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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 29 New Delhi July 6, 2019

MIG: At the Centre of the Narrative of Elections

Sunday 7 July 2019

by Suranjita Ray

Ever since ‘GaribiHatao’ (poverty eradication) became the most popular slogan which appealed to the large majority of poor people across the country that brought the Congress Party to power in the 1970s, the poll manifestoes of leading political parties have focused on several poverty alleviation programmes and schemes. Despite various interpretations of understanding poverty and its causes that has made it difficult to arrive at a consensus on the poverty alleviation strategies, Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG)/income assurance has remained central to poverty eradication, and has been endorsed by several political parties to legitimise their manifestoes as pro-poor and pro-people.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party blames the Congress Party of having betrayed India in the name of poverty for almost 70 years, the Congress Party describes the Nyunatam Aay Yojana (NYAY) as a surgical strike on poverty as it will undo anyay (injustice) by empowering the poor to overcome the recent impairments that policies of demonetisation and a flawed Goods and Service Tax have caused. This blame-game has reignited the debate on poverty which re-emphasises that poverty cannot be reduced to income deprivation alone.

NYAY: A Big Promise to Abolish Poverty

Unlike several schemes that target the farm households for income support such as the Central Government’s Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) Yojana, Biju Janata Dal’s Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme in Odisha, Telangana Rashtra Samithi Party’s Farmers’ Investment Support Scheme (FISS)/Rythu Bandhu in Telangana, and All India Trinamul Congress Party’s Krisak Bandhu Scheme in Bengal, the Congress Party claims that NYAY is a universal scheme that promises a direct cash transfer of Rs 6000 per month and Rs 72,000 per year to 50 million very poor families amongst the poorest 20 per cent of India’s population. NYAY promises 12 times an annual income transfer than PM-KISAN Yojana and claims to be the biggest anti-poverty programme that will benefit 25 crore poor, which will cost 3.6 lakh crore per annum. It also claims to be women-centric as the money would be credited to the bank account of the woman of the household.

The Congress spokespersons defend that a minimum basic income will ensure equality and justice for the poor people. They argue that consultation with renowned economists and experts suggest that the poorest Indians live on Rs 6000 and helping them with an additional amount of Rs 6000 would lift them above poverty. In remonetising the economy, ‘NYAY will jump start the Indian economy like a vehicle that is started by a key’. Though the economy growing at a faster pace will not necessarily alleviate poverty, supporters of NYAY argue that income transfer will enable the poor to meet their essential needs by spending the money. Praveen Chakravarty, Chairperson of the Data Analytics Department of the Congress Party, believes that ‘an unconditional cash transfer gives the economic freedom where some families might choose to indulge in consumption while others may choose to upgrade the skills of their children’. This will restart the economic engine/ kickstart the economy, as a consumption boost will give rise to pick up in the investment demand. This will create new jobs and increasedtax revenues will lead to the second part of NYAY which will jump-start the economy.

While the Congress party President ruled out the role of progressive taxation /levying higher taxes on the rich/middle class, the question of resources for such schemes largely remains unanswered. Alongside, the past experiences suggest that since a majority of the poor depend on the informal sector or casual work and self-employment, the difficulty to learn about the accurate income of each household remains. Surveys and studies conducted all over the country have found large scale exclusion and inclusion errors in the methodology used in the below poverty line (BPL) Census in 1992, 1997 and 2002 resulting in further errors in selecting households for certain schemes and programmes of the Ministry of Rural Development and the State governments. While the basic income/cash transfer schemes experimented in a few countries such as Finland and Brazil to address the rising inequalities have some merits in achieving welfare and a decline in poverty rate, very few studies show the long-term effects of large income transfers.

In fact, income assurance only addresses the symptom of poverty. Therefore, while the economists and policy-analysts such as Thomas Piketty, Lucas Chancel and Raghuram Rajan argue in favour of the scheme NYAY, they also caution that the latter should not be taken as a miracle or a final solution. They argue that while reducing monetary poverty is important, NYAY should be supplemented with health and education to address human capability deprivation. Such deprivations contribute to the decline in human capabilities to earn sufficient income through labour/work.

Poverty: A Systemic Deprivation

Our past experience reveals that an increased growth in the economy has also seen increasing inequality and poverty and sections of society have continued to remain excluded, deprived, marginalised, alienated and are vulnerable to the processes of impoverishment across the country. (Ray, 2010a: 21-26) Therefore, under-standing poverty as a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, that not only depends on income but also on access to social services, saw the shift in the approaches from estimating poverty based on the income necessary to acquire a daily consumption of 2400 kilocalories in rural areas and 2100 kilocalories in urban areas (as per the 1979 Nutrition Expert Group to the Planning Commission), to the necessity to consider lack of basic needs such as access to education, shelter, health, sanitation, drinking water and other basic services that become important in measuring poverty.

Failure of basic capabilities results in a vicious circle of chronic under-nutrition, poor health, unsanitary conditions, which in turn increases their vulnerability to infectious diseases that hinders their motivation and reduces their capacity to physical work and thus deems them forever in hopeless poverty. (Dreze and Sen 1989: 13-15) Therefore, investments in basic services such as health, education, physical infras-tructure, water and sanitation that build human capabilities become essential to eradicate multi-dimensional poverty. The rights-based approach of the government for the past several years has reinforced its pro-poor mandate through major policy changes such as right to employment, education, health, shelter, information, and food security. Alongside its moral obligation, the legal obligation of the state ensures that the rights of its citizens are secured. A range of poverty alleviation programmes, that integrated development projects, micro-finance and employment, welfare schemes and services in health and education in particular, emphasise that social spending is not only consumption but also leads to investments in productive capacity. (See also deHaan, 2011 cited in Ray 2011: 321-344)

However, since the dominant poverty alleviation approaches have reinforced the residual approach as they focus on the outcomes, most poverty studies have focused on measuring the outcomes and the question of how many are poor has always received more attention. The identification of the poor and targeting them by specific programmes have become important than the more fundamental question of what are the underlying causes of poverty and the underlying structures which keep certain sections deprived and excluded.

Poverty is the consequence of the inability to generate sufficient resources to meet basic needs which to a large extent is because of the structural conditions. Poverty is embedded in the structures of deprivation, exclusion, marginalisation and impoverishment. Structural poverty is economic, social, political, cultural and psychological deprivations that constrain the full realisation of developmental potentiality of an individual, group or a community. Therefore, despite the significance of the absolute core in poverty and the need to meet nutritional requirements, to avoid diseases, to be sheltered, to be clothed, to be educated ...to live without shame, the prescriptive definition of basic needs based primarily on the assertions of experts by simply referring to the physical needs of the individual is further debated.

Though ensuring basic needs is a positive intervention towards poverty reduction, eradicating poverty which is systemic deprivation, is associated with powerlessness, exclusion, exploitation, oppression, deprivation, alienation, atrocities, humiliation and a loss of dignity which block opportunities for escape from poverty for certain communities, groups or individuals. Therefore, despite several policies to improve health, nutrition, employment and education which are important for capability building, we find that entitlements and empowerment remain a distant dream for the majority.

Amartya Sen argues that the ‘absoluteness’ is neither constant over time nor invariant between societies. (Sen1985: 669-76) Barbara Harriss points out that measuring the poverty line should investigate ‘the regionally specified relations of the poor to the process of production, exchange, as well as biological and social reproduction,... the rationality of choice made by the poor between investment and consumption, the trends in the wage determination, occupational portfolios, household mobility and sequence of reaction to shock’. (Harriss 1992: 16) As an interlocking condition of asset-less, underemploy-ment, low wages and incomes, proneness to decease, illiteracy, gender and economic vulnerabilities, social disadvantage and political powerlessness (Ibid.: 28), poverty is the consequential effect of structural inequality and systemic deprivations which produce and reinforce conditions of poverty. Despite its multidimensional and multifaceted nature which demands multi-pronged and dynamic approaches, the cross-cutting element of poverty is always the structural deprivation and disempowerment of the marginalised and impoverished. It is primarily the denial of ownership and control over the basic productive resources that marginalises and impoverishes the deprived and disadvantaged. Since poverty is the consequential effect of structural deprivation, it is important to understand the structures which determine the power relations.

Studies which trace the root causes of poverty find that engaging with the critical evaluation of myths, oral traditions, folklore, people’s memory, contemporary practices and cultural beliefs, explain in many ways the historical processes of increasing alienation of land, land fragmentation and land encroachment, distress sale of land, alienation of labour and produce of labour particularly of a class, caste, group or a community over the years. (See also Mohanty, Trivedi, Ray and Sukumar, 2010; Deo cited in Ray, 2010: 221-234) Landlessness and margina-lisation result from long-term process of structural inequality, which creates deprivation and denies basic entitlements required for minimum subsistence to certain sections of society.

Need For Structural Change

While the universal basic social welfare/ services and social security schemes need to be much more effective and the implementation of the existing subsidies for the poor such as the Targeted Public Distribution System, Mid-Day Meal Programmes and employment guaranteed schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and Minimum Support Price to the distress farmers need to be strengthened, it is pertinent to analyse the undelivered promises and lack of political will. Suppressing data on unemployment and making claims that job-seekers have become job-givers cannot help us to address the root causes of the high unemployment rate and increasing rural distress. While certain sections in society such as the malnourished and sick people, the old, the differently abled, and the deprived and distressed need immediate income support, a majority of the poorest people need to be empowered by either owning and controlling or having accessibility to the basic productive resources.

Therefore, alongside social protection or social security, structural intervention should play a constructive role in eradicating the processes of deprivation, marginalisation and exclusion. Though the unconditional transfer of a specified minimum income support to the poor has appealed the ordinary citizens to a large extent as it might go a long way in assisting to fulfil the immediate needs related to health, education and indebtedness, whether such schemes result in building the capability of the deprived in the long run to enable them to escape the traps of diseases, debt and indebtedness, and escape the processes of impoverishment, famishment, deprivation and denial of ownership and control over basic productive resources, labour, and produce of the labour, still remain a major challenge. As long as the root causes of indebtedness and deprivation remain unaddressed,income transfers as short term policies and schemes will remain as mere relief measures. The relief measures taken by the state are temporary and non-structural and result in dependency syndrome.

Therefore, one of the greater challenges for policy-makers to guarantee basic right to livelihood is to address the structural conditions which generate and perpetuate poverty and deprivation in certain regions for certain sections of society. The themes and parameters to draw the poverty line should be in accordance with the local conditions and should not be laid down from above. An accelerated growth can only be sustainable in the long run if socio-economic and political development takes place at the grassroots in accordance with the demands and needs of the local people. It is important to understand poverty from the vantage point of the poor and deprived, the oppressed and underdeveloped, disentitled and powerless people in many interior regions, rather than the human development indices alone that are determined by the state and non-state institutions.

Poverty alleviation programmes will remain merely relief measures as long as the state fails to make structural intervention. A larger agenda remains to link the bottom-up approach and grassroots initiatives of people who are not to be seen as users and choosers but as active participants in formulating and implementing policies.The non-involvement of people at the local level in decision-making and only targeting them as beneficiaries, lack of participation and political will and poor delivery system are some of the crucial factors that are not only responsible for the non-implementation of poverty alleviation programmes but also for the failure to address the underlying causes of poverty.

In the context of increasing unemployment and agrarian distress, long-term policies that address the structural causes of poverty alongside addressing the immediate causes are important. The poverty alleviation programmes should be more than mere relief measures. Thus, Minimum Income Guarantee/ income transfers and other social security measures need to be supplemented by structural interventions which address the root causes of processes of inequalities, margina-lisation, oppressions, disparities, deprivations, alienations, disentitlements and disempowerment.

State policies should prioritise entitlement and control over the basic productive resources which to a large extent determine relations of production and exchange, which are often unequal, exploitative and oppressive. Freedom from poverty should be recognised not just as a human right but also as a political right. It is important that the poor survive with dignity and freedom and without shame and fear.


Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen (1989), Hunger and Public Action Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harriss, Barbara (1992), ‘Rural Poverty in India: Micro Level Evidence” in Poverty in India: Research and Policy, Barbara Harriss, S. Guhan and R.H. Chossin (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mohanty, Manoranjan, G. N. Trivedi, Suranjita Ray and N. Sukumar (2010), “Landlessness and Marginalisation: A Study of Kalahandi, Bhojpur and Chittoor” in Social Development Report 2010, pages 224-242, Council for Social Development, Oxford University Press.

Ray, Suranjita (2010a), ‘Rethinking Poverty: The Disputed Dividing Line’ in Mainstream Vol-48, No 18, April 24, 2010. RNI No. 7064/62 page No: 21-26.

———(2010b),Book Reviews on “Roots of Poverty- A Social History” Fanindam Deo, Amadeus Press, 2009 in Social Change, 40 (2) pages 221-234, Council for Social Development, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

————(2011), Book Reviews on “Towards A New Poverty Agenda In Asia” Social Policies and Economic Transformation by Arjan de Haan, New Delhi: Sage Publications in Social Change, June pages 321-344,Council for Social Development,Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Sen, Amartya (1985), “A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: A Reply to Prof. Peter Townsend”, Oxford Economic Papers 37, cited in Poverty an International Glossary by Paul Spicker, Sonia Alvarez Leguizamon and David Gordon (eds.) (2007) London and New York: Zed Books.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[at]yahoo.co.in

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