Only, the copy below it doesn't quite measure up. "India's per capita income rose sharply by 7.1 per cent in real terms", it starts, promisingly enough, but the next words give it all away. That per capita income rose sharply by 7.1 per cent in real terms -- "to Rs 11,799 in 2003-04." The rise was "from Rs 11,013 the previous year". (All italics mine. The numbers, and thus the "real terms", are calculated at 1993-94 prices. You'll find the report here).
A sharp increase, 7.1 per cent? Well, that's what the headline-writer wanted you to think. But think about it some more, won't you? The average Indian earns just short of Rs 12,000 a year. That's about $280. Less than a dollar a day; in fact, about 75 cents, Rs 30, a day. If you, reading this, are earning an Indian salary, stack your earnings up against that per capita income and then give a thought to how many Indians earn not just less than you do, but less than seventy-five cents a day. (Much less). How many of them does it take to drag our per capita income down to there, from the rarefied salarial heights you -- yes, you -- occupy?
This line of thought takes me back to a letter I got a few years ago from a man in Kolhapur District, Maharashtra. The letter wasn't directly to do with per capita income; yet in some ways, it was. See for yourself.
The man runs an organization there that has a sanitation programme in six villages. He begins: "One of the basic imperatives of civilised existence is proper sanitation. According to a recent finding only 6 percent [of] Indians have access to a toilet. This fact must shame a country boasting five thousand years' continuous civilisation. ... Therefore [this] sanitation programme is a priority for us."
By the time he wrote, his outfit had built 125 family toilets at Rs 4,800 each. This cost was met by a government subsidy of Rs 3,500 for those below the poverty line, Rs 2,500 for others, with the beneficiary contributing the rest. He wrote to me and others to share his experiences and conclusions. These were, "to put it moderately, thought provoking."
In his own words, which are far more effective than any paraphrasing I might attempt, here are four of his conclusions:
- Every village is riven with groups [reflecting] the political groupings at the District level. The village panchayat [council] is controlled by one group while the other either sulks or becomes blindly antagonistic. ... The group out of power whips up opposition against the ruling group, even on a non-issue like toilet construction. We also found ostracised minority groups [with] sober and enlightened elements, uncorrupt and inbued with a zeal to do good.
- The Sarpanch [council head] and the ruling coterie is crassly selfish and ... corners illegally the benefits to themselves.
- In one village [we found] that the subsidy for [those] below poverty line was distributed at Rs 2,500 per unit [instead of] Rs 3,500. Obviously, the difference was pocketed by the ruling coterie.
- Four hundred million [Indians] go to sleep on an empty stomach. ... The per capita consumption of milk of the 250 million at the lower poverty levels is 25 gms a day. Yet the rulers ... hold forth glibly about the national Milk Flood. ... Planning and development without distributive justice in a democratic polity is a fraud. The enormity of this inequity is unparalleled in the annals of human history.
Let me pick out one little item from there: whole milk, these days, is about Rs 20 a litre. Not a number to make you or I perspire. But if someone earns less than Rs 30 a day, how much do you think she might spend on the white stuff?
Enough, evidently, to buy 25 grams of it.
But there's been this "sharp" rise of 7.1 per cent, has there not? So this less-than-Rs-30-person is now likely buying just under 27 grams of milk a day. Drink up, lady!
Postscript: The real reason I wrote this up was to make the point that we don't often understand such words as "per capita" and "average." Who is the "average" Indian, after all? Me? My daughter? Altaf who runs the corner store? You, getting ready to comment on this? The woman who lives in the flower-bed next to Altaf's store? Are we all average? Is income what we should use to define "average" in the first place?
I don't know.
But here's an example of what I am getting at. Today's Times (Friday Feb 4) comes with the weekly supplement called "Times Drive", which as far as I can tell is advertising wrapped up as car reviews. That aside. The lead article is about an ugly thing called the Hyundai Tucson, and that lead article begins with this sentence:
- Ten years ago, if you asked the average Indian which car he would like to own, the response in most cases would have been Maruti. [Italics mine]
Hmm. If by average Indian this writer means an Indian who earns our per capita income of Rs 11,799, I'm not sure the response would have been "Maruti." Because the cheapest car available in India would set him back about 20 times his annual income. Given that, I think this average Indian's response might have been closer to "Don't make me laugh."