By Categories: Editorials, Society

Poverty and Destitution:-

There is a difference between poverty and destitution, or what I call pauperism. In poverty, it is difficult to make ends meet. You somehow cope, do your level best to add to your income. In destitution, you are simply unable to cope.

Excerpts from the interview of Jan Breman :-


Where is the need for terms such as ‘pauper’ and ‘pauperism’ as analytical categories, when we already have ‘poverty’?

There is a difference between poverty and destitution, or what I call pauperism. In poverty, it is difficult to make ends meet. You somehow cope, do your level best to add to your income. So you also have your wife and children working along. In destitution, you are simply unable to cope. You are so utterly poor that it is difficult to even survive. And if you survive, you need outside support. Unfortunately, the poverty debate in India has more or less been appropriated by economists. So we look at income or consumption or employment levels, and not at the social or political dimension of poverty. A category such as ‘pauperism’ is needed to capture these non-economic aspects as well.

You argue in your book that India’s poverty line is a destitution line. Are you saying that those below poverty line in India are not poor but destitute?

Not all but a good number are. According to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), the poverty line fixed by the Planning Commission is a joke: 76 per cent of the Indian population is living in poverty. If you have such a vast mass of poor, you have to differentiate between levels of poverty. Certainly a big number is close to the poverty line. But in my estimate, about 25 per cent of India’s poor are destitute, or paupers.

So from an economist’s perspective, do we need another line, below the poverty line, to identify the paupers?

The poverty line is a sort of magical construction. If you cross it, you are suddenly out of poverty. So the policy focus is always on those who are able to go past that threshold. As a result, there is absolutely no interest in those at the bottom, those way beneath the poverty line.

So who is a pauper, in sociological terms?

In the first place, the paupers are the non-labouring poor, those who have no earning capacity. They never had or have lost their labour power and therefore can’t make a living. These include the elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill, but also widows with small children, divorcees without any support from others. Basically, in order to survive in poverty, you need a household. You cannot manage on your own because the flow of income varies with the seasons. You need to pull the household together to bring in the income — this is why you have child labour in India, isn’t it? But paupers also include the labouring poor, especially those whose income and employment are erratic or seasonal.

But Indian economists don’t believe in terms like ‘pauper’.

That’s true. It was only Gandhi who wrote about paupers in an article published in Young India in 1928, when he was in south Gujarat. He argued that we cannot fight colonialism if we do not fight colonialism in our own society. He pointed out that paupers had been around in India for a long time. I use the term pauper to evoke the conditions in Victorian England, where the casual poor were driven out of the countryside to work in the mills during the industrial revolution. In the same way, the casual poor are being driven out of the countryside in 21st century India.

England amended its Poor Laws in 1834 to pauperise the rural labour and drive them to the cities. What is India doing to create an exodus from the countryside?

Your agrarian crisis. Agriculture is not able to provide livelihood for the land-poor and the landless classes, who have lived in the villages from time immemorial. So they are forced to leave the villages. But the city doesn’t want them either.

How can you say the city doesn’t want them? India is building a hundred smart cities. Who will live in them if not migrants?

Talk to policymakers, talk to municipal officials of any city. They will tell you they don’t want the poor around, that they are a burden on our modern, beautified, smart cities. The policy of the municipality in every Indian city has been to periodically evict the poor.They try desperately to find employment but are unable to establish themselves even in the slums. They hang around in the labour chowks, they become pavement dwellers because there is no shelter for them in the night. When weeks pass by without any work at all, they go back to the villages. I use the term ‘circular migration’ to describe this movement — from villages to cities and back to villages, in an endless cycle. This is widespread in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu. But you find it in every State.

Can the poor in India hope for inclusive citizenship?

Citizenship is about rights and obligations. It is about being able to make claims on the state, and at the moment this is a privilege afforded by a minority of the Indian population. Also, inclusive citizenship not only means offering employment (inclusion in economic terms) but also creating space for them in terms of housing, health, schooling, skilling, and inclusion in social terms — which means focussing on equality. But we don’t see pro-equality policies, only pro-inequality policies. The mindset of the Indian elite is: the poor are different from me and I don’t want them around.

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