The pointillism of poverty

The pointillism of poverty
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First Published: Thu, Nov 19 2009. 01 15 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Dec 07 2009. 10 18 AM IST
Shankar, our driver, has been working in the family for at least 15 years. He joined my father’s business as an unskilled labourer in the early 1990s, migrating from a small village in Tamil Nadu. He came because of his elder brother, who had worked his way up the skill chain in the construction sector, and cajoled his shy kid brother to come away to the city.
My father encouraged Shankar to become a driver, and when we returned to India in 1998, Shankar joined us, with both his skills and income improving gradually over the years. It seemed like things were working out for Shankar, almost reflecting India’s slow but steady rise out of poverty.
Until this year.
Earlier this year, his older brother, who had become a successful mason in the intervening years, but had a bad drinking problem, committed suicide. Just like that, one Sunday night. He was like a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, transforming on Sundays into a dreadful drunk, returning to normalcy on Monday morning. That Sunday, the rguments were fiercer and more melodramatic. His wife woke up the next day to find her husband dead. Shankar was heartbroken—we were afraid he couldn’t handle the tragedy. After the death ceremonies, he promised the widow he would take care of the children.
Every few months, he would visit his village, checking on his ageing mother and meeting his other siblings—an older brother and a sister, both of whom had several children.
A few weeks ago, late one morning, he got news that his older brother had been admitted to hospital with third-degree burns, caused by a kerosene stove that burst. A week later, the brother died, leaving behind five children, including two daughters.
When Shankar returned from the funeral, he looked drawn and defeated. “I curse the day I was born into this family,” he said. Along with the pain of losing loved ones, he had the added financial obligations. His plans to buy a house with his diligent savings have dimmed considerably.
Shankar’s story isn’t unique. It is being repeated across India. These stories are important because they help us to understand the challenges of transitioning out of poverty.
Among the academic community, few have spent as much time on this issue as Anirudh Krishna, a professor of public policy at Duke University. Krishna spent 14 years in the IAS before turning to research. In a work titled Why Growth is Not Enough published in the Journal of Development Studies (October 2005), he wrote: “Poverty is experienced by individuals in households, and not by districts or states or countries as a whole.”
Krishna’s key point is that escape from poverty isn’t some linear, one-way street—that people fall back into poverty as well, and that the numbers we look at are actually net numbers—those coming out of poverty minus those falling back into it. This is important, because we need to understand the size of these two factors, what causes them and thereby, what corrective measures might work for each, since these needn’t be the same.
In this study, Krishna (et al) analysed families in 35 villages in Gujarat, and categorized people into four buckets in terms of their transitions over a 25-year period: those that stayed poor; those that came out of poverty; those that fell back into it; and those that stayed non-poor.
They found that “55.6% have remained poor; 9.5% have successfully escaped poverty; 6.3% have become poor in this time; and the remaining 28.6% have remained not poor”. Note that while close to 10% of the families escaped poverty, over 6% fell back into poverty, resulting in a net poverty escape of only 3%. Other state-level studies have confirmed these same sub-trends.
The factors causing the escape are different from those causing the fallback. Escape is caused by the things that we generally tend to discuss (with some surprises in relative contributions): job creation (both private and public), diversified incomes and irrigated land. However, the factors causing fallback into poverty are primarily “ill health and health-related expenditures, large customary expenses on marriages and death feasts, and high-interest private consumption credit”.
Note the term “large customary expenses on...death feasts”. This is what is happening to Shankar. What could be added is not only the specific expenses related to death, but the associated obligations of caretaking of dependent family members. These factors contribute to a brittleness of the poor—their rise out of poverty is handicapped in many ways.
Even as we focus on the macro-factors that can pull millions out of poverty, we must complement this with the lessons from the individual trajectories of the poor. The picture will not be complete without this pointillism of poverty.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at
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First Published: Thu, Nov 19 2009. 01 15 AM IST