecting talents with the right opportunities and guaranteeing rewards proportionate to the talent is key to fix the broken ladder. The author strongly believes that this can happen only when three things are put in place: high-quality education, institutional provision of information and empowered local bodies. To expect the lowest tiers of the administration to work hand in hand with a thoroughly decentralized polity to bridge the gap between constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights and people’s real-time access to such guarantees isn’t naïve; it is the need of the hour. But one should guard against the possibility of decentralized corruption, which is possible only through collective public action. A lot of ground needs to be covered on that front.

The author makes his position very clear on two important issues: economic growth and role of the state. In his view, economic growth has to be vigorously pursued but it is important to pay attention to the composition of growth and the channels through which the benefits of growth reach those at the lowest rungs of the ladder. He believes that “growth and poverty reduction cannot be bundled together as a single objective.” This idea is similar to the proposal put forward by Kate Raworth in her book “Doughnut Economics”, where she argues that we should learn to become “growth-agnostic”, implying that we should ensure that human beings thrive irrespective of growth trends and dynamics. This is a radical proposal and merits closer examination. In the author’s opinion, the state cannot be wished away because it is “after all the only agency that provides on a large scale the kinds of services that citizens, especially poorer ones, consider most important” and that “it is important to examine how the state machinery at multiple levels can be made accountable and more effective.

The book offers some new insights but what makes the narrative more humane and compelling is the moving accounts of people who have thought up several coping strategies in the absence of institutional support. This is one of the few works in development economics that has looked at the intersection of structural factors, institutions and people’s attitudes to hammer home the point that an individual’s educational and economic attainments depend crucially on her/his starting position, something that is ignored by the welfare theorems of mainstream economics. Maybe it is time to go beyond questions of what, how and for whom to produce and ask – who owns what, who does what and who gets what.

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  1. Hari Prasad

    Okay then,
    Do you think “If government pass a bill to wipe-out poverty,whether it would a success of failure?”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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