Could you live on $2 a day?
A story that’s recently been doing the rounds in India is about two young men of Indian origin who returned from the US because they decided they wanted to experience poverty. To live on what the poor in India live on. They wanted to understand their home country. I salute them.
Economic statistics indicated that India’s Mean National Income was Rs. 4,500 ($92) a month, or Rs. 150 ($3) a day. Economists also told them that on average people spend about a third of their incomes on rent. So, deducting rent, they decided to live on Rs. 100 ($2) each a day. They struggled to live on this amount: it meant never eating out, never buying processed foods or even ordinary bread, cutting out meat and only buying basic food. They could not travel very far from home – the budget wouldn’t allow it. They began to really understand what life is like when you’re poor.
Yet controversially, the Indian Planning Commission recently informed the Indian Supreme Court that our rural poor exist on even less. Apparently, they subsist on approximately Rs. 26 (53 cents) per day. So the duo went to a village in Kerala and tried to live on this amount instead. They were hungry all the time, drank black tea (as milk was unaffordable), restricted food to strictly locally available rice, tubers and vegetables. They shuddered when they imagined what would happen if they became ill and needed medical care. For the first time they could empathize with the poor.
Forty years ago, the AICUF, the student movement we belonged to, started a project for university students called the ‘Know India’ project. We were told that reaching university put us into an élite minority of 1 per cent. For every 100 kids who joined kindergarten, 99 dropped out of their schooling at some point. Teenagers like us who’d finished high school and were in university were the privileged few. And we knew nothing about the 99 per cent, the majority in this country. We were told to get involved with an urban or rural project.
West Bengal, 1973. We arrived in Bashanti, a tiny Bengali village. We saw grown men sleeping all day. It was the ‘lean’ season. They had no work. And no-one in the village had food. Women were digging out roots and tubers from the surrounding scrub, to cook them into gruel to feed their families. The entire camp of 300-odd students went into shock. We moved from picnic mode (some kids had guitars and were in party mode) to a level of seriousness not normally associated with 18-year-olds. Whether we then proceeded to do something useful for the poor and for our country was besides the point. For every single student there had come face-to-face with the stark reality of rural Indian poverty. Statistics about hunger and starvation could not have had that impact, though we’d read them at university. Geography lessons taught us about the farming seasons, the times of harvests and of hunger. But seeing those women, malnourished children and hungry adults sleeping to forget their hunger was a shock that would stay with us for a long time.
Forty years later, my Prime Minister announces he’s shocked and shamed by the new Hunger and Malnutrition Report which states that 42 per cent of Indian kids are malnourished. And another politician – finance minister Pranab Mukherjee – has caused a furore in Britain because he says India doesn’t need British aid.
Perhaps we should ask the starving mothers of the malnourished children?
Or our home-grown Indian billionaires, who spend millions on ostentatious, over-the-top parties in France, London, Dubai and the US?
Does anyone give a damn?