A Short Speech on Poverty

Poverty in India has existed for a very long time. More than a century ago, one of India’s greatest minds, Vivekananda talked about it. Half a century later in early 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi described it in great detail. Another half a century later, Amartya Sen wrote the classical essay on “Poverty and Famines” where he analysed the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 in which three to four million people died.

Amartya Sen says that the poor can be divided into three categories, (a) The poor as deprived, (b) The poor as degraded, (c) The poor as exploited. For Sen Deprivation is the characteristic of the poor. Ivan lllich identified a more comprehensive concept as a “lack”.

A poor person lacks consumption, commodities, education, food, health, income, nutrition, etc. This concept accommodates many other realities. Even the very rich in the United States can’t afford what all people in the poor countries have personal attention around the deathbed. It also encompasses the issue of inequality that degrades the poor.

However, it may be useful, first to look at people who are recognized as poor, by whatever criteria. The US Bureau of Census estimates, that 13.7 per cent of US population in 1996 were poor. Similarly, the Canadian Council on Social Development estimated that in 1995, 17.8 per cent of Canadian population was poor.

If one looks into these poor people, most of the original or native Indians fall in this category in both US and Canada. To make India poor, the British rule managed to cause the death of around 200 million people. Imperialist domination has a lot to do with poverty in India.

Gandhiji fully recognised that poverty follows from exploitation emanating from the retry of an elite-mass contradiction. Gandhi understood such alienation implied in the education pursued by the British colonial administration to produce Macaulayite Indians, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

However, Gandhiji believed that one can’t be exploited except by one’s own cooperation, so that he holds both the exploiter and the exploited responsible for exploitation. Gandhiji followed Vivekananda who argued that it is necessary for the exploited people to stand up, fight and become “men”. For the exploiter, Gandhiji proposed the idea of a trusteeship, derived from Gita, placing more faith in the soul part of his identity.

Sen’s intellectual output is deeply embedded in the liberal ideology. It makes a major contribution to many of the planks and suffers from its limitations. As liberal thought was being developed in many countries of the world, the Europeans were engaged in colonising people, a process that took hundreds of years of genocidal attacks.

As liberal ideology was perfected, imperialism also became the then prevailing order. The liberal ideas were never meant for the colonised and the exploited.

Liberal ideology is based fundamentally on “ontological individualism” the belief that the truth of our condition is not in our society or in our relation to each other, but in our isolated and inviolate selves.

To Gandhiji, poverty is an exploitative equation between elite and the poor masses. His solution follows logically, development of character among the exploited poor and appeal of trusteeship to the exploiter. Sen considers poverty as an attribute of the poor who need certain “capabilities”, defined by education, health and income. His policy recommendation, then, is to offer opportunities for more education, growth and health.

Sen’s argument has influenced the measurement of a Human Development Index, based on life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, and real per capita GDP, estimated yearly by the UNDP and published in their annual Human Development Report.

The 1998 report provides a ranking of the countries in the world by this measure. Canada tops the list. The bottom 10 list is made up of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Zambia, and Siera Leone. No doubt it changes the ranking within but not between the “poor” and the “non- poor” countries. Sen’s ideas have also influenced the development of Human Poverty Index HPI is based on “the most basic dimensions of deprivation”.

By this measure, poverty level for Trinidad and Tobago is 4.1 per cent, Mexico 10.9 per cent. Thailand 11.9 per cent, as compared with the poverty levels in Canada at 17.8 per cent judged to be the best country US 13.7 per cent, and. UK 20 per cent. Considering estimates for US, Canada, and UK are well- founded, estimates of HPI raise serious questions about its usefulness.

Sen’s policy recommendations are based on the acceptance and adequacy of the existing state and market framework, and appeal to the elite to which he belongs. It is an appeal for compassion.

The policy content of Sen’s arguments involves a change in the State’s expenditures on public health, education and growth, and regulation of parts of the market to avoid gross injustices. This is an easier agenda for change because it is non-threatening and in the interest of the ruling elite, Sen holds.