In the mythical story of Lord Krishna and his school mate Sudama, the latter, forced by his extreme poverty, seeks his friend’s help to alleviate it. The story says that while he was leaving his wife gave him three fistful of rice as a token of gift to his friend, the lord of the universe. That was the only surplus she had which could be presented as gift. The poverty stricken Brahmin makes a long solitary journey to the lord’s palace in distant seaside city of Dwarka. Upon his arrival he finds it difficult to get into his court and after a bit of jostling he is finally able to send his message across. The moment lord hears about his friend’s arrival, it’s like a magic wand has finally been wielded, lord is ecstatic to meet his long lost friend and though Sudama doesn’t ask for anything, the perceptive king understands his reason of arrival and Sudama’s days of misery are over.
In real life things are not that easy. Not everyone finds a benevolent friend or has the good fortune of meeting the lord almighty. However, this story holds a small but poignant lesson for the present day governments. Eradicating poverty needs an ecosystem where Sudama’s life threatening journey (A bold personal initiative based on courage and belief in the justness of the system) is rewarded by a very receptive and responsive king (Efficient and effective government). It takes two to tango, concerted efforts for a generation or two, mostly by the governments of the day in the form of clear-cut policies and impartial, just and strict implementation.
Eradicating the Evil
The United Nations in its list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals has kept “eradicating poverty in all forms for all people everywhere”, right at the top signifying its urgency and priority. It’s a no brainer that poverty is the ultimate curse for humanity. Indian philosophers have said that poverty is a soul corroding experience as it compels people to undertake actions which otherwise they would abhor to do. Selling child out of desperation, selling their body for a meal or resorting to crimes like murder and arson can all be triggered by poverty. Apart from such crimes poverty also has a corrosive effect on the quality of human capital that faces such hardships. Stunting, wasting, cognitive problems and sheer lack of access to natural, social and governmental resources perpetuate a cycle that leads downward spiral into doom.
To arrest this colossal loss of human capital due to poverty, the United Nation in the year 2000 proposed to end extreme poverty and hunger from the planet in their eight Millennium Development Goals. The timeframe set for the national governments around the world was 15 years. At that time 36 percent of the global population was surviving on $1.25 or less. In a span of one and a half decades that followed, the number of people living in extreme poverty facing hunger came down to 10 percent. The maximum improvements in absolute numbers were witnessed in the two most populous nations in the world – India and China.
Together both the countries have been working to eradicate poverty from early 1990s a decade earlier than the Millennium Development Goals were formally launched. However, the MDGs gave a significant fillip to their initiatives and by 2015 when the deadline for the MDGs arrived China was able to uplift an astounding 470 million people out of poverty and India was able to lift close to 270 million people from the same trap.
Today on an average 44 Indians come out of poverty every minute according to Brookings Institute’s Future Development blog.
People may say, the progress still leaves many millions reeling under poverty and it’s true. But what’s also true is that at no point in the history of humans the poverty eradication rate was as astoundingly fast as it has been between the years 2005 and 2015.
There is always a gap between the target and achievement, vision and reality. Visions always act as sign posts or goal posts and most of the times the governments don’t achieve them but wherever they reach is almost always better position than the one where they began.
However, even after phenomenal success by government standards in eradicating poverty in societies, there are 736 million or 10 percent of the global population living below poverty line around the world. Along with and including these people 1.3 billion humans live in multi-dimensional poverty and 80 percent of them are living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
This necessitated the formulation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with ending all forms of poverty for everyone everywhere by 2030.
Devil Lies in details
Visions by definition are lofty and short on specifics. Targets, on the other hand, are deliberately kept steep to egg on the workers or an organisation to push the boundaries of their professional competence and comfort. SDGs are no different.
However, unlike a typical vision document it actually has two very specific goals. Among other things it calls for reducing at least by half all forms of poverty among men, women and children within a 15 year deadline.
Yet terms like implement “nationally appropriate” social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve “substantial coverage” of the poor and the vulnerable. It also talks about creating “sound” policy frameworks to achieve these goals.
Words like appropriate, substantial and sound are at best vague. The primary need for a successful implementation demands that there should be a target with a clear cut goal, a time frame, and a measureable yardstick.
The goal is clear in terms of deadline which is the year 2030. So whatever needs to be achieved should be done in the 15 years starting from 2015. It also says that the reduction should at least be able to bring down the number by half from the current 736 million.
Clarity on these two issues is a great place to begin with. However, it is at the stage of monitoring and measurement that some clarity is needed. For example, there should be complete clarity and acceptance on the definition of multi-dimensional poverty?
Secondly the definition of poverty in dollar terms also needs revision. In the year 2000 it was $1.25 now it is $1.90. But what needs to be taken into consideration is the inflation rate during the last 18 years and how relevant this number is in today’s terms. Otherwise there is a danger of governments resorting to statistical jugglery leaving millions still in the clutches of poverty.
Tackling the Hydra Headed Monster
Multi-dimensional poverty includes among other things, child and maternal health, access to nutritious food, education, health and natural resources to realise individual potential.
Examples from India and China show that China took the route of improving farm productivity, increased urbanisation, skill development and promotion of export oriented economy. While India worked on social indicators by launching focussed national and state level interventions.
Since 2005 India has seen two different governments and both of them have worked towards poverty alleviation with sustained good results. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh introduced schemes like the minimum employment guarantee scheme (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme- MGNREGS). Earlier in 1995 midday meal scheme was launched by another Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to increase the number of enrolment in schools.
The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Narendra Modi has launched health insurance for poor, while tightening the delivery mechanism in low cost housing, skill development, loan disbursement for small scale entrepreneurs and providing gas connection for poor families etc.
The use of bio-metric identity data and linking it with bank accounts and mobile phone has helped the present government to add speed, efficiency and effectiveness of delivery mechanism of every scheme.
Effects of these measures have resulted in reduced leakage of resources. Their better deployment is evident in the statistics that suggests every minute 44 Indians are moving out of poverty and by 2030 only three percent of the Indians would be facing poverty of some sorts.
Concerted actions by India and China show that even though the challenge is huge, strong willed governments, extensive use of technology and policy adjustments based on real time feedback from the ground can finally help humanity get rid of the age old curse of poverty.