Poverty in times of elite splurge
By Ravi Kapoor
The Planning Commission’s affidavit in the Supreme Court has reignited the debate over the extent of poverty in India. According to the plan panel, anyone who spends over Rs 965 per month in urban areas and Rs 781 in villages is above the poverty line. This translates into expenditure worth Rs 32 a day in cities and Rs 26 a day in the countryside; it was this translation by the media that caused a great deal of flutter.
Perhaps the loudest and most hypocritical reaction came from National Advisory Council (NAC) member Aruna Roy: “This affidavit reflects the government’s deep lack of empathy for the poor and a perspective completely divorced from reality.” Correct, Ms Roy, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government lacks “empathy for the poor.” It has done everything to weaken the economy and fleece the aam aadmi. For this very reason, you should not be part of the NAC. For the person who heads the NAC—that is, Sonia Gandhi—is also the one who practically runs the government. So, by ignoring this fact, you are running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. What you call the “government” is nothing but Sonia’s handmaiden.
Roy’s frustration emanates from the fact that a lower spending figure there would mean lower spending on poverty alleviation schemes. She said, “It is obvious that this extremely low estimated expenditure is a threshold aimed only at artificially reducing the number of persons ‘below poverty line’ [BPL] so as to reduce government expenditure on the poor.”
On the face of it, it sounds nice and altruistic that the government should be spending huge amounts for the uplift of the poor. If the meek can’t inherit the earth, they should at least get enough to make both ends meet. The self-appointed champions of the poor like Roy always clamor for the simplistic measure of spending more money to eradicate poverty.
Typically, they ignore the empirical evidence; convinced that their viewpoint is divinely sanctioned, they refuse to look around and see if government spending is actually helping the poor. Over a quarter of century ago, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously said that out of every rupee spent by the government only 15 paise reach the poor. In the age of Rajas and ranis, one has to be considerably optimistic to assume that the same proportion reaches the intended beneficiaries.
Even if we assume that the poor get the same proportion of funds as they did in the 1980s, the demand for more expenditure on poverty alleviation schemes is more for the sustenance of the bureaucracy concerned and the venal interests involved in the apparently philanthropic project.
By the way, governments’ record of removing poverty by spending money is bad all over the world; even in countries which have much better governance standards than ours have floundered as far as this area of state intervention is concerned. In 1964, former US President Lyndon B. Johnson declared War on Poverty. “Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, the taxpayers have sunk over $16 trillion into this bottomless pit. Even worse, most of that government spending actively undermines LBJ’s original goal. Johnson (unlike the permanent bureaucracy) emphatically did not want to increase dependence and welfare enrollments. Instead, he sought to make Americans prosperous and self-sufficient. But most anti-poverty/welfare spending erodes work and marriage. As result, after $16 trillion in spending, low-income Americans are less capable of self-support than when the War on Poverty began. The government’s answer? You got it. Spend more money,” Robert Rector, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, wrote recently.
Spend more money is the demand not only of many government departments in India (and in other countries) but also of the NAC-types who have taken it upon themselves to redeem the poor. In the process, they want to expand and strengthen the welfare state to the extent that it assumes the proportions of a Leviathan, the beast that ends up gnawing at the vitals of our economy and transmogrifying the polity. For the size of government is inversely proportional to the democratic rights and civil liberties. It is another matter, though, that the NAC jihadis sanctimoniously claim to champion the cause of democracy.
There may be some inaccuracies in the estimation of poverty by the Planning Commission and incongruities in the policies to help the poor, but the cures suggested by the NAC fanatics are worse than the disease itself. It is matter of great concern that the UPA regime nurtures the fanatics who have a vested interest in undermining democracy and liberty in India.
(The author is a freelance journalist.)