New Internationalist

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?

Photo by mckaysavage under a CC Licence

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  1. #1 Deva 15 Feb 12

    Thanks Mari for your usual plain speak. I was in Europe the other day and a senior and influential person from the European Commission was wondering why the EC should provide aid to India, when Mittal was living in the costliest house in London and cutting back on jobs in his factories (Mittal - Arcelor); laying off 100s of europeans. Why India should not be a donor, rather than receiving aid, when it has more than 60 dollar billionaires and a huge defence budget. If Indian children are malnourished, then it is the problem of India; the fact that it would rather invest in border security than ensuring food security for its citizen. I had to hang my head in shame, for I could not refute any single word that he said.

    Regards - Deva

  2. #2 C Bopaiah 15 Feb 12

    No point blaming the PM, Forgive him for he knows not what he ever does.
    And the rest of us, do we know? There must be a psychologist somewhere who will explain our attitudes? Or are we looking for leadership from above, when there is no one there? Perhaps a mirror we do not want to see.

  3. #3 Siddharth 17 Feb 12

    A mass-scale re-sensitization of the general public is required!

  4. #4 Abraham Joseph 17 Feb 12

    Our enlightened age must see the bottom cause of poverty - -
    Mr.Soumitra Dutt, the newly appointed Dean at Johnson Business school at Cornell has said in his recent media interview,' I see poverty as much more than the lack of food, water and resources-it's also about lack of information, dignity and self-respect'.When countries like India care and attend to the more fundamental need of man -his constitutionally guaranteed individual dignity- poverty and other related symptoms will naturally subside.Pls. see more on this theme at blog: and others

  5. #5 Lucy 19 Feb 12

    Thanks Mari for another enlightening blog. I think all spoilt British children should be forced to try living in this way to get an understanding of what real poverty is about.

    As for the aid debate it's a tricky one. Without a doubt the Indian government and wealthy elite should be doing more for their own people. But at the same time, how can the West stand and watch when babies are dying every day of malnourishment? Aid, as long as it's directed in the right way, can only be a good thing.

  6. #6 Sucheta 29 Feb 12


    Perhaps you forgot to ask the looters of the nation sitting up top how can their conscience allow stealing from a civilization since last several hundred years... and yet still blame the victim !!!

  7. #7 Adit 20 Jun 12

    Honestly, I feel very hopeless. On one hand, the country is moving forward, on the other, things are getting worst. Rich are getting richer. Poor are falling behind. We are becoming ever increasingly self-centered and materialistic. I always ask myself are we moving in the right direction?

  8. #8 freeman 14 Dec 13

    Dear all,
    I have suggestion to stop poverty is very important is salary. In India even working peoples are in poverty line, why? Salaries are less. Only in big companies offering good salary. Even a peon must have rights for good standard of life like medical insurance for family, education for children etc..
    We have seen a small businessman started a new business and growth well. His employee getting same salary.
    First of ministry labor should check regular basis on registration or renewal of company whether all employee getting minimum salary on he survive with his family?
    For former, they should educated well how to do good farming etc…

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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