Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Let’s try a non-linear approach to justice for the poor

Poverty is an unstructured problem and solving it calls for design thinking techniques

A political storm brews over the Congress’ announcement to increase social transfers through its Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) or minimum income guarantee scheme. The scheme promises an income of 72,000 per annum to 20% of families in the poorest-of-the-poor category. Economists and social commentators are justifiably divided on this emotive issue, with arguments for and against it over the social implications of the resultant equity versus the fiscal math of such a scheme.

Where proponents and critics err is in their conception of such schemes, which views poverty as a structured problem. The resolution of structured problems would be linear and straightforward, comprising a series of well-defined actions to solve such problems. Thus, the architects of NYAY treat the problem of poverty reduction as one of providing a certain minimum income guarantee to poor households. The constraint of financing the scheme can be resolved by taxing the rich through a series of progressive taxes on income and wealth. And voila, poverty stands eliminated!

Unfortunately, diverse voices even from international think-tanks such as the World Inequality Lab focus on this approach of viewing poverty as a structured problem. Thus, the recently-released World Inequality Lab report speaks of the burden on the fisc based on three different scenarios of minimum income guarantees and how the NYAY scheme can be funded by taxing the rich. This is a typical traditional problem-solving approach based on looking at the problem and envisaging solutions based on looking at the constraints.

The fundamental objection lies in treating a multi-dimensional construct such as poverty in a linear fashion. Poverty is essentially an unstructured problem, the elimination of which will require a design-thinking approach. Starting with “Why are people poor?" will get the answer, “People are poor simply because they are poor." Poverty results in malnutrition, lack of adequate health and sanitation facilities, and illiteracy, which in turn traps the poor in a vicious cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

Malnutrition in India is among the highest in the world. The World Bank reports that prevalence of under-weight children in India is almost twice that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Such malnutrition means people are unable to realize their full potential. Malnourished children underperform at school and hence have fewer job opportunities. Malnourished adults are less productive at work and malnourished women bear underweight children, perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty and economic stagnation.

Such malnutrition, however, should not be mistaken for a mere unavailability of food on account of economic status. Studies on the subject point to an association between sanitation and malnutrition. The constant exposure to germs from faecal matter make children vulnerable to chronic intestinal diseases that prevent their bodies from making good use of nutrients in food, leading to malnutrition. Thus, a study on the level of stunting in 112 districts of India pointed to the fact that a 10% increase in open defecation led to a 0.7% increase in stunting and severe stunting. This, despite two-thirds of all adults and more than half of the females surveyed for this report being literate. The study concluded that the provision of calories per se, without attention to sanitation, was unlikely to reduce stunting among children.

Another important aspect of poverty is the lack of adequate health facilities. India’s spend on public health per capita, at a dismal 1,112 per annum (or 3 per day), is the lowest in the world, with the upshot that Indians are the sixth biggest out-of-pocket (OOP) health spenders in the low-middle income group of 50 nations. Studies have shown that such lack of access to essential medicines and health facilities, as also an increase in the costs of health, push people below the poverty line every year.

With poverty causing and being caused by other developmental outcomes, poverty-elimination will require broad, widespread changes in the behaviour of people.

Solutions will need to involve the users of such interventions through human-centric designs. Design-thinking techniques such as Revolution, which involve turning an idea on its head by taking the key assumptions and reversing or removing them, can be successfully implemented. Thus, for instance, instead of getting poor daily-wage workers to take their malnourished children to anganwadis or distant nutrition rehabilitation centres (NRCs), the workers of these set-ups could go door-to-door to treat malnourished kids and put in place a mechanism for their careful monitoring, as was implemented in a malnutrition management pilot project in Bokaro.

Similarly, techniques could involve flipping the way one looks at malnourishment and ill health to look at, say, the 20% success cases rather than the 80% failure cases among the poor. The former could be used to inform solutions to tackle the latter.

Solutions to human-centric unstructured problems need to be viewed through the lens of desirability, feasibility and viability. While poverty alleviation is desirable in its intent, the linear outlook that the NYAY scheme envisages would likely guarantee its failure. A scheme for poverty alleviation should involve a multi-dimensional, non-linear approach based on key insights drawn from the group it is meant to target.

Tulsi Jayakumar is a professor of economics at S.P Jain Institute of Management and Research.

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