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Filling stomachs and souls

Development is not just a set of abstract figures, it is about people. It is not a matter for economists and planners alone. People cannot develop without culture and the freedom to create.

No figures can capture the wretchedness that is the lot of the poor.

WITH the passage of October, one more International Day for the Eradication of Poverty has come and gone, a global Garibi Hatao that has been hardly more effective than the national one. Nearly half the population of India lives below a poverty line that has, to put it mildly, been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre. To be poor in India is to be unable to manage the basic elements of human subsistence. No per capita income figures, no indices of calorie consumption can capture the wretchedness that is the lot of the Indian poor, whether destitute amidst the dust of rural India or begging on the sidewalks of its teeming cities.To be poor is to be born of a malnourished mother in conditions where your survival is uncertain; to survive with inadequate food, clothing and shelter, without the stimulation of learning or play; to grow unequipped intellectually or physically to be a productive member of a striving society. That such conditions still afflict 450 million Indians is worse than a tragedy: it is a shame.

As a United Nations official, I have often had to address the question of poverty and persistent underdevelopment, which are high among the principal challenges facing the organisation. And the U.N. has begun to argue, I think compellingly, that poverty is no longer inevitable. For the first time, long-cherished hopes of eradicating poverty seem attainable, because the world has the material, natural and technological resources to do so within a generation — provided that concerted political will and sufficient resources are brought to the task.

This is not just rhetoric: over the last three decades, more than 20 industrial states, and more encouragingly, more than a dozen developing countries, have eliminated absolute poverty. Others can do it too.

The wealth of nations has increased seven-fold since 1945. The astonishing proliferation of billionaires is not the only indication of that. Overall, the proportion of people living in poverty has declined; yet, thanks to population increases, the number of poor has risen considerably. Almost one-quarter of the world's population still lives in poverty. Income disparities between the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population have doubled since 1960, from 30:1 to 61:1. The statistics point to the increasing number of people (1.5 billion today) with incomes of less than $ 1 a day; about three billion people, half the world's population, live on less than $2 a day.

There are 750 million people unemployed and another 750 million underemployed. Some 160 million children are moderately or severely malnourished. About 110 million do not attend school. Another 1.5 billion are without clean drinking water; 800 million have no health services whatsoever; 35 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS. And poverty in old age remains the most common human experience around the world.

Technology offers both a hope and a danger. The worldwide web is bringing us all closer together with rapid and inexpensive communications; it is helping farmers in developing countries tap into market opportunities in the developed world. But the gap between the technological haves and have-nots is widening, both between countries and within them. The Information Revolution, like the French Revolution, is a revolution with a lot of liberti, some fraterniti, and no egaliti. So the poverty line is not the only line about which we have to think; there is also the high-speed digital line, the fibre optic line — all the lines that are transforming so many lives but leaving so many more others out. There are still too many who are literally not plugged in to the possibilities of our brave new world.

It is necessary, too, to tackle poverty on a broad front. After all, what is the use of providing a farmer with high-yielding varieties if his crop cannot fetch a fair price? What is the point of providing development aid when poor countries lose more to trade barriers and declining commodity prices? What could be more cruel than immunising a child only to see it die of starvation? What is the use of education if unemployment is the only reward awaiting the educated?

Indeed, there are broader questions, too, that the U.N. tends to ask whenever poverty is discussed — questions of sustainable development and of good governance — what is the merit of economic growth if it benefits only the rich? Who can sustain creative energy under conditions of instability or corrupt institutions?

There are no simple answers to these complex questions, but the world is rising to the challenge they pose. In doing so, I feel we should not ignore a different set of issues — and I say this not as a U.N. official, but as an author whose The Great Indian Novel begins with the proposition that India is not an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay. Such sentiments are, of course, the privilege of the satirist; but, the notion of decay apart, I relish reminding readers that there is more than one way to look at the question of poverty. When my cantankerous old narrator declares, at the beginning of the novel, that ``everything in India is overdeveloped'', he is deliberately provoking his readers to forget their usual view of an underdeveloped country as one devoid of everything the world values. In telling the story of India, I try to evoke an idea of development that transcends — but does not deny — the conventional socio-economic indices.

I do this because we all know that ``man does not live by bread alone''. Of course we must end poverty, and give men and women enough bread to live on. But music, dance, art and the telling of stories are indispensable to humanity's ability to cope with the human condition. After all, why does man need bread? To survive. But why survive, if it is only to eat more bread? To live is more than just to sustain life — it is to find meaning in life. And the poorest men and women in the developing world feel the throb of culture on their pulse, for they tell stories to their children as their fires are lit at dusk and the shadows fall — stories of their land and its heroes, stories of the earth and its mysteries, stories that have gone into making them what they are.

For whom, after all, is development? It is not an abstract endeavour of states, a set of figures on GNP tables. Development is about people — human beings with needs and rights. Without culture, development becomes mere materialism, a subject for economists and planners rather than a matter of people. And if people are to develop, it is unthinkable that they would develop without culture, without song, and dance, and music, and myth, without stories about themselves, and in turn, without expressing their views on their present lot and their future hopes. Development implies dynamism; dynamism requires freedom — the freedom to create.

Let us not forget that there exist, around us, many societies whose richness lies in their soul and not in their soil, whose past may offer more wealth than their present, whose culture is more valuable than their technology. We must strive to eradicate poverty, but we must also ensure that we end that poverty of the spirit that ultimately is as harmful to humanity as a lack of food or medicine. Let us work for a world in which we can fill both stomachs and souls at the same time.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of the new novel Riot. Visit him at

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