Dr Jay Dubashi
Let us get this poverty business out of the way once and for all. First thing to remember is that poverty is relative, not absolute, and one country’s rich maybe another country’s pauper. There are, for instance, poor people in America too, but they are, if you translate their incomes into rupees, richer than most people in India who work in multinational companies here!
The trouble in India, and other poor countries is that, our poor are so poor that when we talk about poverty in India, we are actually talking about destitution. At 32 rupees, which is supposed to be the daily expenditure of a poor man in India, you can’t buy even half an hamburger in America. A cup of coffee costs a minimum of a hundred rupees in the US and as much as 300 rupees in England. And people who starve in England and Europe would be considered quite well-to-do in India.
In rich countries, the so-called poor own houses, cars, refrigerators and have bank accounts. They send their children to college, particularly in countries like France where education is free. They even take holidays in summer, just like you and me. In India, the poor have nothing. Literally, except the clothes on their backs, and the shacks they manage to live in. They don’t live, they just survive, and the grand figures you read about in the papers, including figures bandied about by Nobel prizemen are actually figures of survival lines, not poverty lines. Incidentally, the Nobel prize men are so affluent they would outdo Tatas and Birlas here!
In the US, the richest country in the world, a family with half the national per capital income would be considered poor. Since the average national income per head in the US is about $40,000 a year, or at current rates, Rs 24 lakh per year per head, a poor family with 4 people has an income of about half a crore of rupees a year. If this is poverty, I would gladly live in the US for ever! It is precisely because incomes are so high in the West that people from poor country are dying to go there all the time!
Why are we so poor and they so rich? Immediately after the last war, I went to England as a student, and took a room in a London suburb called Hampstead, which is to London what Greater Kailash is to Delhi. I paid about Rs 32 a week for the room (including two meals a day) which was of course a great deal more than I used to pay in Bombay, where I lived on Rs 30 a month, including all meals, most of them cooked by me over a kerosene stove.
In London, a housemaid did my room every day and I had my breakfast and dinner with the family. I thought the maid would be like our maids back home in India where they worked all day and got a pittance. The English housemaid got more than Rs 70 a week or about Rs 300 a month, the salary of an officer in India. She had her own house, her children went to school like other children, and she travelled by bus or train, like other Londoners.
I told her one day that I would like to visit her house at Christmas. I thought she would be living in a slum, as most poor people live in big cities, without piped water and W.C. Imagine my surprise when she received me in a proper house with a proper garden three bedrooms nicely furnished and complete with a sofa set – and with a proper kitchen – and she served an excellent meal on very good crockery, and a glass of sherry which most of us could not afford. Her husband worked as a bus driver but his bus had received a hit during the war and he had been ill since then. And, when I went home in the evening, she gave me a nice Christmas present. She was supposed to be a poor housewife and received special coupons for food and clothing.
Last years, I was in London again, but this time I stayed in a small hotel not far from old maid’s house, for which I paid nearly one hundred pounds a day or Rs 9,000, without meals. London is so expensive now that my wife and I lived mostly on toast and jam, and an occasional meal in restaurants. In my hotel, a cup of coffee cost four pounds or Rs 360. The morning newspaper cost nearly a hundred rupees, and we used to buy special tourist bus tickets for Rs 800 a day. We went out for a meal one evening, and came home minus Rs 6,000 for a three-course meal without coffee. That was our only meal during the London trip. We lived exactly like the poor in London, except that we had a little more money in our pocket, and did not eat much.
There is a great deal of poverty in London and millions have no jobs. We went to a friend’s house – he used to be a journalist but now didn’t have a job, and had been unemployed for at least five years. We took some food with us to help out. He had a big house, the kind you see in Chanakyapuri in Delhi, with five or six big rooms, a big hall, two kitchens and bathrooms, and his dinner table was loaded with goodies like ours on Deepavali.
I asked him how he managed. He was technically on dole and received a small pension from his paper. But his dole was so big he now made more money than when he was employed! His dole was worth Rs 6 lakh a year, more than the salary of most journalists in India. He said he would never work again, as he was doing quite well, thank you. But technically, he was a poor man on the dole, though not below the poverty line.
As I said at the beginning, everything is relative, and so is poverty. Even when the GDP goes up, there will be poor in India, for the higher the GDP, the higher the poverty line. As I said earlier, although the poor in the west have much higher incomes then even the well-to-do in India, they are still classified as poor. In America, you come across poor Negroes outside McDonald’s begging – literally begging – for a few dollars to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee though they have their own cars parked a few yards away which will take them home. Like my journalist friend, in London, they too are on the dole and classified as poor.
What we have to do is not to hold stupid debates on how much we need to live above poverty line, but how to increase our incomes. If all you do is discuss poverty all the time, you will be so obsessed with poverty, that you will remain poor all your life. We have to get rid of this obsession with poverty and concentrate on getting rich. All countries were poor at one time but they did not make a fetish of it. And because they didn’t, they all became rich!