When the definition of poverty harms the poor

We rarely ask the poor what poverty means to them and what changes in lifestyle would make them poverty-free

December 10, 2013 12:44 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

A poorly-created poverty measurement index misrepresents the degree of poverty in a society, thus diluting the responsibility of the powerful to improve the condition of the less-privileged. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

A poorly-created poverty measurement index misrepresents the degree of poverty in a society, thus diluting the responsibility of the powerful to improve the condition of the less-privileged. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

The idea that poverty is determined, defined and measured by a group of people mostly unaffected by it is an intriguing one. Numerous definitions and studies globally tell us what poverty is, how it is measured — extreme and the moderate (there are categories!). Though surprisingly, none of these definitions has been evolved by or in consultation with the poor themselves. The arrogance of economists is such that they endeavour and succeed, in some measure, to estimate and tell us how poor we should feel and why.

It is little surprise then that Rahul Gandhi thinks that poverty is a state of the mind.

He is absolutely correct. It is a state in the mind of self-indulgent economists with little or no engagement of the poor.

Narendra Modi is no different. He attributes malnutrition in girls to vanity and the desire to control weight. The rest of India, which sees stunted, underweight, undernourished girls everywhere, somehow never makes this mistake. But our leaders make these mistakes nonchalantly, unapologetically and brazenly. What helps them do so? Arbitrary definitions of poverty determined by groups of economists, often employed by the government, who use numbers to obfuscate the poverty debate in India and elsewhere.

Every year, the government claims that the poverty numbers have fallen thanks to the hard work of these economists. According to whom — the poor? What allows a group of people to define poverty for a nation without consulting those that make up that category? We rarely ask the poor what poverty means to them and what change in lifestyle would make them poverty-free. Have Indian economists and the leaders ever wondered if the poor continue to be poor because we don’t understand poverty sufficiently? Or perhaps, the poor understand poverty too well?

The questions are sufficiently intriguing. The answers are harder to find. There is a poverty line in India and elsewhere, which tells us how we can measure poverty. The global poverty line for extreme poverty is $1.25 and for moderate poverty is $2. In India, until recently, we measured poverty in terms of calorific value.

The much-criticised Tendulkar committee based its definition on purchasing power parity. More recently, another panel was set up under Dr. Rangarajan to define poverty. In the U.S., the poverty line is determined by the basic cost of food for a family multiplied by three. This figure is adjusted for inflation every year.

Before considering differing definitions, it’s important to consider calmly for a moment what the poverty line denotes. Is life just above the poverty line so much better than life right below it? In purely practical terms, are nutrition, health and well-being radically better as we cross this imaginary poverty line? It might be worthwhile to ask the poor. After all, they are experts on the subject.

A survey among the Indian or global poor on what poverty is would lead to a definition widely divergent from that of governments and economists. The poor, across India and the world, will probably be in concurrence. What does this tell us? That the business of poverty measurement is an extremely useful one. A poorly-created poverty measurement index easily misrepresents and often reduces the poverty in a society. In doing so, it decreases the responsibility of the privileged and the powerful to improve the condition of the less privileged.

It also misinforms the primary discourse in a society deeply wedded to the logic of measurement and numbers. Poverty, as the poor experience it, is a concept which has little or no resonance amongst any other class. In the long-term, such discourses fracture societies, eventually leading to unrest, inequality, internalised dissatisfaction and eventual conflict. The point to consider, then, is who should define poverty and why the poor should not lead this process? Poverty, as defined by the poor, must converge at some point with the state’s definition. Why? Because if our definitions of what poverty is can be so vastly divergent, how can any programmes designed for poverty alleviation ever truly succeed? There is a need to recognise that poverty is multi-dimensional. After all, despite rising above the poverty line, millions of Indians continue to lack access to safe water, sanitation, housing, nutrition, health and education. Unless we take into account what poverty means to the poor, measuring or reducing it will continue to remain a game of deliberate obfuscation. We can continue to measure poverty inadequately and pat ourselves on reducing extreme poverty year on year. Or we can have a more considered, nuanced and inclusive discussion on what poverty is. Until then, poverty will continue to be ‘a state of mind of a young stunted girl participating in a beauty contest in Gujarat’ — that way both Rahul and Modi will be right. The poor, however, will continue to be wronged.

(Chapal Mehra is Senior Director, Global Health Strategies Emerging Economies, New Delhi.)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.