Why India is a Poor Country

Last week, the Planning Commission proved that its smug, cloistered officials have never met a poor Indian. If they had they would have known that beggars and homeless people in Delhi and Mumbai need Rs 100 a day just to survive. All of it goes on food. By telling the Supreme Court that Indians living in cities could not be officially poor if they spent more than Rs 965 a month, and in villages if they spent more than Rs 781, the Planning Commission showed how insulated it has become. But, its ludicrous assessment gives us a chance to examine why millions of Indians remain desperately poor despite thousands of crore rupees being poured into their welfare annually.

The truth is that we have failed to remove poverty in India because we have gone about it the wrong way. We have invested in massive, unmanageable centralised schemes that spend more on administrative costs than on delivering benefits. An anti-poverty scheme that costs taxpayers thousands of crore rupees often ends up delivering no more than Rs 100 to a beneficiary. It is estimated that we spend seven rupees on a rupee's worth of aid. So our poverty alleviation schemes have become as useless as the Planning Commission. Perhaps because they have been devised by the same sort of officials who inhabit Yojana Bhawan.

Had these grandiose poverty alleviation programmes worked even a little, we would not today face the shameful reality that 45 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. That is if they live to see their fifth birthday. India's infant mortality rate (53 per thousand) is worse than Bangladesh and little Sri Lanka, with no more than eleven deaths per thousand, is decades ahead.

These statistics should shame our officials but they do not. Go to any Government of India website and you will be plied with boastful claims. It has been my experience that the worst of our poverty alleviation programmes is the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. But, if you look it up online, you will discover that it is the 'largest and most unique' child welfare programme in the world started as a showpiece of the Emergency on

October 2, 1975.

On two occasions I have seen it in action during a drought. In Maharashtra's Nandurbar district, it could have saved the lives of thousands of starving children by opening free kitchens in the affected villages. Instead it provided for children only if they were brought to hospital in Akkalkuwa when they were on the point of dying. Then they would be given Rs 40 worth of food a day and once they recovered sent home to starve again because they came from families who could spend no more than Rs 10 a day on food for the

whole family.

What I saw in Orissa's Kalahandi district was even more sickening. The drought was so bad in 1987 that in remote villages, people had eaten nothing but birdseed and mango kernels for months. The Congress government (in 1987) under the ICDS started a feeding programme for children, in towns many kilometres away, but even here only children under the age of five were fed. So they took their 'khichdi' home to share with their older siblings. And, the ICDS is a programme we continue to be proud of.

These programmes should have been abolished long ago and replaced with more effective, decentralised ones. This may have happened if Sonia Gandhi's National Advisory Council had not come along to invent even more grandiose, centralised programmes like the employment guarantee scheme, MNREGA. State governments are forced to implement them and in doing so, lose all the money they may have been able to put into smaller, less leaky schemes.

It is easy to blame an absence of political will for India's enduring, hideous poverty. But, having investigated the problem for many years now, I have come to the conclusion that real blame lies with officials of the kind that sit in Yojana Bhawan. Since they do not need to get voted out every five years they have time to understand the flaws in the schemes they devise. But, they never tell their political masters what they are because leakages from unwieldy schemes leak directly into the pockets of officials all the way down the line.

These officials are not just corrupt but evil because they steal from the mouths of India's poorest most needy children without losing a moment of peace. They are able to do this because they never see India's poverty except when it is served up to them in their insulated offices in the form of statistics. But, even by the high standards of insensitive officialdom that we maintain in India, the Planning Commission's latest appraisal is in a class by itself. The Planning Commission is clearly an idea whose time has gone.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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