Not long ago, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said poverty is a ‘state of mind’. For economists, statisticians and policymakers poverty was always a matter of headcount of those afflicted by it. Around the subject of poverty, academic areas of study developed which went by various nomenclatures such as the economics, history, or sociology of poverty. Clearly, escaping the ubiquitous phenomenon of poverty is difficult. Understanding it, even more so. Experiencing it, however, seems to be the only aspect of poverty that is easy — within reach. All you need are some statistics to capture what it is like to be poor. It would surely be embarrassing to present the millions in India who are still counted among the poor, with the frequently changing numbers thrown up by successive committees.
At this very moment, a passionate (some say needlessly and cacophonic) debate is raging around the latest set of poverty statistics, presented by the C Rangarajan Committee. Retaining consumption expenditure as the basis for determining poverty, the Rangarajan Committee has computed the total number of poor in the country at 363 million or 29.6 per cent of the population. More daunting is its projection that the number of India's poor can escalate by 100 million if the recommendations of the committee are accepted by the Modi government.
Economists, media analysts and TV anchors are at it, chewing off each other's heads over the incomprehensible statistics. Oscillating between the two sets of numbers, the real lives of the poor are of little consequence to the debate. A full television drama is on display. TV reporters accosting members of the unwashed populations in run-down tea stalls — probing their dietary habits; how much food do they consume; what does it cost? A rapid mental math exercise is followed by a piece to camera (PTC) to inform the audience of the impossibility of living within the prescribed amount.
There is something truly vulgar about this relentless number crunching. The assumption behind such calculations being that the rich can have endless amounts of wealth to play around with. While the poor should believe that they have been lifted out of poverty if only because they can somehow get to the next day. An unacceptable presumption underlies this debate over the esoteric numbers. While some are entitled to a life of over privilege (call it karma), the vast majority should get used to a life of deprivation. Perhaps, this is what the famous or infamous trickle-down economy is all about.
The survival figures trotted out by the experts actually hammer out the disquieting truth about our immense ability to make peace with inequality as a concept and an everyday practice. Isn’t this what Thomas Piketty writes about in his important and celebrated new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Isn’t this also the subject of vigorous contestation among a section of economists who believe in a particular trajectory of economic advancement? The acceptance of the trickle-down model renders the talk around poverty banal.
Do we, then, need to have these passive numbers periodically thrown at us? Perhaps we do. Policymakers do need numbers and plans as economists need models with which to work their growth and development strategies. Juggling statistics is just part of this game. Unfortunately, economists believe themselves to be a cut above the rest of the academic fraternity. One of the reasons for this barely concealed arrogance is their belief of having been trained in a discipline which is scientific in nature. In other words, like the laws in pure sciences — the laws economists propound from time to time — are expected to be infallible. But numbers are not always infallible and experience cannot be summed up in tables and charts alone.
The writer is Editor, dna of thought