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 continued…