Stand up and speak out

Stand up and speak out

Millions of people in India and across the world will mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty today. They will attempt to beat the Guinness world record for the maximum number of people to stand up and speak out against poverty, and for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs—eight basic goals to fight poverty, illiteracy, disease and gender inequality—were agreed upon by heads of state of most countries in the world, including those of South Asia, at the dawn of the new millennium.

The big difference is that for the first time in decades, South Asia, and India in particular, are enjoying a period of unparalleled economic growth. At the aggregate level, official data shows a significant reduction in income poverty, although debates on poverty statistics have always been a blood sport amongst academicians in India. More children are enrolled in primary schools than ever before, even if there are serious quality issues. There has been progress on many of the other goals as well. But the newfound prosperity has brought with it wide and increased inequality.

The emergence of a significant, growing and visible middle class is a relatively new development. Today, there are more than 100 million Indians who have some disposable income (cellphone ownership appears to be a good proxy indicator). Then there are the “incredible Indians"—those microscopic few who have got a large slice of the cake. India has now beaten Japan in the race for the largest number of dollar millionaires in Asia. The best of Indian industry today is undoubtedly as good as you can get anywhere in the world. One can’t really blame “foreigners" or cursory followers of global TV news outside India, particularly in the West, for starting to believe that most Indians are software engineers or about to become one.

It is clichéd to say that India lives in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries at the same time. But the growing economic inequality is a new challenge for a society plagued by historical challenges of social and political inequality along the lines of caste, tribe, gender, region and religion. So gyms, low-calorie foods, jogging tracks and diet advisers to deal with obesity sit uncomfortably alongside the largest number of malnourished people in the world (almost half the women in many parts of India are anaemic and 40% of children malnourished). Some of the best hospitals and medical talent in the world coexist with one of the weakest health systems in the world, coping with two million infant deaths a year and more than 100,000 women dying during pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention the largest number of people suffering from tuberculosis anywhere in the world. On many of these counts, it is not just the absolute numbers that are high, which is to be expected given the large population of India, but on many of the health indices such as maternal mortality rate, the ratios are also worryingly high.

As with health facilities, the contrast between the schools that the elite patronize and the poor have to use is to be seen to be believed. Those who could afford it have always used private doctors and private schools. But this duality now extends to power generators, roads and even security! While one could celebrate this from the point of view that this will reduce the pressure on government facilities in health, education, etc., as fewer and fewer people who have voice and influence use the public systems, the level of investment and quality of services offered by the public systems could further deteriorate. The most egregious forms of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy could concentrate further among the poorest regions of the country, the most marginalized social groups including Dalits, Adivasis and minorities, and women in general.

The social, spatial and structural causes that make poverty in the bottom third of the population stubborn and impenetrable have deep social roots. At the heart of this are discrimination, prejudice and exclusion based on caste, tribe, gender and religion. Some of this will not change unless people themselves act to put an end to it.

Increasing public investment in the services that are relevant for the poor is a prerequisite for India achieving the millennium goals. India has amongst the lowest public investment in health, in the world as a proportion of national income. Equally, systematically enhancing the livelihoods of the poor is the only way to sustain poverty eradication and the achievement of the millennium goals. This requires investments that are targeted towards agriculture, livestock, forestry and other sectors in which the majority of the poor are engaged. Along with the hard investments is the challenge of ensuring that resources actually reach the poor and don’t get siphoned off along the way.

There are many thoughtful government programmes in place now to address many of these issues. As poor and excluded sections of Indian society get more socially and politically organized, and media and information becomes more accessible, India should not only achieve but exceed the millennium goals. That is the solemn responsibility that we have for the millions of people standing up today.

Salil Shetty is director, UN millennium campaign, New York. Comments are welcome at