According to a new survey by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), nearly 84 crore Indians live on Rs 20 a day or less. Stop for a moment to think of that number. Stop to think of what Rs 20 means to you.
That's 77 per cent of India, that lives on less than 50 cents a day. Not only that. According to this report, many of those 84 crore Indians are actually above the famous "poverty line", which tops out at Rs 12 a day. So we cannot even call these people poor.
When so much of what we hear is about booming India and its newly minted billionaires, when so much of what we see is new cars and spectacular malls, what explains such news? How must we react to such news?
Well, I think of a bright spark who once dissected (the popular term is "fisked") an Utsa Patnaik article on his blog. With data that shows the rural poor eating less grain than they were before reforms began, Patnaik had claimed what she does in this book: "Rural India is in deep and continuing distress ... [I]n village India ... calorie intake per head continues to decline."
The blogger disagreed:
- "There is a decline in rice and wheat consumption, and also in the consumption of dal ... But at the same time, the consumption of other stuff has risen. ... [E]ven the poor are better off. How much better off? On average, about six eggs a year."
That the poor eat one extra egg every two months.
By any reckoning and putting it kindly, a damp squib. Even if this represents a dramatic increase in the consumption of eggs, what does it say that fifteen years of reforms have bettered the lives of the poor to the extent that they can buy one additional egg -- all of two rupees worth -- every two months? To me, making such a claim is in itself a damning of the reforms.
Yet perhaps that's the reaction Utsa Patnaik's work generates. Her conclusions fly so hard in the face of reforming rising India, that the cheerleaders of reforms must feel they have to defend that vision any way they can. Which, of course is just the way things should be. But do these six eggs amount to any kind of defence?
This is an eye-opening book. Patnaik's theme is essentially how a reforming India has, whether by accident or design, failed to address the needs of its poor. She throws the evidence at us again and again, in different forms but all leading to the same conclusion: the poor have access to less food than before the reforms, and this means greater poverty.
How much less food? Here are the figures as Patnaik quotes them in one place in the book:
- "Between 1950 and 1991 per capita absorption [of foodgrains] rose slowly from 152 kg to 177 kg as per capita incomes rose. ... [T]hese gains of four decades have been wiped out in a single decade of economic reform ... [Absorption] fell by 3 kg per head in the seven years up to 1998 [and] a fall of 19 kg has taken place in the mere five years of NDA rule ... to 155 kg [in 2002-03]."
That stark image, in some ways, sums up this book.
Patnaik supports all this well, with a number of detailed tables and analyses. Yet one problem with the book lies there. At times the reasoning gets so detailed that even a statistics junkie like me reaches overload. I realize that figures need careful analysis, and I have some knowledge of the overall case Patnaik is trying to make. But who will listen if she makes it so unapproachably?
The other problem is that this is an angry book. Not that anger by itself is wrong, and given the profound betrayal of so many Indians that Patnaik is talking about, anger may even be appropriate. Yet as she lashes out against the NDA regime, economists including Amartya Sen, the West, capitalists, the WTO -- as she does so using "conceptually blind", "immoral, "efficient dispenser of death", "crocodile tears", "intellectually servile" and "comprador" -- I find myself thinking of the question writers must eventually ask themselves: do I want to be polemical, or do I want to be persuasive?
Has Patnaik asked herself that question?
Now there are two things I've always believed about the reforms that we embarked on starting in the early '90s. One, that they had to happen. Two, that the fundamental reason for them was the miserable poverty in which so many Indians lived. Something had to be done to tackle that misery.
Fifteen years since then, it's fair to investigate, as Patnaik sets out to do, what reforms have done to tackle poverty. Putting a positive spin on things, I believe they have not done enough. After all, if it is true that three-fourths of India lives on Rs 20 or less a day, arguing with Patnaik takes on an air of futility. In what sense have the reforms been any kind of success if, a decade-and-a-half into applying them, misery remains so widespread?
Would it be fair to ask, how else could we have addressed poverty? How will we address it in the future?
These are the questions I wish Patnaik had tried to answer in this book. Maybe she has indeed answered them, somewhere in between all the anger. But if she lost me -- a reader sympathetic to and in broad agreement with some of what she says, a reader who stuck with the book till the end -- what has she done to her other readers?
Because here's the thing: for all her compelling material and evidence, Patnaik will lose her readers at some point in this book -- either through analysis fatigue or anger fatigue. What has she achieved, then?
Persuasive? Well, more so than the six eggs were. But not persuasive enough. Given what's at stake, that's a great pity.