One of the most significant goals of inclusive and equitable
development is poverty elimination. Although India has made rapid progress in
several fields, its impressive economic growth has not trickled down to the larger
population. India's millions still continue to face mounting daily challenges and
are struggling to meet the bare basic necessities of subsistence; education,
health, housing, employment and adequate food.
The father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi had said that
elimination of poverty was his mission and was also the prime objective of 'Swaraj' or freedom. In his famous speech 'Freedom at Midnight', the first Prime Minister,
Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned, "The ambition of the greatest men of our
generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us,
but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be
over." That mission of Gandhi and ambition of Nehru is still a mirage, a
far distant dream.
The creamy layer of the population has collectively generated
an enormous amount of wealth in the past twenty years. Most of that newly
generated wealth has gone to those who are already affluent. This has
particularly been acute in developed countries. The recent Oxfam report on
inequality in the context of India brought out disturbing facts to the public
domain and stated:
India added 17 new billionaires last year,
raising the number to 101 billionaires,
Indian billionaires' wealth increased by INR
4891 billion from INR 15,778 billion to over INR 20,676 billion. INR 4891 billion is
sufficient to finance 85 per cent of the all states' budget on Health and
Between 2018 till 2022, India is estimated to
produce 70 new millionaires every day and
Number of billionaires has increased from only
9 in 2000 to 101 in 2017
One of the ideas India is seriously weighing is Universal Basic
Income (UBI).In a UBI system, the government gives citizens a regular infusion
of free cash with no strings attached. There are however several downsides: In
the words of Thomas Piketty, the renowned French economist "the cost of
substantial fiscal redistribution would be considerable, because it would
decrease the return on investments (for individuals) in human capital and thus
decrease the incentives for individuals to make such investments."
While providing free income for a short period, we need to
plan for empowering grassroots communities to chart out their path out of
poverty. This will require a recast of our development paradigm. The perception
that the poor do not have skills or would not be able to survive on their own
is now being widely recognized as a myth. This conclusion is grounded in the
premise that a paternalistic conceit of low income communities and negative
beliefs perpetuated about them has hindered their development. The new findings
are challenging traditional development wisdom-particularly the assumption that
poor need a great deal of advice, aid, support, and motivation to improve their
The fruits of India's new found prosperity have not flowed to
deeper pockets of low income layers, and the outcome has been quite skewed. While
a minuscule minority is enjoying astronomical prosperity, the vast majority
continues to grapple with the same old problems.
One major reason is that we have still not been able to
empower communities to develop and design programmes that can deliver them from
their present plight. When programmes view their clients as beneficiaries, they
tend to see them as relatively passive people and recipients or beneficiaries
of doles from government or donors. In such a context, decisions about what
type of help to provide are made not at the local level but on the basis of
what programme designers think is good for the beneficiaries.
Experts have been scratching their heads for breakthrough
solutions, and now suggest that the poor no longer have a mindset that expect
governments riding a white horse with a bucket of money to fill their bowls.
They argue that strategies that ensure wider participation of the poor in
programmes meant for them have the potential to deliver remarkable outcomes.
Development is fuller when put in people's hands, specially
the poor, who know best how to use the scarce and precious resources for their
uplift. The first generation leaders of independent India believed that
economic justice would be advanced by the lessons of cooperation where common
efforts to achieve the common good will subsume all artificial differences of caste,
community and religion. This goal got mired in narrow self centeredness.
One can't talk about design of programmes without quoting
Steve Jobs: "Design is a funny word. Some people think design is how it looks.
But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works." We need to be
better informed about what the poor value, what they think could be done to
improve their well-being and how they could work better.
If the primary focus is really ending poverty, a partnership
must be established among poor communities so that they learn from one another
and share traditional, practical knowledge and skills. The field has shifted
profoundly and has become much more nuanced, but we still we cling to the old
development playbook. There is need to properly understand the interplay of
various factors to in the whole constellation.
The hallmark of any intervention for the poor is that it
should stand on the following legs: empathy, humility, compassion and
conscience. Observations like, "I am a farmer myself", "you can't pull wool
over my eyes" and "I was born and brought up in a village and know rural
problems better than anybody else" are a sign of arrogance and will not go down
well with the people with whom one wants to work.
Importing unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants also destroys
the capacity of communities to help themselves. Ensuring that those most in
need are not forgotten and that they have the freedom to make their own choices
is just as important as delivering concrete development outcomes. The people
who pioneered the world's most successful development programmes recognised
this potential and always sought to evoke it. They are the ones who have helped
the marginalized communities take the right step on the right ladder at the
right time. The results have been miraculous.
Development economists acknowledge that the poor act
rationally, however straitened their circumstances may be. If their
undertakings are too small, or their efforts too thinly spread, to be
efficient, it is not because the markets for land, credit or insurance have
failed them. Good management of even the smallest asset can be crucial to very
poor people, who live in precarious conditions, threatened by manifold
Economic development and social change must begin from within
even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside. Well-meaning
people should have the open mindedness to listen to those who work in the field
and live the day-to-day challenges. That respect opens many doors. Lasting
change comes about so slowly that one may not notice it until people resist
being taken care of. The crux of the matter is: People need to be given a
chance to fulfill their own potential.