Poverty and social structure

There is close correlation between poverty and the persistence of caste-based hierarchy of occupations in rural India.

Updated - April 05, 2015 03:03 am IST

Published - April 04, 2015 10:20 pm IST

Persistence of poverty in India: Edited by Nandini Gooptu, Jonathan Parry; Social Science Press, 69 Jor Bagh,   New Delhi-110003. Rs. 745.  Targeting the poor may keep them alive and the economy growing, but we will be a long way from being a developed country

Persistence of poverty in India: Edited by Nandini Gooptu, Jonathan Parry; Social Science Press, 69 Jor Bagh, New Delhi-110003. Rs. 745. Targeting the poor may keep them alive and the economy growing, but we will be a long way from being a developed country

Poverty is too much with us and its presence across vast stretches of our country disturbs our conscience.

In the post-second world war years when ‘Development Economics’ was respectable, sociologists, anthropologists and political analysts went into poverty issues in inter-disciplinary ways to suggest remedial policies. Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish Nobel Laureate, was one of the earliest to make such a study in his book Asian Drama — An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations way back in 1968. He pursued an institutional approach in which poverty issues were not to be studied not in isolation but in their mutual relationships such as caste stratification.

Sadly, the ascendancy of the Washington Consensus (WC) put paid to those holistic approaches. The “structural adjustment programmes” of the World Bank enforced in poor countries had nothing to do with larger socio-economic structuring. They were aimed at replacing the pre-existing social structures with marketisation regardless of the adverse consequences. The WC stands discredited.

Fortunately, we are witness to the emergence of a new body of researchers who seek to recover the lost tradition of inter-disciplinary approaches to development and poverty issues. This book is an outstanding example.

The authors have studied distinct areas and regions in India in the backdrop of caste/social structures and conflicts over “reforms”. They unravel the battles between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the discourse and how they try to reshape their contents.

After 60 years of planned growth, why has poverty alleviation remained mere ‘rhetoric’? The introduction by Jonathan Parry is a brilliant preview of the findings. “They offer some insight into the human actualities that lie behind the macro-statistics, some reality check…. some valuable hypothesis about causes, about what generates large scale patterns.” The most general message is that the persistence of poverty “is explicable only in terms of the wider system of class and power relations in which it is embedded.”

The authors doubt whether electoral democracy gives the upper hand to the poor. Their scepticism is based on the view that the “ patronage networks based on caste and class that enabled India to establish itself as a formal democracy are precisely those that impede substantive democratization .” (Emphasis ours.)

Prof. Nandini Gooptu traces the responses and the shifts in views from the early years of Independence to the emergence of mass democracy and populism occupying centre stage during the Indira Gandhi era and since then. She describes the middle class aversion to populist policies, especially their view that the poorer masses force populist policies on politicians. Despite declaration of inclusion of the poor “They have faced marginalisation and exclusion in the urban settings at the same time.”

Two economists study issues concerning measurement of poverty, patterns and determinants. Data for the years for the current decade do not establish that growth contributed to significant poverty reduction. There was stagnation in agriculture and the Dalits and adivasis who are still engaged as agricultural labourers have the highest incidence of poverty. There is close correlation between poverty and social structure in India, and, in particular, the persistence of caste-based social hierarchy of occupations in rural India.

Penny Vera-Sanso of the University of London has spent several years studying the conditions of the ageing poor in the slums of Chennai. Her findings are disturbing and overturn the conventional, middle class perception about them. Apart from the demographic transition which increases the number of the aged, especially women, other factors deepen their vulnerability. The increase in labour supply depresses wages and wage reduction pushes families to send more into the labour market, in particular the elderly. Children are unable to complete education beyond the fifth class. Aged people are driven to take up jobs in service sectors such as hospitality and security. “Contrary to received wisdom, the flow of income, assets, and labour is more often down the generations than up.”

Part II of the book examines policies towards targeting poor. The targeted approaches work well when aimed at a small minority. The number game is more to restrict the budgetary (fiscal) outlays than to serve the society at large. Targeting the poor may keep the poor alive and the economy growing. “But we will be a long way from being a developed country.” Later day attempts to marketise welfare or social security measures have adverse consequences. It results in the withdrawal of the state. The well-to-do groups avoid state schools and state schools become the refuge for the poor. Similar is the fate of state hospitals.

One chapter studies the fascinating and complex relations between education and rural poverty in Chhatisgarh. It offers an insight into social mores that prevent children from getting higher education. Girls become liabilities in the marriage market and educated boys become unemployable in agriculture. It is distressing to be told that “without the guarantee of viable economic returns, people living in rural poverty will remain reluctant to invest in schooling beyond Class 5.”

The chapter on agricultural dynamics in Cauvery Delta offers a refreshing contrast to other chapters. It shows how the working of democratic forces since mid-1960s through the Dravidian and Left parties has led to “a general rise in living standards … with modest agricultural growth, local industrialisation and an active role for the state.”

Barbara Harris-White dampens this optimism with her attack on the perils of following neo-liberal policies based on ‘marketisation’ and ‘commodification.’ As she adds, “… states like Tamil Nadu rub political salt in the wound by expanding the state-owned outlets for alcohol into rural villages.” Expenditure on freebies is met out of excise revenues, which drives more and more families into debt and deeper into the poverty pit.

This book is the result of dedicated research by scholars who have spent years on field work in parts of India with commitment and compassion for the poor. It deserves to be on the top drawer of policymakers and institutions teaching Development Economics.

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