Thursday, October 27, 2005

Being "Not Poor" in India: What Does it Mean?

First the Good News:
Yesterday, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Dy Chairman of Planning Commission, told the audience of Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture (organised by All India Radio) that at the present rate of growth (8%), India could well become the world's 3rd largest economic power by 2020.

Even better news was that by 2020 India will be able to eradicate poverty completely. He cited figures as to how the population "living" (to use a term, in the absense of a more apprpriate one) below poverty line has been decreasing - from 56% in 1973-74 to 39% (1987-88) to 37% (1993-94) to as low as 26% in 1999-2000... At the present rate of 1.6%/annum reduction in poor population, it will just take another 15 years to achieve this feat!!!
[one can almost imagine the thunderous applause at these pronouncements... After all he is an economist - not a politician who are given to rhetorics - and is quoting facts and figures] if to vindicate his claim, earlier this month, the Sensex had broken through the 8000 magical number, and FDIs grew by 25% last year, and Indian exports are growing rapidly!!!

...and now the Slightly Not-So-Good News Analysis:

How does India define its poor? How do we calculate the "poverty line"?

To go back in the history, the first official announcement of poverty-line was made in 1978, during Morarji Desai's government. The calculation for poverty line was - and remains - simple: how much nutrition would a person need to stay alive?

According to Govt of India, a person requires 2,400 calories in rural areas, and 2,100 calories in the urban area. The money needed to buy grains worth that much calories is the Poverty Line.

In the 1970s, it used to be Rs 61.80/person/month for rural areas and Rs 71.30 for urban areas. Adjusting to inflation, now it has gone up to Rs 328 in rural areas and Rs 454 in urban areas (Congratulations!!, if you earn more than Rs 500/month in India, you are not among the poverty stricken masses!)

Notwithstanding the fact that (1) a healthy nourishment also includes protein, vitamins, minerals, etc., which are not factored in to calculate the poverty line, and (2) according to the the National Institute of Nutrition (part of Indian Council of Medical Research), Indians require more calories to survive (2,900 calories in rural, and 2,400 calories in urban India), there is something perplexing - and perverted - about this definition!

Essentially, it defines someone as "not poor" who is not starving to death!!!...

...that is: even if

  • I do not have a shelter to live in,
  • I own no assets, e.g., land, house, etc.
  • I maybe shivering to death,
  • I have no access to sanitation, have no job, no access to minimum education or health facilties...
    But as long as I am not dying of hunger, I am "not poor"!!!

    An article by the Center for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, makes some revealing calculations to correct this anamoly.

    Imagine, the bare minimum needs of a "not poor" person: S/he lives in a family of five person (husband-wife, three children of 5, 10, and 15 age). Minimum nutrition. A small house (two rooms of 10'x10'). A bulb and fan in the rooms. A running tap in kitchen and bathroom. Clothes. Primary education for kids in the government-run subsidized schools. Basic healthcare.

    If one defines "poor" as someone not having this bare minimum, then the Indian "poverty line" needs to be set at Rs 1580/month/person!!... Or around Rs 7,900/month for a family of 5.

    And given the recent National Sample Survey data (i.e., 93% of Rural India spends less than Rs 950/person, and 83% of Urban India spends less than Rs 1500/person), apparently, more than 90% of Indians do not meet the above minimum definition of "not poor" - and are poor!!!

    But then, these are the inhabitants of the Invisible India...

    India Could Become Third Largest Economy
    Tripping over the Poverty Line
    Living in Two India(s)

  • Sunday, October 23, 2005

    How do you identify/ cultivate Indian Talent? - Philanthropy or Competition?

    At a time, when the urban/elite/educated/globalised/free-market "intelligentia" of India is going over-board about the virtues of privatised, competitive opportunities (that will hopefully/supposedly bring out the best of talents in the country), this article by Dr RA Mashelkar is a fresh breath.

    Dr RA Mashelkar (Director General, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research & President, Indian National Science Academy), and the person who turned around CSIR to make it become the No.1 Global Innovator, ahead of Samsung (read: Samsung finds its match in CSIR)

    This article written by him (Indian Express, September 22, 2005) vindicates that perhaps a supportive (subsidized/philanthropic?) social fabric of a society contributes more to identify, develop and leverage on the talent in a society (at least in Indian society), than an unthinking allegience to privatised, do-it-to-yourself social structure.

    India’s future is in IT, but not in IT as in Information Technology, but in IT as in Indian Talent. Giving every opportunity possible to Indian talent to reach its real potential would truly empower India.

    What happens to Indian talent today? Fifty per cent Indian children go to school. Thirty per cent of them reach up to 10th standard. Forty per cent of them pass. Thus, six per cent of our children go past the 10th standard. This is only a tip of the iceberg, of which only a very small part shines. A huge part of the iceberg remains submerged and dark. To me, India will be truly empowered when we let the entire iceberg shine by lifting it.

    I too belonged to that submerged part of the iceberg. I was born in a very poor family. My father died when I was six. My illiterate mother did menial work to bring me up. I went barefoot till I was twelve. I studied under streetlights. Yet I was empowered again and again.

    I studied in a free municipal school. Access to free education through public funding was the first empowerment in my life.

    On finishing primary school, I sought admission in a secondary school. I required 21 rupees as admission fee. My mother did not have the money. A lady, who herself was a housemaid in Mumbai, gave her savings to us. One ‘have not’ sharing with another ‘have not’ was a powerful lesson of empowerment early in my life.

    I stood 11th amongst 1,35,000 students in the state in the Maharashtra State Board exam in 1960. I was about to leave the school, since my mother could not afford my college education. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust gave me a scholarship of 60 rupees per month until my graduation. Thus, my next empowerment came through the philanthropy of an industrial house.

    My school teachers empowered me. Principal Bhave taught me physics in the school. One day, he took us out in the sun to show how to find the focal length of a convex lens. When the sun rays were focused on the paper, it got burnt. He turned to me and said, ‘‘Mashelkar, if you focus your energies, you can achieve anything in life.’’

    That gave me an inspiration to become a scientist. It gave me the philosophy of life; focus and you can achieve anything. Empowering India to me, therefore, means growing millions of Bhaves, who will inspire young Indian kids.

    I was teaching and researching in England in the early Seventies. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. The news of Nobel Laureate Khorana not getting a job in India had done rounds. She asked the then Director General of CSIR, Dr Nayudamma, to go abroad, pick up the brightest and the best and offer them jobs on the spot.

    Nayudamma came to London in 1974. He met me, among others. He offered me a position at NCL in Pune. There was no application, no formal interview, no bureaucratic hurdles. I came back to India, thanks to a science leader, who was trusted and empowered by a Prime Minister.

    India cannot be truly empowered until the best of its talent stays in India and contributes. Why does talent leave India? An Italian Nobel Laureate, Riardo Giacconi, who settled in the US said, ‘‘A scientist is like a painter. Michelangelo became a great artist, because he had been given a wall to paint. My wall was given to me by the United States.’’ To empower scientists, it is necessary give them a wall to paint.

    This year, I became only the eighth scientist from India to be elected to the US National Academy of Science since 1863. After the Nobel prize, this is one of the highest honours. Every scientist aspires for it. The honour came to me this year because a visionary CSIR leadership had empowered a young Mashelkar by giving him his wall to paint thirty years ago.

    My lessons from my life are simple. A society, that gives an opportunity for education to everyone, that has inspiring teachers, that has philanthropic industrialists, that has visionary leaders in all walks of life and that gives the talent every opportunity to reach its real potential—becomes truly empowered.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2005

    Gandhi, Grass-Root Democracy and Blogosphere

    Gandhi once wrote: "Whatever you do will become insignificant, but it is very important to do it."

    ... Therefore this posting,

    ...since it will add to a growing number of voices about the IIPM vs. Rashmi Bansal/Gaurav Sabnis issue, that has helped bringing the Indian blogger community together in just about 48-72 hours.

    If you are aware of the facts, skip the first part... Otherwise, here is the unfolding of events:

    1. A few months back, JAM magazine, a print magazine brought out by Rashmi Bansal, carried an article questioning the claims made by the full-page ads of Indian Institute of Planning & Management (IIPM).

    2. Gaurav Sabnis, an IIML graduate working with IBM, linked the Jammag's article to his blog posting on IIPM. His posting starts with a hilarious sentence: "IIPM is to Management Education, what Parnab Mukherjee is to quizzing."

    3. Two months later - and a week back - Gaurav received a "legal notice" from the "IIPM legal cell" threatening a lawsuit for Rs 125crores (!!!). It is a must-read, hilarious and purile notice and contains some gems of threats like:

    - "Warning: This email has been judicially notarized and has been tagged to validate receipt and response" and
    - "We are also providing your details to respective national and regional police authorities for undertaking and implementing immediate arrest warrants against you. We are also providing your details to various corporations within India and abroad to inform them about the judicial, legal and police action against you; thus ensuring that your details are well documented."

    4. Gaurav posted the notice on his blog, and it started circulating on the net (I got it in my mailbox on the 7th). This was the beginning of an Indian redo of the Jonah Paretti vs. Nike case

    5. Rashmi Bansal posted the happenings, including a clarification on a comment about JAMmag made on Gaurav's blog posting

    6. Suddenly IIPM "discovered" that there are something called blogs, and overnight many IIPM blogs came up - all eulogising the greatness of the institute. Which would have been OK, except that their "owners" also started posting insulting (actually, downright vulgar) comments on Rashmi's blog.

    7. Apparently, Jammag was also sent a "legal notice", and its office was visited by IIPM "faculty"...

    8. on 10th, Gaurav Sabnis resigned from his job with IBM, since IIPM had apparently threatened to "burn IBM laptops" in front of IBM office, and his super-super boss had rung him up to enquire what this is all about. No, IBM did not fire him... But this is classic tactics for making a seat hot for somone.

    9. In any case, all this mobilised the bloggers, and is gaining shape of a major milestone in the blogging community in India. In a way, it has brought them together around a common issue - blogging itself.

    10. Today, it also got coverage in Hindustan Times ("Freedom under Siege") and in Mumbai Mirror (Story on IIPM (It Snowballed into High Drama)

    11. "IIPM" has become the most searched term on Technorati - the blog search engine - even above "web 2.0", "earthquake", "Paul Krugman" or "bird-flu" (For all one knows, IIPM may convert this into their full page ad: "IIPM ranked by the Global Blog Search Engine, Technorati, as No. 1... above all the IIMs" :0)

    So Why is this cyber-event so important?

    I don’t think this is just about a replay of themes of David-vs-Goliath, an-individual-against-the-establishment, etc.

    It is also not just a matter about cyber-harrassment of Gaurav, Rashmi and some other bloggers - or for that matter, even about IIPM and its dubious claims.

    It is also also more than just the vindication of a basic truth about blogs that Steve Hayden of O&M had once mentioned (and as was confirmed by the "IIPM Blogs": "If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie. The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug. You're fighting with very powerful forces because it's real people's opinions."

    It is important because, this is about freedom of expression; it is about someone trying to invade, capture and suppress the grass-root democratic nature of blogosphere

    ...for those not in the know, blogosphere is the fastest growing medium of grass-root individual expression - 80,000 blogs get created every day, there are about 19mn blogs, and are doubling every five months. That is the reason why blogosphere is the "commons" whose conversations become a threat to the establishment.

    This is not the first time, such a thing has happened.

    - Earlier this year, Times of India forced journalist Pradyumn Maheshwari to close his blog,, through a similar (and perhaps more real) threat.

    - Countries and governments have been banning blogs and imprisoning bloggers, check:

    - Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) had to compile a Legal Guide for Bloggers. Check:

    In India, perhaps, IIPM's threat of lawsuit, will not hold in court. According to Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate specialising in cyber laws, "Blogs are not specifically covered in the IT Act of India. Secondly, every citizen has, except in certain extraordinary circumstances, the fundamental right to freedom of speech under the Constitution. This incident of a blogger being threatened with legal action clearly reflects the need for a clarification of the rights of a blogger."

    But legal threat is only a peripheral issue. Even if the threat is legally ineffective, an organisation can always keep a lawsuit going,and make an individual bankrupt through what are called the SLAPP (""Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") - "the corporate technique of suing people into silence and submission... SLAPP targets who fight back seldom lose in court yet are frequently devastated and depoliticized and discourage others from speaking out... SLAPP suits achieve their objectives by forcing defendants to spend huge amounts of time and money defending themselves in court."

    Perhaps that is why it is important to rally around the issue, to take sides, to fight...

    Gandhi also said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."


  • #1 (Oct 13, 2005): IIPM vs. Bloggers: The Other Concern
  • #2 (Oct 15, 2005): A couple of comments below, made by a visitor allegedly repesenting IIPM, illustrate why it is necessary to keep the "open space" of blogosphere free from "cyber-vandalism"
  • #3 (Oct 16, 2005): ... for that matter, even the comment by someone who logged on from either MTNL Delhi (IP: or BSNL Delhi (IP: [the two IPs logged on to this blog when the comment was posted] to post the comment, posing as "XL student"...


    Directory of Indian Bloggers
    Gaurav Sabnis' Blog Entry: The Fraud that IIPM Is
    JAM mag article on IIPM
    Garuav Sabnis' posting of IIPM's "Legal Notice"
    Jonah Paretti vs. Nike case
    Rashmi bansal's Blog: Lies, Damned Lies, and Fake Blogs
    Hindustan Times ("Freedom under Siege")
    Mumbai Mirror (Story on IIPM (It Snowballed into High Drama)
    SLAPP (""Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation")

  • Monday, October 03, 2005

    Living in Two India(s)

    The Distance! Posted by Picasa

    I know both these places, because I teach in one and often walk through the other. This schizophrenic experience has also made me realize what an insurmountable gulf a mere ½ km can be …

    Foundations of Prosperity Posted by Hello

    One way I can make sense out of this is to visualize that we live in two India(s) – these two realities coexist side-by-side in a surrealistic blend:

    This posting is an attempt to understand these two India(s). One may say that this is a sort of anthropological exploration of two continents/ paradigms/ realities – which co-exist, and yet do not (perhaps) understand the other side

    The Visible India:

  • The Visible India is visible because it is the proverbial tip-of-the-iceberg. It is also the convenient constituency of media, and therefore plays an influential part of metropolitan debates and conversation, and in forming perceptions about India.

  • Only about 15% of India’s 190mn households have an annual household income of more than Rs 2.5 lacs (Rs 0.2.5mn). Assuming 5 persons / household, these approx. 150mn people (out of 1bn) are the solid citizens of Visible India. There must be another 100mn or so who also exist on the periphery of this demographic continent (or believe that they do)

  • Citizens of the Visible India share two common features:

      1. irrespective of their income-levels, they like to describe themselves as the “middle-class”. They also believe that the “middle class” is a synonym for the “common man” or the representative citizen of India.
      2. they see consumption as an inalienable right, and like to describe themselves as “consumers” or “customers”… In the Visible India, there is no such term like a Middle-Class Producer.

  • The consumption of the Visible India contributes substantially to India’s GDP. For instance, during 2004, its inhabitants downloaded ring-tone worth Rs. 400 crores (Rs. 4bn) on their mobile/cell phones, and they contributed an estimated Rs. 1500 crores (i.e., Rs.15bn) to GDP during Valentine Day, and so on…

  • The Visible India likes numbers, and believes in their magical quality in capturing the reality. Numbers like “GDP”, “FDI”, “Global Competitiveness Index”, “Profits”, “Market Share”, etc. are important to them; their personal self-esteem goes up and down with these numbers.

  • One of the magical numbers, for instance, which its inhabitants like is “Sensex” – it is seen as an indicator of the health of Indian economy/business. Its “magical” quality lies in the fact that it is based on the behaviour of about 35-40mn investor population (about 0.4% of India’s total population), as they buy and sell the “dead stocks” of a handful (30-50) of India’s companies.

  • The inhabitants of the Visible India also like words such as “privatization”, “globalizations”, “competitiveness”, etc., which they see as signs of progress and development.

  • Correspondingly, by and large, they feel that nation-states and government have (or should have) less role to play in “economic” development. The also feel that nations are economies and not societies.

  • Quite a few of those living in the Visible India – hopefully, not all – are also skeptical about “democracy” in India. Some, in fact, also feel that “we have too much democracy” and prefer not to participate in it.

  • Nevertheless, they do expect an elected government to provide them with “world-class infrastructure”, take care of the “consumers’ interests”, reduce taxes, abolish regulations, etc…. all in the same breath!!! – more often than not, they also succeed!!!

  • Citizen of the Visible India like to live on debts – credit cards, consumer finance schemes, loans, etc. – the higher the debt, the greater one’s “credit worthiness”.

  • Lastly – actually, not lastly – one can go on elaborating - , the Visible India holds a premium on the “brands” that one buys, the “address” one lives in, the “life-style” on leads, the “CV-value” of one’s activities, etc.
    Etc. etc……

    The Invisible India:

  • The Invisible India is invisible because it is so ubiquitous and pervasive - it gets merged in the background of the hectic lives of those who live on the other side of reality. It remains a taken-for-granted, nondescript, an apparently needless distraction, except for those who live in it.

  • About 92-93% of India’s active workforce lives in this reality… Actually, they live in slums, shanties, and villages.

  • The economists say that they belong to the “informal”/ “unorganized”/ “marginal” sector… which actually is funny, since this “informal” sector accounts for around 2/3rd of the workforce even in all metropolitan cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, etc.)… but then most economists live in the Visible India…

  • These denizens of the Invisible India follow diverse professions – hawkers, vendors, roadside tailors, mechanics, contract labours, construction and agricultural workers, domestic workers, weavers, potters, papad-rollers, handcart pullers, laundry workers, etc.

  • and account for 60% of India’s GDP!

  • In a way, they are India’s truly self-employed privatized citizens – no government support, no income or social security, no access to formal credits, no insurance…

  • Most of the workers in India’s 3.2mn SMEs – that accounts for India’s 40% of manufacturing sector and 36% of exports – are also a part of the Invisible India (in 2003, when the India’s pharma company, Ranbaxy Ltd. registered $960 in its overseas sales, Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum in India’s financial capital, Mumbai – exported goods worth an estimated between $690 and $1.84bn).

  • The Invisible India also accounts for the bottom 10% of India’s population which owns 1% of country’s assets (as compared to the top 10% in the Visible India who own 48%).

  • Of the India’s 0.7mn villages, around 67% have a population of less than 1000 – mostly with no roads, no electricity, no amenities of sorts, etc.… They are also a part of the Invisible India.

  • It is somewhat ironic - The Invisible India is also a low cost, cheap supply of labour and services, and subsidizes the “life-style” costs of the Visible India… in terms of a maid-servant, a dhobi, a guy who delivers milk/newspaper… etc.

    ...Just a thought which keeps recurring in my mind:
    Are we a Schzoid Nation?