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Nilekani’s men try to live life Montek size

The first problem they encountered was to find a place to stay for a month.

Written by Nistula Hebbar | New Delhi |
November 5, 2011 2:20:03 am

A degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the University of Pennsylvania ought to insulate you from poverty,but for Tushar Vashist and Mathew Cherian,alumni of the best educational institutes around,an experiment with living on the poverty line has been the best teacher so far.

Cherian and Vashist,who met while working for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) after longish stints in the corporate world,decided to live on R100 a day for three weeks and then on the government-defined poverty line of R32 a day for two weeks to find out just what it entails.

The Rs 100 a day experiment in Bangalore,and later at Kottayam in Kerala,saw both lose weight,know hunger and pointed them to a future career in policy planning. But first,just what happened during the experiment?

“We were both coming to the end of our stint with the UIDAI and although we had decided to work together on a policy-heavy enterprise with regard to health or education,we felt that it was time we lived the experience of being poor if only,I admit,in a slightly sanitised way,” says Vashist. “We felt that till now we had lived in a glass bubble where we interacted with people within that bubble. We wanted to know what it meant to be a poor Indian,” he added.

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The first problem they encountered was to find a place to stay for a month. “Which is why we decided to do the first part of the experiment,in Bangalore,in our apartment,and then moved to our landlady’s servant quarter,” said Cherian. “It’s fairly well established that Indians spend at least a third of their income on rent. We deducted that from the R100 a day and normalised the amount,” he added.

But the apartment itself became a different space. On R100 a day,they could afford only five bulbs and two fans,no heater,no television and resorted to charging their individual laptops for just five hours in a day. The fridge was only used for milk and dairy products,which dwindled to nothing as their budget got squeezed.

The food they ate too underwent a huge change. “We are both non-vegetarians but we couldn’t afford anything except eggs,which at R3 per piece were still within range,” said Vashisht. “Being hungry was the worst thing of this experiment,” he said. They shopped at wholesale grain mandis and spent at least four to five hours a day in household chores alone. “The dal that we bought may have been cheaper,but it was a longer process of cleaning,washing the dyes off and generally making it edible,” said Cherian.

Apart from food and utilities,they found that they couldn’t travel beyond a five kilometre radius of their flat. “More than that,and we seriously jeopardized our budget,” said Cherian. They saved R5 per day towards a railway ticket in the general unreserved compartment which would take them to Kottayam in Kerala,where they had rented a room for the last part of their experiment of living on R32 a day.

“We found that if on R100 a day we consumed around 57% carbohydrate-rich diet,but on R32 a day,this proportion went upto 82%. The food made us feel full but was low on proteins and other nutrition,” said Vashist.

It was not all hunger and tears however. One of the main takeaways from the experiment was the realisation of just how the poor leverage social resources. “The pooling in of resources was an important way for the poor to get access to some amenities,” said Cherian. Even when their landlord in Kottayam lost R15,000 worth of his tapioca crop in a freak storm,he was generous to relatives who came visiting.

The two have come up with some interesting statistical models from the experiment like calculating a risk ratio on spending due to ill health and a nutrition chart to help eat healthier on very little. Their next stop would be the Planning Commission,where they hope to share their experience. At the end of the day,then what do they think is a legitimate poverty line figure?

“Well,at R32 a day,a body can maintain itself,but poorly but can never hope to lift himself out of poverty. We would call Rs 120-150 a day as an aspirational poverty line,where despite being poor you can still hope to drag yourself out of it,” said Vashist. Is anybody listening?

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