India's problem: Poverty amidst prosperity


Indian schoolchildren eat food served as part of The 'Mid Day Meal' scheme at a Government Primary School in Hyderabad on June 23, 2010. The scheme is the popular name for the school meals programme in India. It involves provision of lunch free of cost to schoolchildren on all working days. The key objectives of the programme are: protecting children from classroom hunger, increasing school enrolment and attendance, improved socialisation among children belonging to all castes, addressing malnutrition, and social empowerment through provision of employment to women.



With 83,000 malnourished children, India's financial and film capital, and its wealthiest city, is also the capital of hunger, the Hindustan Times reports.

A third of Mumbai’s children are under-nourished. Not only is it the second highest in Maharashtra, it is higher than the neighbouring tribal lands of Thane and Nashik, infamous for grinding poverty and malnutrition deaths.

The bad news is that malnourishment in Mumbai could actually be worse than India believes it is.

Official statistics likely underestimate malnutrition, based as they are on data provided by Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a government child-care programme that reaches only a quarter of children in the city’s slums.

Despite three decades of economic growth averaging around 6%, India still has the highest number of malnourished children in the world. Nearly half of the world’s underweight children are Indians.

Meanwhile, India is still debating a controversial suggesting by the head of the planning commission -- a powerful body in part responsible for setting spending policies -- that the official poverty line should be lowered to just 32 rupees per person per day for families in urban India and 26 rupees for rural areas (that's $0.65 and $0.48, respectively).  

The debate has mostly been colored by suggestions of just what Planning Commission head Montek Singh Ahluwalia should do with his own 32 rupees (he lives in as-posh-as-it-gets Delhi).  But as the story of Mumbai's malnutrition problems suggests, India's increasing wealth disparity is a problem that's as complicated as it is worrying -- particularly because government delivery on welfare programs is notoriously bad.

In an editorial elsewhere in the paper titled "The Nature of Poverty," the always perceptive Samar Halarnkar breaks it down:

Those on the left of the debate, including Sonia Gandhi, believe India underestimates the numbers of the poor. The official figure is about 400 million; the highest estimate is 800 million. They argue welfare spending must rise in what is one of the world’s most unequal nations. One way to do it is, some say, to withdraw tax exemptions to India Inc, now worth Rs 4 lakh crore.

Those on the right, including the prime minister, believe that India cannot afford to spend R4.5 lakh crore a year on the social sector. The benefits are uncertain (about 60% of food subsidies never reach the poor, for instance), at a time of slowing growth and a fiscal deficit tipped to hit 5% this year, instead of the budget target of 4.6%. Better, they say, to invest instead in India’s collapsing infrastructure and push the most effective anti-poverty measure — growth.

Halarnkar wisely argues that the answer lies somewhere in between.  India desperately needs a better safety net for the poor.  As case in point, in the Mumbai slum that the paper chose to profile for its story on malnutrition, it's likely nobody is living below the poverty line.

‘Pipeline’, a precarious Mumbai slum — it literally sits atop a water pipeline — home to maids, drivers and others just below the lower middle-class. Most people here earn twice as much as the R32-cutoff, get no doles and can afford food. But they have no health care and sanitation. So, most children in ‘Pipeline’ are malnourished, as are nearly 80,000 in India’s richest city.