Comedy of New Poverty Line in India

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Can you really survive by spending just 32 Indian rupees (64 cents) daily in Delhi or Mumbai? If yes, then you are not poor and as a result, you are not entitled to take benefits of government schemes meant for the poor. This magic number is further rationalized if you live in rural areas where if you can stay alive on 26 Indian rupees (52 cents) per day you are no longer poor in the eye of the government. With this arithmetic the Indian government tells that currently 407.4 million (33%) people are poor in the country. Compare this with the total US population of about 320 million.

This sums up very clearly how well connected the ruling elites of India are with the ordinary masses they claim to govern. Now you can clearly understand why India is home to the maximum number of poor in the world. It is a cruel joke on Indian poor who are resigned to be ruled by people who go to Western universities to understand poverty in India! In fact, using any monetary value as poverty line is fraught with dangers of artificiality.

Inadequacy of Income Poverty Lines

The issue of poverty is not a statistical issue. It is a human issue. – James Wolfensohn

The World Bank uses 1.25 dollars a day as poverty line and the Asian Development Bank puts it at 1.35 dollars. Needless to say each benchmark gives a different estimate of the number of poor. The higher the benchmark is the higher is the proportion of people counted as poor. A 2 dollar a day poverty line benchmark makes almost three-fourth Indians poor. Therefore, such an exercise is nothing but a number game.

Income based poverty lines tell nothing about different forms of deprivations and sufferings poor go through. Poverty entails a denial of a range of basic material needs such as nutrition, safe drinking water, shelter, healthcare, education, etc. Therefore, poverty must be seen beyond income and composite poverty measures provide better understanding of the nature of poverty – at local, regional, national, and world level. Poverty in India is characterized by hunger and starvation, so a better way to analyze Indian poverty is by using the Global Hunger Index

Global Hunger Index (GHI) and India

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) provides a better picture of poverty for countries where people are struggling with food insecurity, hunger and starvation. It measures poverty based on three equally weighted indicators: proportion of undernourished population, proportion of underweight children under five, and the mortality rate of children under the age of five.

The 2010 GHI report puts India among 29 countries that have the highest levels of hunger, stunted children, and poorly fed women. Despite the healthy economy, it was placed at 67th position among 84 countries. It is way behind China and fairs worst than Sri Lanka (at 39) and Pakistan (at 52). In fact, even Sudan, Zimbabwe and North Korea show better scores than India.

Another revelation is that the hunger level in India (as in Pakistan and Bangladesh) is higher than its per capita gross national income (GNI), which indicates very high level of inequality in income distribution.

The report also reveals that India’s bad performance is largely a result of high levels of underweight children due to poor nutritional intake and the poor social status of women in the country. Due to its large population, India is home to 42 percent of the world’s underweight children and 31 percent of stunted children (who have lower height for their age). 

Undernourishment of children under five is so alarming across the country that India finds company with Bangladesh and Yemen. These kids belong to families that have no food security – a situation that perpetuates poverty and ill health.

Poverty in Indian States

When the GHI was applied to individual states in 2008, a wide variation in poverty was observed. Even the best performer, Punjab, was found to have “serious” hunger problem. The situation in the worst performer, Madhya Pradesh got the label “extremely alarming” that led its comparison with countries like Sudan and Ethiopia. The other worst performing states – Bihar and Jharkhand – had index scores similar to Zimbabwe and Haiti. Overall, twelve states were found to have “alarming” hunger level.

Paradoxically, the index score showed little correlation with state’s economic growth; high hunger level was seen in states where economies were doing well. Therefore, economic growth is not necessarily associated with poverty reduction.

In fact, when compared with GHI rankings of different countries Indian states covered a wide range of hunger: from rather well-off Punjab (at rank 34) to Madhya Pradesh (at 82) where more people suffer from hunger than in Ethiopia or Sudan and where 60 percent children are undernourished.


The findings clearly highlighted that rather than a uniform approach, region specific approach will be more effective in helping people come out of their suffering. India particularly needs to improve child nutrition, particularly in states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh and improve strategies to facilitate inclusive economic growth. 


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