By: Gautam Bhan
People, as noted legal scholar Upendra Baxi once said, are not born but made poor. He went on to say that poverty is a passive word that hides the very real ways in which it is considered just, right and fair that some people become and generationally remain impoverished. It is the active processes of impoverishment, he argued, that we should be paying attention to. In contemporary India, there are many places to start looking.
Despite all the critiques levelled at them, poverty lines are, in the medium term, not going anywhere. What follows then is not an argument about their well-known deficiencies in framing, measurement or application. It is instead one possible reframing of them that changes their current form yet retains their ability to fit into existing bureaucratic and state programmes. It is a consciously limited attempt, in other words, to think about what can be done from where we are now.
The reframing begins from the one point of agreement among the debates on the poverty line that have re-emerged with the Rangarajan committee’s new estimations: poverty lines measure not adequate but bare life. This is hardly surprising. After all, these lines began as a measure of income required for a certain caloric intake needed to sustain life. Let alone multidimensional poverty, they never imagined even the very real and gendered ways in which households can manage, schedule and live with hunger in order to fulfil other needs.
If a poverty line is a measure of bare life, of destitution, then why not call it so? Replace a public debate on the numbers in poverty with the headline that says, “X million destitute”, and the political implications of doing so become clear. Starvation, not hunger. Subsidies, not tax holidays.
Entitlements, not handouts. Words matter. The framing of our debates is one of the processes of impoverishment. They are active ways in which we shift the argument from “how much should our budgets allocate to all households that are poor” to “how many poor households can our fixed budgetary allocation on social spending cover”. They allow health spending to remain at 1 per cent of the GDP and education to seemingly never break a 5 per cent ceiling. They allow it, as Baxi would have argued, to be considered right, fair and just that another generation will remain poor.
Reframing poverty lines as destitution lines serves two purposes. First, it allows poverty lines to do the work that they are meant to do — target the most vulnerable, even if on a narrow understanding of caloric or income poverty. Yet, in doing so, it emphasises the urgency of this intervention and it binds its temporality. Destitution lines address immediate, short-term redistributive goals. They should not be, as they are now, the basis of medium-term poverty alleviation programmes. The latter should be guided by a series of lines that establish a ladder of differential vulnerability within a much wider definition of poverty. David Satthertwaite and Diana Mitlin suggest one such ladder — destitution, extreme poverty, poverty and, finally, households-at-risk. Households within each of these lines are vulnerable to an extent that they should be entitled to public goods, social assistance and protection against risk. They should all fall below any ethical and effective “poverty line”. Yet each faces different risks, has different capabilities and requires different interventions over different time periods. Multiple lines capture these differences. They do so in a manner that our bureaucracies can understand.
Second, destitution lines allow us to specify the question of inequality. Inequality in India, particularly in urban areas, is often discussed as the heights to which the wealth of some has risen. Yet inequality in the context of widespread destitution and vulnerability is a different challenge than that of the stratospheric bank accounts of a tiny elite. Urban and rural India are still characterised by an incredibly skewed but particular income inequality. If you put household income on a graph, it doesn’t rise till nearly the very end of the axis, indicating that vast majorities of urban and rural residents fall somewhere between destitution and being households-at-risk. Yet the vulnerability of most of these households remains unrecognised.
When the poverty line is rightly held to be simply a measure of destitution and named as such, we are freed to understand the real geographies of vulnerability and to trace that long flat line that maps income classes. From such a vantage point, it becomes undeniable that universal access to basic services and social security entitlements is the only way forward, even as we debate how these must be provided and by whom. Only such a provision can reflect the real distribution of vulnerability among us. We can only get here, however, if we recognise one of the ways we evade this reality. It is not just through the bogey of financial limitations but through the elision in our words, the manipulations in our readings of uncomfortable empirics, and through the impoverishment of poverty itself as a term that captures the impossibility of a dignified life for far too many of our fellow citizens.
The author teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore