The Planning Commission may have said in its affidavit in the Supreme Court that it considers families that spend more than Rs 4,284 a month in urban areas or Rs 3,905 in rural areas to not be poor, but there are various shades of poverty —once you leave out the very, very poor and the destitute—in India.
The Yadavs won’t fit the government’s definition of the poor, but they have been unable to make ends meet and are in debt to the tune of Rs 1.5 lakh. The family is hoping the children finish school, go to college, and land “regular” jobs (Rambakas and Gajraj are cobblers). Food is their main concern. “With rising prices of basic food items, it is getting increasingly difficult to provide wholesome meals to the entire family,” Shanti Yadav says.
Vasuben Dantani and her son used to sell water at a single-screen theatre on Ashram Road that closed in 2001. Her son, whose wife left him, soon died. Vasuben runs chores and does odd jobs as do her two grandsons, when they are not in school (the older boy goes to a private school and the younger one to a government one). The family income is likely a wee bit more than Vasuben’s but not by much. The family is perennially in debt of up to Rs 5,000, though Vasuben’s two daughters pitch in occasionally with some help. She says she is waiting for her grandsons to grow up and improve the family’s fortunes.
Single mother Pranali Warang, who works as a maid, sends her children to a good school, but has to scrimp and save to make ends meet. The family survives on rice and dal, or chapati and bhaji. She’s the very representation of aspirational India, though. She’d like to buy a computer for her children, send them to dance and drawing classes, and, eventually, own a house, no matter how small.
The Sardars just about manage to make ends meet. Swapan Sardar, who drives a cycle rickshaw, says he is where he is because his parents didn’t educate him. His children go to the government school and he and his wife (she works as a maid) make sure there is always food on the table, including milk every day for the boys and chicken twice a month. The children, he hopes, “will study hard, make a career, and help us out of this mess”.
In a good month, when work for Thirumalai, a scooter mechanic, is plentiful, the family eats well, with crab, fish, or mutton four times a week. In bad months, they make do. Thirumalai and his wife want to send their daughter to a private school; that could add Rs 1,300 to their monthly expenses and unbalance the equation. Saritha dreams to own a home, however modest, and see Nivetha become an engineer. “With the prices going up, it’s very difficult,” Thirumalai says. “Our money is in ‘rotation’. We live well when there’s money; we don’t when there’s no money.”
Seena’s job as a coolie doesn’t generate enough money for his family, which survives by borrowing from neighbours and relatives (returning the money when they can). If he could get low-cost healthcare and inexpensive foodgrains—the family’s diet is rice, sambhar and ragi balls—he could get by, says Seena.
Ramachandar and his family reside in an 8x4ft tenement in the basement of an apartment complex where he is a watchman. He and his family iron clothes too. Ramachandar, whose only luxury is an occasional drink (the family’s is half a kilogram of chicken every Sunday), wishes he could send his children to a private school, but thinks it will be beyond his means. He and his wife (she works as a maid) want nothing for themselves but would like to see the children get a good education, and the girls, married.
Reporting by Nidhi Misra, New Delhi; Khushboo Narayan, Mumbai; Manish Basu, Kolkata; Aniruddha Chowdhury, Bangalore; Maulik Pathak, Ahmedabad; Yogendra Kalavalapalli, Hyderabad; Vidya Padmanabhan, Chennai.