Understanding Poverty, Beyond Lack of Income

Poverty has many faces other than income.

Poverty has many faces other than income.

Changing World, Changing Needs

In the 21st century, rapid changes are taking place all over the world – even in the economically underdeveloped countries under the wave of globalization and revolution in IT and communication technologies. The poverty standard of income devised in the historical past is no longer relevant under new conditions. People today are no longer subject to the same laws, customs and social order of the bygone era. Globalization and easy of connectivity is exposing the ultrahigh inequalities between the rich West and the poor East as well as the unjust world-order. People no longer want mere economic growth; they also aspire for equal opportunity, social justice and political freedom to influence the direction of development. Therefore, a comprehensive viewpoint is needed in order to understand poverty properly. It must be seen as a human situation deprived of many things other than income.

Low Income – The Traditional Concept of Poverty

Poverty is traditionally associated with lack of income – you don’t expect a poor to have money. This is the traditional way to look at poverty still popular with most people. People are considered poor when they don’t have enough income to obtain basic necessities of life – food, shelter, drinking water, education, medicines and so on. When poverty is seen from this subsistence perspective it is absolute poverty – a situation where the poor are struggling for survival.

According to the United Nations’ 1995 World Summit in Copenhagen, “absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.

This gave rise to the concept of subsistence or absolute poverty line – people with income below it are poor; in fact, they are extremely poor. India’s official poverty line is actually a subsistence poverty line.

The exploitative colonial powers had used such a poverty line definition to set bare minimum wages for their subjects so that they could get just sufficient food to replenish their energies in order to keep working. This is how the colonial countries like the UK laid the foundation for affluence in their own countries while reducing their subjects to bare survival and plundering their natural resources.

Currently, the Word Bank uses $1.25-a-day benchmark of “extreme poverty” and estimates that globally around 1 billion people are extremely poor.

Basic Needs Approach

Evolved in the 1970s, the basic needs approach revolves around listing most basic needs of people like food, shelter, clothing and other essentials of a household. Then it fixes the quantum of their minimum consumption requirements. It also considered services provided by the state or community such as safe water, sanitation, public transport, medical and education facilities etc. It, thus, established a basic framework for community development.

Of course, these minimum needs are defined by the ‘experts’ and the poor remain as mere passive recipients. However, it is attractive to policymakers due to ease of its implementation. It helped the international agencies make developmental plans.

While it is easier to restrict the poverty perspective to material and physical needs which can be planned easily by the government, it helps to remind that human lives can’t be simplified to the level of policies that the government can plan.

Society can also Dictate “Necessities”

Clearly, people are not robotic creatures needing only replenishment of physical energy needed to work. They also have social demands which must be met in order to live a satisfactory life.

“By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. . . . Custom . . . has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them.” – Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations

After all, people are social beings and are affected by the social opinions and processes. Therefore, poverty can’t be seen in isolation and must necessarily be seen in the overall social context. It must be seen in relation with the society. This relative poverty moves in response to changing social environment and what earlier used to be luxuries can become necessities now. Living in society demands that one has to satisfy social obligations and expectations; not having the resources to do so mean one is living in deprivations – in poverty.

Relative Poverty

The philosophical foundation of relative poverty is provided by Karl Marx, “Our needs and enjoyments spring from society; we measure them, therefore by society and not by the objects of their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.

As Peter Townsend, a leading authority on UK poverty, puts it: People are poor if they live with resources that are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.

People are “relatively poor” when their average resources or average living standard falls below the society average. Relative poverty is also seen as inequality. It will be always present in any society, no matter how much it progresses. Certain sections of the society will always perform less than others, so relative poverty can never be eliminated. However, if the wealth distribution becomes more even it falls.

Moving to relative poverty is in fact a shift from the “needs” to “wants” – people are poor if they “want” to live like others but can’t. Now the measure is “the deficit in the living standard”, compared with the society average. The philosophy of relative poverty is common in the developed nations, since they have progressed beyond the point where people are no more struggling for basic survival needs.

Definition of Relative Poverty in Europe

Relative poverty is when some people’s way of life and income is so much worse than the general standard of living in the country or region in which they live that they struggle to live a normal life and to participate in ordinary economic, social and cultural activities.” – European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN)

The EU’s Relative Poverty Standard

“People falling below 60% of median income are considered to be at-risk-of poverty.”

Capability Poverty

The capability approach of Amartya Sen puts people at the center and discusses development and poverty from people’s perspective. It is perhaps the most comprehensive approach and expresses poverty in terms of deprivation of people’s capabilities – referring to what they can or cannot do, can or cannot be. It sees income, resources and public facilities as mere means to achieve or expand human capabilities. In laymen’s language, Sen’s development approach aims to make people more capable in terms of their skills, physical and mental abilities – it is a kind of holistic approach.

Expanding capabilities increase well-being and shrinking capabilities decrease well-being. The set of capabilities needed to escape poverty is rather limited. The capability poverty is typically lack of capabilities related to satisfying basic needs of food, nutrition, health, shelter, etc. In this approach, expansion of people’s capabilities is the prime goal: income, resources and facilities have no meaning unless they enhance human capabilities.

Consider this simple example: Having a cell phone can enable the capability of connectivity, but only if the person uses it properly. Mere ownership of the cell phone doesn’t tell what the person can do with it; a blind and deaf person may not be able to use it. Therefore, the important point is not the possession of a commodity or its features, but the capability to use it.

Personal freedom to lead the life one values is the central theme of Sen’s theory of development. Cultural and psychological aspects also affect people’s capabilities, so they are also important considerations and account for individual differences.

As mentioned above, when Adam Smith argued that leather shoes became social necessity in order to avoid shame in the public, he was referring the capability of avoiding public shame. As societies get richer and richer, the list of commodities required to “avoid shame” also increase. Being poor in such societies mean lacking the capability to “avoid shame” because the poor lacks the capability to “afford” all those commodities. There is certainly a strong psychological component here because the “needs” are dictated by social customs (and people’s degree of obeisance).

The Human Development (HD) Approach

It was developed in the 1980s when it was noted that handing over economic growth to market forces alone (free market economy) and curtailing the role of government in the economic activities led to increased poverty. It combines the elements of the basic needs and capability approaches and defines the human development as a process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical choices relate to leading a long and healthy life, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living. Other choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and self-respect.

The HD idea revolves around the basic theme: “People are the real wealth of a nation.”  And the basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy and creative life. It was stated in the first Human Development Report (HDR) published in 1990. This is a paradigm shift in developmental thinking: it puts the focus on people and makes them the target of development; incomes and resources are seen as means, not ends goals.

The HD approach offers several advantages: It goes beyond the basic needs of material, services and physical conditions to give importance to other aspects of life like freedom, environment and society. It simplifies the concept of capability approach to include “choices” and “freedom” and sees development as widening human choices. It is open ended, and considers everything that might affect human life, so that different societies can focus on what is important for them. Poverty is just the opposite – people with badly limited choices.

The HD approach has been attracting people who are seeking human-focused and humane alternatives to the usual “economic growth” as development. It also offers an alternate measure of development in the form of the human development index (HDI) which combines life expectancy, literacy and adjusted income. The HDI is an important milestone in efforts to measure human well-being in terms other than per capita GDP or income.

Since the first HDR in 1990, every year a different human development theme is picked up for the report and the global scenario is presented. These reports have greatly impacted the national policies and provide fresh perspective to look at poverty. It has brought into focus the importance of issues like lack of women empowerment and illiteracy, income inequalities, non-inclusive growth, social exclusion etc as major impediment to human development.

It paved the way to look at poverty from a multidimensional perspective. Thus, in 2010 a multidimensional poverty index (MPI) that analyses poverty through a set of 10 indicators was launched. It has been adopted as an effective policy-making tool by many countries around the world.

The Way Forward

Do we really need experts and poverty research in order to eradicate poverty? Why not ask the poor themselves. It would give perhaps the most useful perspective. They see themselves mostly as deprived, marginalized, excluded and vulnerable. They are people without much voice and choice. To be meaningful for them, the development process must empower them so that they come out of these disadvantages.

As professor Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel laureate of 2006 and better known for the micro-credit movement, puts it “The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world… all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.”

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Why Has Capitalism Failed the Poor?

Poverty is much more than lack of income.

Poverty is much more than lack of income.

Capitalism has failed the poor because it considers interests of only people with money, to the exclusion of everyone else.

“Human entrepreneurship” is the magic wand that creates prosperity. We lead a rather safe and comfortable life today because of scientific, technological and medical advances of past few centuries. Today we have much better social infrastructure and human development than some decades ago – and certainly far better than 100 years ago. It all testifies to the superb potentials of human capabilities and ingenuity. This is the reason why the UNDP declares that “People are the true wealth of a nation.”

[World would have been a far better place if nations defined “development” by keeping people at the focus and developed economies around them. Today, economy and technologies occupy the spot light and people are just the tools to achieve it! As a result, people are no longer the true wealth of nations; material possessions and technological advancements are.]

People and their capabilities are nurtured by socio-economic conditions which vary from society to society. As a result, many parts of the world are seeing unprecedented prosperity and wealth creation while others have seriously lagged behind. There are socio-political and cultural reasons why many parts of the world failed to taste the fruits of development. But that is beside the point.

Leaving aside the natural differences among societies and people, the most worrisome problem is the extremely high levels of inequality within most countries. This inequality is so striking that increasing number of people wonder if market driven economy has failed the poor – many blame the capitalistic economic model for persistence of poverty. Over 2.5 billion people (of the total 7.2 billion global population) live within less than $2-a-day income and about 1 billion survive below $1.25-a-day. Poverty related issues are still behind most major problems around the world.

The US offers a great example of inequality created by an “almost free” market economy. According to a recent report, about 49 percent Americans are receiving benefits from at least one government program and nearly 150 million citizens (of the 315 million total population) are considered to be either “poor” or “low income.” There are many other grim facts on poverty in the US – which by all means is a symbol of free-market capitalism for the whole world particularly since 1980s. The government welfare programs serve to redistribute income from the top to the bottom via the tax system. This is the only mechanism that serves to reduce inequality to some extent.

Trend of Growing Accumulation of Wealth in Few Hands

Since fall of the communist bloc in 1990 wealth has been increasingly concentrating with fewer people and global elites are becoming increasingly richer. Yet the vast majority of people around the world remain excluded from this prosperity. For instance, while stocks and corporate profits soar to new heights, wages as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have stagnated.

Oxfam International’s briefing paper of Jan 20, 2014 (title: Working for the Few) highlighted the fact that the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion – it’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half. The wealth of the richest 1% increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014 while the worst-off 80% at the bottom currently own just 5.5%. If the trend continues the richest 1% would own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016. In short, currently the total global wealth is almost evenly divided: around one half is with the richest 1% and the remaining half is shared by the rest 99%. Amazing, isn’t it?

Note further: 70% people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years; the richest 1% increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries between 1980 and 2012.

The financial crises of 2008-09 failed to bring any fundamental change in the working of the financial world that would change the trend. In the US 95 percent of post-crisis recovery between 2009 and 2012 was captured by the wealthiest 1%, while the bottom 90% became poorer.

To give an indication of the scale of wealth concentration: In 2013 only 85 richest people had wealth equal to the combined wealth of the poorest 50%! Currently, only 80 richest people have as much wealth as the combined total of 50% of the poorest humanity. Between 2009 and 2014, these richest 80 doubled their wealth in cash terms. The combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people (€217bn) exceeds the total cost of stimulus (€200bn) measures across the European Union (EU) between 2008 and 2010. Furthermore, post-recovery austerity policies made life of poor harder, while making the rich even richer. Austerity has also adversely impacted life of the middle classes. The rich elite use their money for lobbying policymakers and funding election campaigns to further their interests. This further excludes the poor from the policy making circle.

Such massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. It destabilizes societies; people no more move forward together, they are increasingly separated by economic and political power, leading to increased social tensions and the risk of societal breakdown.

Moreover, it also dampens economic growth. It is, however, not inevitable and can and must be curtailed.

Yet, experience shows that capitalism is the only model that works, despite its imperfections – most notably, its exploitative character and tendency to favour the rich.

Too Narrow Focus of Capitalism – Profit Maximization For The Few

The current brand of popular “shareholder capitalism” revolves around a single theme: maximizing profits for the shareholders. It is designed to serve the interests of a very small fraction of people, investors – people with the capital. As a result, interests of all other stakeholders – employees, society and environment – become secondary and subordinate. In fact, there is a built-in conflict of interest; employees must be paid the least and all other expenses minimized so that owners’ share is maximized.

People believe that this concentrates wealth and prosperity in too few hands and creates an elite class that turns politically powerful. Then they use power to further their business interests. This sets in a vicious cycle of money and power feeding each other. Needless to say, this also undermines free and fair play of democratic norms which in the extreme case destabilize the society.

Governments run welfare programs for the poor and needy from the collected taxes which partly redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. However, what is not passed on to the poor is the influence and power enjoyed by the elite class. As a result, people at the lower end survive but can’t change their fortune. This is also precisely what is wrong with the charity – it keeps the poor where they are, in poverty!

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Global Economics of Rich Getting Richer and Increasing Inequalities

World-Economic-ForumDangers of Rising Economic Inequality

The World Economic Forum has identified rising inequality as a major risk to progress. This was highlighted in its release of “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014” in November 2013. It is worrisome because when wealth captures government policymaking the rules are twisted to favour the rich – it poses a serious threat to democracy and well-being of the poor. It results in the erosion of democratic governance, disruption of social cohesion, and opportunities no more remain equal for all. The US Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis aptly sums up, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’

Trend of Growing Accumulation of Wealth in Few Hands

Since fall of the communist bloc in 1990 wealth has been increasingly concentrating with fewer people and global elites are increasingly becoming richer. Yet the vast majority of people around the world remain excluded from this prosperity. For instance, while stocks and corporate profits soar to new heights, wages as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have stagnated.

Oxfam International’s briefing paper of Jan 20, 2014 (titled Working for the Few) highlighted the fact that the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion – it’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half. The wealth of the richest 1% increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014 while the worst-off 80% at the bottom currently own just 5.5%. If the trend continues the richest 1% would own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016. In short, currently the total global wealth is almost evenly divided: around one half is with the richest 1% and the remaining half is shared by the rest 99%. Note further: 70% people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years; the richest 1% increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries between 1980 and 2012. Amazing, isn’t it?

The financial crises of 2008-09 failed to bring any fundamental change in the working of the financial world that would change the trend. In the US 95 percent of post-crisis recovery between 2009 and 2012 was captured by the wealthiest 1%, while the bottom 90% became poorer.

To give an indication of the scale of wealth concentration: In 2013 only 85 richest people had wealth equal to the combined wealth of the poorest 50%! Currently, only 80 richest people have as much wealth as the combined total of 50% of the poorest humanity. Between 2009 and 2014, these richest 80 doubled their wealth in cash terms. The combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people (€217bn) exceeds the total cost of stimulus (€200bn) measures across the European Union (EU) between 2008 and 2010. Furthermore, post-recovery austerity policies made life of poor harder, while making the rich even richer. Austerity has also adversely impacted life of the middle classes. The rich elite use their money for lobbying policymakers and funding election campaigns to further their interests. This further excludes the poor from the policy making circle.

This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. It destabilizes societies; people no more move forward together, they are increasingly separated by economic and political power, leading to increased social tensions and the risk of societal breakdown.

Moreover, it also dampens economic growth. It is, however, not inevitable and can and must be curtailed.

Rising Inequality in the UK

Reflecting the above statistics, in May 2014 reports came out that the richest 1% of Britons own the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population. The Sunday Times in the same month reported that the 1,000 richest people in the country had doubled their wealth in five years.

Now let’s focus on the poor – those who live below the breadline. Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty calculated that food poverty in 2013/14 increased by 54% compared to 2012/13. More than half a million children in the UK currently live in families unable to provide a minimally acceptable diet.

[Numbers in above 2 paragraphs come from Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise of Food Poverty in Britain, June 2014]

Inequality in India

In the past decade, the number of billionaires in India increased from less than 6 to 61, concentrating roughly $250bn among a few dozen people in a country of 1.26 billion. Reflecting the concentration of wealth in the elite minority, their share increased from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2008. Nothing much has changed since then.

About half of India’s billionaires acquired their wealth in sectors where profits depend upon access to scarce resources, possible exclusively through government permissions; for example, real estate, construction, mining, and telecommunications. In simple language, it points to their influence in policy- and decision-making circle through lobbying and corruption – it is the typical business-politician-bureaucrat nexus. The massive corruption scandals during the UPA regime prove the point.

It is also common knowledge that property development in India is the most opaque business, where enormous sums of illegal money exchange hands. Sonia’s son-in-law Robert Vadra (“Damad Ji” in Modi’s language!) tried his elite status for land deals and made fortune in a very short time, although now his activities are being investigated.

Now the flip side. India’s vast population of poor did not see fruits of economic gains in their life, while the corporate media joined the chorus of elite class and highlighted the increasing number of millionaires and billionaires as sign of development. The government spending for the poor and vulnerable groups in society remains remarkably low – India’s public spending on healthcare is just around 1% of GDP. A recently released report of the Asian Development Bank which ranked countries for their expenditure on poor and economically vulnerable groups ranked India 23 out of 35 countries in the region. Even among the 19 low- to middle-income countries, India was placed twelfth.

Corruption and loopholes in the laws enable the powerful elite class to evade taxes. It reduces available public funds; and shows up as reduced size of welfare programs for the poor. In India, even this fund is misappropriated by the implementing government officials and political middlemen. As a result, only a tiny fraction actually reaches the target beneficiaries. In this age of globalization, the ultra rich class also evades taxes through shell companies established in foreign countries.

Indirect taxation account for over 60% tax revenues; only the rest comes from direct taxation like income, profits, and capital gains. Clearly there is plenty of scope to plug loopholes for tax evasion.

How Pakistani Elites Enjoy Power and Make Rules to Benefit Them

Pakistan’s parliament comprises nation’s wealthiest elites, who make rules to serve their narrow interests, while paying lip service to interests of common man. It has a very small tax base: Of the 10 million people who qualify, only 2.5 million are actually registered to pay tax. With this tiny base, Pakistan’s tax revenue is among the lowest in the world; its tax to GDP ratio is lower than even Sierra Leone.

Taxpaying parliamentarians and political elites are a conspicuous minority. A 2010 review found its PM and ministers among the non-taxpayers in the year they contested election. Obviously, the lawmakers create rules that leave loopholes to make their tax exemptions legal. The rich and powerful landowners who dominate Parliament also avoid tax by exempting agriculture. This is clearly a powerful driver of inequality. In the 1990s, law made it difficult for the authorities to ask questions on money transferred from abroad, facilitating a parallel black money economy. Those who pay taxes are usually from the honest middle class.

Pakistan’s financial system is described by a retired tax administrator, Riyaz Hussain Naqvi: “This is a system of the elite, by the elite and for the elite… It is a skewed system in which the poor man subsidizes the rich man.”

He succinctly summed up how unjust rules made by powerful vested interests create and perpetuate poverty. It applies to all poor countries of the world.

Oxfam’s Suggestions to Reduce Inequality

Oxfam also proposed a 7 point plan to the governments:

  1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals.
  2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education.
  3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth.
  4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers.
  5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal.
  6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum-income guarantee.
  7. Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

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Understanding Poverty, Beyond Lack of Income

Poverty is lack of human development.

Poverty is lack of human development.

Changing World, Changing Needs

In the 21st century, rapid changes are taking place all over the world – even in the economically underdeveloped countries under the wave of globalization and revolution in IT and communication technologies. The poverty standard of income devised in the historical past is no longer relevant under new conditions. People today are no longer subject to the same laws, customs and social order of the bygone era. Globalization and easy of connectivity is exposing the ultrahigh inequalities between the rich West and the poor East as well as the unjust world-order. People no longer want mere economic growth but also aspire for social justice and political freedom to influence the direction of development. Therefore, a comprehensive viewpoint is needed in order to understand poverty properly.

Low Income – The Traditional Concept of Poverty

Poverty is traditionally associated with lack of income – you don’t expect a poor to have money. This is the traditional way to look at poverty. People are considered poor when they don’t have enough income to obtain basic necessities of life – food, shelter, drinking water, education, medicines and so on. When poverty is seen from this subsistence perspective it is absolute poverty – the poor are just struggling to survive.

According to the United Nations’ 1995 World Summit in Copenhagen, “absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.

This gave rise to the concept of subsistence or absolute poverty line – people with income below it are poor; in fact, they are extremely poor. India’s official poverty line is actually a subsistence poverty line.

The exploitative colonial powers have used such poverty line definitions to set bare minimum wages for their subjects so that they could get just sufficient food and replenish their energies to keep working. This is how the colonial countries like the UK laid the foundation for affluence in their own countries while leaving their subjects to bare survival and plundering their natural resources.

Today, the Word Bank uses $1.25-a-day benchmark of extreme poverty and estimated that globally around 1 billion people are extremely poor.

Basic Needs Approach

The basic needs approach evolved in the 1970s. It revolves around listing most basic needs of people like food, shelter, clothing and other essentials of a household. Then it fixes the quantum of their minimum consumption requirements. It also considered services provided by the state or community such as safe water, sanitation, public transport, medical and education facilities etc. It, thus, established a basic framework for community development.

Of course, these are defined by the ‘experts’ and the poor remain as mere passive recipients. However, it is attractive to policymakers due to ease of its implementation. It helped the international agencies make developmental plans.

While it is easier to restrict the poverty perspective to material and physical needs which can be planned easily by the government, it helps to remind that human lives can’t be simplified to the level of policies that the government can plan.

Society can also Dictate “Necessities”

Clearly, people are not robotic creatures needing only replenishment of physical energy needed to work. They also have social demands which must be met in order to live a satisfactory life.

“By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. . . . Custom . . . has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them.” – Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations

After all, people are social beings and are affected by the social opinions and processes. Therefore, poverty can’t be seen in isolation and must necessarily be seen in the overall social context. It must be seen in relation with the society. This relative poverty moves in response to changing social environment and what used to be luxuries can become necessities now. Living in society demands that one has to satisfy social obligations and expectations; not having the resources to do so mean one is living in poverty.

Relative Poverty

The philosophical foundation of relative poverty is provided by Karl Marx, “Our needs and enjoyments spring from society; we measure them, therefore by society and not by the objects of their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.

As Peter Townsend, a leading authority on UK poverty, puts it: People are poor if they live with resources that are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.

People are “relatively poor” when their average resources or average living standard falls below the society average. Relative poverty is also seen as inequality. It will be always present in any society, no matter how much it progresses. Certain sections of the society will always perform less than others, so relative poverty can never be eliminated. However, if the wealth distribution becomes more even the it falls.

Moving to relative poverty is in fact a shift from the “needs” to “wants” – people are poor if they “want” to live like others but can’t. Now the measure is “the deficit in the living standard”, compared with the society average. The philosophy of relative poverty is common in the developed nations, since they have progressed beyond the point where people are no more struggling for basic survival needs.

Definition of Relative Poverty in Europe

Relative poverty is when some people’s way of life and income is so much worse than the general standard of living in the country or region in which they live that they struggle to live a normal life and to participate in ordinary economic, social and cultural activities.” – European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN)

The EU’s Relative Poverty Standard

“People falling below 60% of median income are considered to be at-risk-of poverty.”

Capability Poverty

development focus on people not economyThe capability approach of Amartya Sen expresses poverty in terms of deprivation of people’s capabilities – referring to what they can or cannot do, can or cannot be. It sees income, resources and public facilities as mere means to achieve or expand human capabilities. In laymen’s language, Sen’s development approach aims to make people more capable in terms of their skills, physical and mental abilities – it is kind of holistic approach.

Expanding capabilities increase well-being and shrinking capabilities decrease well-being. The set of capabilities needed to escape poverty is rather limited. The capability poverty is typically lack of capabilities related to satisfying basic needs of food, nutrition, health, shelter, etc. In the capability approach, expansion of people’s capabilities is the prime goal – income, resources and facilities have no meaning unless they enhance human capabilities.

Consider this simple example: Having a cell phone can enable the capability of connectivity, but only if the person uses it properly. Mere ownership of the cell phone doesn’t tell what the person can do with it; a blind and deaf person may not be able to use it. Therefore, the important point is not the possession of a commodity or its features, but the capability to use it.

As mentioned above, when Adam Smith argued that leather shoes became social necessity in order to avoid shame in the public, he was referring the capability of avoiding public shame. As societies get richer and richer, the commodities required to “avoid shame” also increase. Being poor in such societies mean lacking the capability to “avoid shame” because the poor lacks the capability to “afford” all those commodities. There is certainly a strong psychological component here because the “needs” are dictated by social customs (and people’s degree of obeisance).

This is not the case in the context of basic needs; for example, the poor lack the capability to be well nourished, or to move about freely, or to live in a good shelter, or to be free from diseases. But there are no social interactions urging people to take care of such needs.

The Human Development (HD) Approach

It was developed in the 1980s when it was noted that handing over economic growth to market forces alone (free market economy) and curtailing the role of government in the economic activities led to increased poverty. It combines the elements of the basic needs and capability approaches and defines the human development as a process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical choices relate to leading a long and healthy life, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living. Other choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and self-respect.

The HD idea revolves around the basic theme: “People are the real wealth of a nation.”  And the basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy and creative life. It was stated in the first Human Development Report (HDR) published in 1990. A key aspect of HD is that it puts the focus on people and sees them as ends, not means; incomes and resources are taken as means, not ends.

In practical sense, the HD considers the basic material needs of goods and services but also give importance to other issues such as freedom, environment and society. It is open ended, and considers everything that may affect human life, so that different societies can focus on what is important for them. It sees development as widening human choices. Poverty is just the opposite – people with limited few choices.

The HD approach offers several advantages: It goes beyond the basic needs of material and physical conditions to consider institutional and political elements and simplifies the concept of capability approach to include “choices” and “freedom”. It has been attracting people who are seeking human-focused and humane alternatives to the usual “economic growth” as development. It went a step further, by offering an alternate measure of development in the form of the human development index (HDI) which combines life expectancy, literacy and adjusted income. The HDI is an important milestone in efforts to measure human well-being in terms other than per capita GDP or income.

Since the first HDR in 1990, every year a different human development theme is picked up for the report and the global scenario is presented. These reports have greatly impacted the national policies and provide fresh perspective to look at poverty. It has brought into focus the importance of issues like women empowerment and literacy, income inequalities, inclusive growth, social exclusion etc as major impediment to human development.

It paved the way to look at poverty from a multidimensional perspective. Thus, in 2010 a multidimensional poverty index (MPI) that analyses poverty through a set of 10 indicators was launched. It has been adopted as an effective policy-making tool by many countries around the world.

The Way Forward

Do we really need experts and poverty research in order to eradicate poverty? Why not ask the poor themselves. It would give perhaps the most useful perspective. They see themselves mostly as deprived, marginalized, excluded and vulnerable. They are people without much voice and choice. To be meaningful for them, the development process must help them come out of deprivation, exclusion and vulnerability by enabling and empowering them. Thus, it makes sense to understand poverty form as many perspectives as possible.

poor agents of changeAs Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel laureate of 2006 and better known for the micro-credit movement, puts it “The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world… all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.”

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June 21 Declared “International Yoga Day”!

June 21 is now "World Yoga Day"

June 21 is now “World Yoga Day”

World Needs Sustainable Peace

June 21 is Now ‘World Yoga Day’!

After Indian Prime Minister’s call for adoption on September 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly made the declaration on December 11, 2014. It was supported by 177 nations and is among the quickest adopted resolution in the UN!

Should this be seen as humanity’s recognition of Yoga as the universal tool to promote peace and harmony in a world beseeched by greed and consumerism and threatened by climatic disasters and terror?

Or, should it be seen a universal tool for global integration of humanity which is badly fragmented by beliefs and faiths?

Regardless of how one looks at it, the world finally acknowledged that Yoga is universally acceptable. But what makes yoga so easily accepted?

It is an art or science (depending upon the way you look at it) of human evolution through personal efforts, regardless of where you come from and what you believe or don’t believe. Although today Yoga is more popular as physical postures and breathing exercises that relieve stress and promote good health, but it is a system of holistic living with higher spiritual goal. What binds us in mundane human life is the ego and craving for sensory pleasures; yoga is the technology to go beyond. Humanity has enormous potential if it is taught to look beyond sense gratification. The firm mind of a yogi develops the capacity to explore higher dimensions of life that fall in the realm of meditation.

It guides us to find happiness and peace where it exists: inside us!

Indian envoy to the UN, Ashoke Kumar Mukerji, expects that

“International day of yoga will encourage the growth of a sustainable pattern of consumption and lead to a balance between man and nature.”

Yoga is an Universal Art of Evolution

The charismatic prime minister of India who is also a long time practitioner of yoga describes yoga as:

“Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.”

Ancient India, several thousand years ago much before the Christ (2000 years) or even the Buddha (2500 years), was a land of spiritual research. It was a land of sages (hrishis) who devoted their life to find a systematic way of spiritual evolution leading to self-realization or liberation (Moksha) (from the endless cycle of life and death). If, historically, the civilizations in the West looked for laws of nature outside, the sages (hrishis) explored the world within. They compiled their knowledge in the 4 Vedas and numerous other scriptures and commentaries. The science of yoga, which is a science of mental cultivation, also evolved in that period.

Yoga takes you to an inward journey using awareness as the tool of self observation. As you move forward first the gross realities come to light then the subtle realizations get progressively subtler. As you advance, you begin to feel the sense of oneness within yourself and the surrounding nature. This feeling of oneness deepens as you move along; it is very peaceful state which is quite different from the mundane sensory pleasures and is difficult to describe in words. This is an experiential understanding that is open to all.

The word ‘yoga’ comes from a Sanskrit root yuj which takes two meanings. In Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, one sense is conveyed by the phrase ‘yujir yoge’ where it means ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’. In the sense of union or merger yoga is the merger of the individual ‘soul’ with the ‘universal soul’ (god) or union of individual energy with the universal cosmic energy.

The other sense is given in the phrase ‘yuj samadhau’ where yoga points to state of Samadhi (mental concentration). In this sense yoga is self-realization which happens in the state of perfect concentration. It is a profoundly impactful life-transforming experience when all the shakiness of mind is gone. Although the two meaning appear different, but in reality they describe the same thing.

Philosophically speaking, Patanjali defines yoga as stopping the wavering tendencies of the mind. Yogvasisht say ‘The skill to get liberated from the endless cycle of birth-and-death is Yoga.’ In fact, all ancient texts, right from the Vedas, connect yoga with liberation (moksha) in one sense or the other.

Different forms of yoga like Bhakti yoga (yoga through devotion), Raj yoga (yoga through knowledge), Karma yoga (yoga through actions) etc were evolved by people with different mental dispositions. However, the ultimate goal is the same: Moksha (liberation) or freedom from ego that manifests as greed and hatred.

The path of liberation necessarily involves coming out of the sensory attachments which require deliberate and sustained effort. Therefore, abstinence or restrain from indulgence in sensual pleasures runs across all yoga texts and commentaries which describe yoga from different viewpoints. The ideas of self-control or self-restrain are almost out of fashion these days but are all the more relevant today when the collective avarice of humanity is threatening the limited resources of the planet and when violence and terror is endangering global peace.

yoga3Patanjali’s Eight-fold Yoga

What is widely known as Yoga today comes from sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which must be seen as compilation of yoga principles lying scattered in different books. His eight-fold Yoga system lays down the philosophy of yogic living that anyone can practice: 1. Yama, 2. Niyama, 3. Aasan (physical postures), 4. Pranayama(breathing exercises), 5. Pratyahar, 6. Dharana, 7. Dhyana and 8. Samadhi.

The first five practices are considered ‘external.’ They prepare the yogi to turn inwards so that the task of mental development (concentration) in the last three stages leading to sustained meditation (Samadhi) can be taken up. The Sanskrit word Samadhi denotes the metal state of concentration or absorption; it is a state where the mind is highly firm. In the stage of Samadhi the yogi experiences deep bliss with the sense of oneness with the universe – this is the culmination of Yoga as envisaged by sage Patanjali.

Taken together the eight steps lay the foundation for a healthy and peaceful living. This lifestyle is different from the ‘usual’ indulgence based life devoted to satisfaction of endless sensual craving.

The first two steps (yama and Niyama) are preparatory and deal with the personal conduct; they are like voluntary dos and don’ts. Yama prescribes 5 abstinences (don’ts): you refrain from indulging in violence, telling lies, stealing, sexual misconduct, and accumulation of physical facilities or wealth. Then Niayama prescribe 5 things to adopt (dos): keeping clean or pure, cultivating contentment, cultivating tolerance and patience, learning and exploring good things, and surrendering before the Teacher and Universal Energy (religions personifies it as ‘God’).

These dos and don’ts of personal conduct are universal; anyone from any religion, race, culture or background can practice them. They incline the mind towards non-violence and good personal conduct. Unfortunately, such character development is the most neglected aspect of life today; yet, this is what the world needs today.

Next, the physical postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama) revitalize the mind-body complex – the ‘YOU’. For most people ‘yoga’ is synonymous with physical postures. They certainly have the ability to relieve stress and improve health, but enormous amount of benefits remain unexplored if done mechanically like other physical exercises. They do improve muscle toe and oxygen intake but there is lot more at the subtle level which become clear only when meditative efforts are made.

With consistent practice one should move on to the fifth stage, Pratyahar, which means withdrawing sense organs from outside objects and turning them inwards. In other words, you train to become indifferent to outside objects of five sense organs – a voluntary mental withdrawal from sensory excitements. This is, in reality, true renunciation without going to Himalayas, changing costume or leaving the family or society. This introverted state of mind –withdrawn from the outside world – is ripe for the practice of meditation.

The final three stages take you progressively into deeper states of meditation – ultimately leading to the experience of oneness with the universe, the final Yoga (union).

Thus, the eight stages are designed to break the ‘union’ with unhealthy and gross things of ordinary life and to ‘unite’ with the subtler forces of nature.

For me, Yoga is not just a workout – it’s about working on myself.” – Mary Glover

Yoga Unites body and mind with Nature

Yoga Unites body and mind with Nature

Relevance of Yoga Today

In a world where terrorists find guns and sanctuaries easier than the poor get food and shelter, the International Yoga Day offers the message of sanity and in a world where good health is a privilege of the rich, the Yoga Day sends hope to the poor.

The international Yoga Day will serve as an annual reminder to the global leaders to sit down and meditate which would make them real messenger of peace. The road to global peace goes through sense of peace within. Yoga is the best hope for people tired of chasing flimsy pleasures of sensory excitements and for those who find lasting satisfaction elusive no matter how much they achieve or accumulate. It needs inner strength and training to say no to temptations; yoga empowers you to do that.

In a world where families are decaying and more and more children are growing up as love-less loners sitting on computers playing war games humanity’s conduct and its lifestyle is increasingly becoming a problem for the health of the planet. It is clearly a problem of quality of mind and the mental software that dictates the social behaviour.

Fortunately or unfortunately, human mind is highly mouldable. The most unfortunate examples come from the so-called ‘Islamic Jehadi’ terror groups, who brainwash people (even young kids) to kill themselves to kill others with the promise of ‘paradise.’ These ‘human bombs’ happily blow themselves or turn into killing machines. This is the most destructive use of human mind humanity has ever seen and points to the dangers of faith based indoctrination.

Someone has rightly said: “Religion is the worst intoxicant discovered in last two thousand years.” We all know how intoxication cuts off people from both reality and humanity. Of course, if taken with awareness and in moderation an intoxicant may have medicinal value! But sad enough, we live in the age of extremes of all manners.

Yoga is the right anti-dote for this delusion. It develops and uses ‘self-awareness’ for self-healing and self-discovery. Every step is walked through personal effort and self-control. You trust what you discover and ‘experience’ inside, not what someone else wants you to believe. It is a universal path that progressively frees you from physical and mental afflictions at every stage, until you are fully liberated!

If yogic postures and breathing exercises remove physical imbalances and lay the foundation for good physical health, all eight steps when taken together tone up the mind by freeing it from hatred and greed. The disciplined and firm mind of a yogi takes delight in the virtues of non-violence, patience and universal compassion – violence, hatred and greed are the distinctive stamps of weak and sick mind.

Yoga changes things at the level of personal conduct; hence, ideal to transform human-consumers back into human-beings and put the global development agenda on the sustainable path. It can also train people to seek joy in inner peace instead of games of violence and wars. It is free from superficial rites or rituals and imposed beliefs. It neither demands you to believe or disbelieve in some particular god, faith or philosophy, nor to change your religious label or costume. Only yoga can unite the humanity sick with the virus of “my-god-and-my-faith is better than yours”!

Today people are not the target of development; this is the source of all global problems. The focus is on developing economy and technology; people are mere tools to do that. Education system has degenerated into producing human resource (just like natural resources) for commercial consumption so that the economic engine keeps running. Yoga puts development in the right perspective and puts the focus on people. Only “developed” people can create a peaceful world; “developed” economy or technology can’t!

World Yoga Day on June 21 should serve as a reminder every year!

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Comedy of “Pseudo-Secularism” and “Minority Appeasement” in India

Distorted Secularism of Congress Party?

Modi's victory in 2014 Loksabha has changed political discourse of India.

Modi’s victory in 2014 Loksabha has changed political discourse of India.

Recently, there were media reported that the Congress party is worried about its anti-Hindu image. In fact, not just the Congress but all so-called ‘secularists’ in India should worry about it. And the reason is their own distorted understanding of secularism as mere minority appeasement for “vote bank” politics.

The disgraceful defeat of the “self-certified” secularist Congress and its allies in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and rise of the BJP (whom they have habitually label as a “communal” Hindu Party) to power on its own strength has certainly exposed their anti-Hindu mindset under the mask of secularism. If some leaders in Congress party have finally realised that the party has alienated Hindus over the years or decades it is a much belated realization. It merely shows that its minority appeasement agenda has gone too far while its royal leadership was busy enjoying “Raag Darbari”!

To their credit, the Nehru-Gandhi royal family has faithfully preserved the anti-Hindu flavor of ‘secularism’ as handed down by the colonial rulers who purpose fully created an atmosphere that Hindus can be taken for granted. It was an exploitation of Hindu community’s tolerant and accommodative nature and they were aided by some congressmen who were Hindu only by birth. No wonder, the ‘secularism’ of Congress – which open minded people call “pseudo-secularism” – started off with the “ignore Hindu and appease minority” mindset.  It later got further twisted when they started calling Hindu organizations “communal” in order to corner minority votes.

“Pseudo-Secularism”, “Minority Appeasement” and “Vote Bank” Politics

If some rare independent thinkers of the party are worried about the failure of its minority ‘vote bank’ politics, they are unlikely to have any impact on party’s policies because its owner family has very little understanding of Indian culture, its social fabric and the positive role Hindus play. However, they have to look for the cause of their 2014 defeat elsewhere. Although most Hindus don’t like its secular posturing but the real cause of their shameful rout is the utterly inept and corrupt UPA coalition government for last ten years. If it is pensive about its long nurtured ‘pseudo-secularism’ it is more of a reflection of its fear of the phenomenon called Narendra Modi whom it has demonized for over a decade – by portraying him as a “Hindu Monster” ready to eat Muslims. Its leadership was too dumb to realize that it was an intellectual offence to both Hindus and Muslims.

The secularists badly misjudged Modi: his spotless personal integrity, his well-groomed leadership qualities, his ability to communicate directly with masses and inspire them, and more importantly his remarkable grasp on larger issues country is facing. If Modi all along talked of development and filled people with hope, the Congress and its ‘secular’ partners stayed glued to the single point “malign Modi” agenda. The endless smear campaign blocked their sense of rationality and the Modi-Amit Shah duo outsmarted them in every way. The best indication came from UP where the BJP won 73 seats out of 81; remaining 8 seats went to two elite families of Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh. Remember, UP is the state of Mulayam Singh who is among the biggest players of Muslim vote bank politics.

The BJP victory is a serious blow to the communal politics of the entire ‘secular brigade’ whose ‘secular’ status rests squarely on maligning BJP and Hindu organizations. In last several decades, the Congress has carefully established its secular credentials by calling “communal” anyone who spoke for Hindus. After the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, Sonia went to the extent of calling Modi “Mout Ka Saudagar”. This nasty trick to polarize Indian society on communal lines, however, stands exposed now. But it is a dangerous game of ‘vote bank’ politics in a democracy of 80 percent Hindus who, fortunately, don’t look at everything through religious lens.

It is not hard to understand why Italy-born Sonia never used the phrase “Mout Ka Saudagar” for Islamic terrorists who massacred 166 innocent people in Mumbai. By the way, it was her late husband Rajiv who in the 1980s set the worst example of Muslim appeasement in the “Shah Bano’ case”. He went to the extent of amending the Constitution in order to overturn a court decision that went in favour of a woman Shah Bano, after some Muslim clergies opposed the verdict. He was criticized by the whole country but he proved that ‘vote bank’ is more important than justice to women and their empowerment.

The year 2014 also exposed Congress Prince Rahul who looked like a high school boy when pitted against seasoned Modi as a prime ministerial cadidate. He doesn’t seem to feel at-home among the “mango people” of the “Banana Republic” – borrowing a phrase from his genius brother-in-law Robert Vadra whom Modi fondly refers to as “Damad Ji”. Defeat of Congress at the Center and in states like Rajasthan and Haryana also mean end of “Damad Ji’s” professional career in the land-deal business which grew like a fairy tale in last few years – thanks to the Congress CMs kept him above the rules meant for the ordinary ‘mango’ people’ of India!

Adding salt to injury of the pseudo-secularists, Modi’s popularity did not drop with the Lok Sabha victory; he continued to win state after state in 2014.

Modi Phobia in Other “Pseudo-secularists”

If the spectacular reception of Modi in the US and Australia and his popularity among prominent world leaders inspire awe in his political opponents, his widespread acceptability around the country as seen in the assembly elections of 4 states is also sending cold-shivers through the spine of other ‘self-certified seculars’ of the country. Their collective desperation and Modi phobia has forced Mulayam, Laloo and Nitish to merge their parties to create a so-called “Grand Coalition” of Janata Parivar. In the context of the past experience, everyone wants to know: How long the “Grand Coalition” will survive their “Grand Egos”!

None of these top batsmen of ‘secularism’ appear to know how to face Amit-Modi’s political ‘Guglees’. In fact, the JDU supremo Nitish Kumar and the PM aspirant in the Lok Sabha elections was so pained by Modi hurricane that he ended up renouncing his chief minister ship of Bihar! If for Modi politics is a mission to change India, it is a profession of power play with lucrative opportunities for this self-styled ‘secular brigade’ of India. When the “Vibrant Gujarat” summit in Jan 2015 show-cased state’s progress and attracted investment from the global business community, Mulayam and his CM son preferred to enjoy Bollywood ‘item dances’ in their annual “Saifai” extravaganza. This is the typical ‘royal’ behaviour of elected representatives in ‘free’ India who want to live like the British! The ongoing ‘gunda-raj’ of SP in UP and the 15 year ‘jungle raj’ of Laloo in Bihar speak for their intentions to be in the politics and commitment to people.

It would be really wonderful for the country if the BJP defeats them in Bihar in the upcoming assembly election and force these pseudo-secular Dinosaurs to seek VRS!! It would be their great contribution to clean the political platform of India, although they lack the modesty to pick up the broom and clean their neighbourhood!

Constitution Offers Equal Status to All

Since Pakistan was created to satisfy some power hungry Muslim politicians in the name of Islam, broad minded leaders of the then Whole-India-minus-Pakistan decided that India’s constitution would treat everyone equally: regardless of their caste, religion, race, faith or belief. This is sensible – because human equality is a universal principle – and a reaffirmation of the all-encompassing and assimilating mindset of the ancient culture that evolved in the era much before the Christ.

In fact, even without this written provision in the Constitution, India would have remained a secular State because the majority Hindus don’t have the habit of seeing everything through the microscope of religion. They practice a way of life which respects purity of conduct and saintly qualities regardless of where he comes from. Thus, Hindus have no problem respecting the Christ, Prophet or Sufi Islamic saints. There is nothing in their spirituality based belief system to encourage discrimination against outsiders or strangers.

Therefore, Hindus are inherently adoptive, tolerant and accommodative. Same goes for the other communities like Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism which evolved on the Indian soil through respect for saint-like persons. They all promote individual spiritual upliftment as the goal of life. People from none of these indigenous communities indulge in increasing their numbers through ‘conversion’ of others and have coexisted peacefully for ages through mutual respect. This is the true secularism, expected by the Constitution.

Nature of Minority Religions in India

The idea of discriminating people on what they believe and changing the religious labels of other people is a foreign concept that came to India with the arrival of the two newest religions – Islam and Christianity – over the centuries. Unlike the Indian born ideologies that focus on individual’s spiritual evolution, these two faiths operate more on the social plain and rest on believing a single book. These faiths distinguish between believers and non-believers of their holy book – and the wall dividing the two is really high.

As a result, there is high consciousness of their religious identity and a sense of illusory superiority over the non-believers. They also encourage ‘conversion’ of others into their ‘faith’ – “as a religious duty” which introduces elements of suspicion in the society. The silent majority of Hindus doesn’t like this game of conversion yet prefers to stay quiet and ignore it, but the deeply religious segment sees it as an undesirable adversarial activity and an assault on the community. They have no issues as long as Christians and Muslims practice their rites and rituals at personal level but the activities of Christian missionaries or Islamic fundamentalists meant to promote conversions in the name of religious freedom are not well taken.

Dangers of the “Conversion” Game

Indian history of past 800 years also supports their fear – first the Muslim invaders disrupted their society and forced conversions through threat and then the Christian missionaries under the patronage of colonial rulers played their ‘conversion’ game. History around the world also shows that both Christianity and Islam thrived on converting people into their sectarian belief. If the heavily funded Christian missionaries have targeted people in the tribal regions of India to increase their numbers, funds from the rich Gulf countries keep Islamic factory thriving elsewhere.

Incidentally, China is also seeing widespread missionary activities which authorities call ‘alarming’. Huge populations of India and China and the rather amorphous nature of their spiritual beliefs (not confined to the text of a single book) offer fertile ground for number games of conversion. As the community of ‘newly converts’ grow, the social dynamics changes. The new religious label creates a new identity that splits the hitherto homogeneous society. It also opens the possibility for cross-border advocacy – that’s what Chinese authorities, for instance, are worried about. Whenever the newly born Christian community faces conflict over some local issues the Christian West automatically gives it a “communal” flavour – typically, persecution of Christians! Also for example, look how easily Islamic fundamentalists from Pakistan or other nations start speaking for Muslims in India.

This is the danger Hindu organizations worry about when they oppose the conversion game. Of course, no one has any issue if someone willingly wants to adopt a certain philosophy or a way of life. It is an individual issue coming out of respect, and should remain so. This is what India’s indigenous faiths promote – respect all saint-like people and their wisdom. Look how spontaneously the respect for Saibaba, Sufi saints and so many other saints transcends religious labels in India without anyone promoting them.

It is relevant to mention that the tiny Parasi community in the West India that came centuries ago from Iran presents a healthy exception. Even though population of this highly influential community is shrinking and facing the dangers of extinction it has no tradition of ‘conversion’. They don’t look down upon people with different beliefs. In fact, the way they have conducted themselves and mingled into India’s diverse society is exemplary.

Origin of Distorted Secularism in India

In the truncated “Secular” India after the partition the activities of radical Islamic elements, who could not go to Pakistan during partition but remained in India as Pakistan sympathizer, remained an ever lurking threat to communal harmony. [Even today, the Imam of Delhi Jama Musjid wants to invite Pak PM but not Indian PM for a ceremony! It is height of perverted thinking.] It has also often triggered fundamentalism on the other side. The bitter memories of bloodbath following the partition served to sustain mutual mistrust in both communities. Their provocative or belligerent activities were largely ignored by the ruling Congress Party until forced to act – it was seen as unfair appeasement by the majority silent Hindus. In the later years, this appeasement mutated into ‘vote bank’ politics and distorted the ideal of secularism. It is the source of all communal troubles in India.

Consequences of Appeasement Politics

Being the largest religious minority (15% of total population) the Muslim community has been the prime target of political appeasement. If the intentions were honest, with so many champions of their cause Muslims should have been the most advanced community by now. But the reality is just the opposite.

Indian Muslim community has traditionally excelled in a variety of professional skills and cultural activities and occupied a special place in the country, but groomed as ‘vote bank’ for decades the community could not properly integrate into “new” national mainstream of ‘free and secular’ India. Simultaneously, it increasingly sank into poverty and hopelessness. Government funds for numerous schemes were generally siphoned off by the corrupt power brokers of the community. The ‘pseudo-secularists’ also started demanding “reservation” for Muslims in government jobs alongside dalits and other backward communities.

Yet, There is Hope!

It is possible to break out of this self-perpetuated vicious cycle of misery and hopelessness because the political discourse in India has changed now. Year 2014 will be remembered as the turning point in the Indian history and a beginning of real secularism and inclusive politics. It is time, particularly for the two biggest vote banks – Muslim and Dalit – to discard the politicians who have been fooling them and look towards joining the national mainstream.

I firmly believe that the era of distorted secularism and caste based divisive politics is over. Very soon the likes of Sonia, Laloo, Mulayam, Nitish, and Mayawati would find their right place – in the oblivion!

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What is Wrong with the Family Planning Program in India

Falling Fertility Rates in India

Falling Fertility Rates in India

Poor Quality Service in Sterilization Camps

Recent news reports of over dozen deaths in a sterilization camp in Bilaspur city of Chhattisgarh along with other reports of doctors doing sterilization procedure in non-serious manner or under unhygienic conditions from other parts of the country has once again highlighted the fact our bureaucratic machinery in the family planning department hasn’t given up its old mindset. The ‘target’ patients in the camps are brought from the poor communities whose social and health awareness is still very low. The ‘incentives’ attached to the sterilization procedure lure them to come forward, and the officials are only too happy to see their ‘targets’ achieved. Clearly, Babus responsible for the family planning program have no idea that the National Population Policy of 2000 has categorically rejected their old-fashioned ‘targeted approach’ of population control.

A Brief History of Family Planning Initiative in India

Let’s start with a brief historical perspective.

Sixty years ago, India started the first national family planning program in the world. It was certainly a different world with different realities. Indian population was only a third of what it is today and the average life expectancy was only 32 years (today it is 67 years). The average number of children per woman was about six and over one-fifth new-born infants did not survive for their first birthday. Compared with current scenario, the infant mortality rate was four times higher – 225 for 1000 live births. Interestingly, female sterilization, the most commonly employed birth control tool by the state machinery today, did not exist then.

In the years after the second WW, India’s family planning initiative was controlled by the Western aid givers, who were clearly in the Malthusian awe of the large Indian population and the very thought of its growth meant something like a ‘population explosion’ to them. Indian family planning initiatives were highly influenced by the global trends and the fear of “population explosion” got systematically ingrained in the public psyche. This fear expressed itself in a series of incentives and disincentives in the family planning programs in India. It was even introduced in the school curriculum and the later policy changes failed to completely rectify such references. [Read, History and Politics of Family Planning in India]

What was initially merely a maternal and child health program, grew into an overwhelming adventure as the fears of a “population explosion” gripped the planners – of course, promoted by the international aid agencies and the Western donors. Mid seventies saw a sudden twist in the family planning initiatives when Indian policy planners, from seeing development as the best contraceptive, moved to a dictatorial forced sterilization campaign. Over time it became an entirely ‘target’ driven number game and the government machinery, from top to bottom, began to be judged by the number of “tubectomies” delivered annually.

Some sanity was restored after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. Its program of Action clearly stated that

…Government goals for family planning should be defined in terms of unmet needs for information and services. Demographic goals, while legitimately the subject of government development policies, should not be imposed on family planning providers in the form of targets or quotas for the recruitment of clients.

India then began to shift into a target free, reproductive and child healthcare regime during 1996 – 97 and adopted a new National Population Policy in 2000, which called for an integrated approach that in a couple of years transformed into a more holistic National Rural Health Mission in 2005.

Women’s and civil society organizations have always demanded policies focused on the need for addressing women’s welfare and health concerns, rather than the narrow focus on sterilization. But as realities of sterilization camps reveal today, policy makers still fail to focus on quality of care and remain obsessed with the ‘targets’ of sterilization numbers.

New Realities, But Old Mindset

Ground reality of today’s sterilization camps tells that the government machinery is still dogged by the old understanding of the population issue and is still aiming to reduce family size through permanent termination of pregnancies. Despite the much changed demographic realities of today, the state bureaucrats also still harbor the ossified thinking that “female sterilization is the only means of population control.

The policy makers sitting in State capitals set targets of sterilizations and the bureaucrats galvanize the state machinery to set up sterilization camps to achieve the goals. But the ground level health workers know “how these numbers are gathered” and goals achieved. Bureaucrats are, of course, unconcerned as long as they are given reports of targets achieved. They still take delight in achieving the ‘targets.’

Let us examine why the ‘target’ driven approach and the over-hyped female sterilization is not the correct solution to manage Indian population given the current demographic realities.

What is the Reason behind Population growth Today?

“You can solve a problem only if you understand it properly.”  This is the age old wisdom our family planning officials are ignorant of.

Family planning bureaucrats’ primarily need is to reeducate themselves with the changed population dynamics of India. Today India’s population is growing not because families are getting bigger but because there are too many people in the reproductive age group – it is a ‘young’ India today. Such a growth is called population momentum. In fact, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has declined from over 6 in 1950s to 2.5 in 2014, reflecting desire for smaller families and is still falling. The message of “Hum Do Aur Hamare Do” has reached even to the most backward person.

Through their mathematical analysis, Indian population experts have discovered that today the most dominating factor is the population momentum. They estimated that about 70 percent population growth comes from the population momentum and about 24 percent from unwanted fertility or non availability of contraceptives (unmet need). Only a tiny 6 percent growth comes from the desire for larger families. Thus, today over 95 percent people of India don’t want larger families. It is really a great success for the awareness campaign of the past decades.

This analysis also points to the best course of action for our population planners. Their traditional obsession with sterilization as the primary tool for birth control puts them focusing all their energies in eliminating wanted fertility that contributes just 6% to population growth! Therefore, they must re-educate themselves with the new demographic realities.

So, What should be Done

The current realities demand that the family planning battle has to be fought not in the sterilization clinics but on the social plane. The fight against population momentum, the leading cause of population growth today, demands delaying all pregnancies. It provides three clear strategies:

  1. Discourage and prevent early marriages. Although the average age at marriage is increasing slowly, marriages at younger ages are still quite common: In many states, almost fifty percent girls are already married and many are already mothers at 18.
  2. Encourage delaying first pregnancy by two-three years after marriage and then delay further pregnancies. It demands easy availability of contraceptives as well the knowledge of reproductive health.
  3. Increase availability of contraceptives for spacing births

About a quarter births take place due to unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, measured as “unmet need” for contraceptives – this is, due to poor availability of contraceptives. Condom awareness campaign should not be limited to HIV and STD prevention only. Easy availability of condoms and other contraceptives will also help the needs of the educated and liberal youth who now have more opportunities of proximity and contact.

Additional Desired Steps

Additionally, the following steps would also go a long way in rationalizing the family planning efforts in the country:

  1. Strengthen the family planning healthcare system so that people get complete knowledge of possible contraceptive methods including IUCDs, pills, etc and turn sterilization into just another option. Anganwadis in the rural areas are the ideal places for such educational efforts, particularly of rural young women.
  2. Need to think contraceptive needs beyond marriage: The sphere of contraceptives for family planning and infection prevention is too small to accommodate the changing requirement of contraceptives for people not in marriage. This requires addressing the issues of sexuality and pleasure along with sexual violence and coercion.
  3. If at all incentives have to be given, they should go to the people availing services and never to the bureaucrats in any form. After all they are merely doing their job!
  4. Allow sterilization camps only by NGOs and civil social organizations with complete freedom about pre- and post-operative care and camp duration.
  5. Monitor the quality of family planning healthcare through a set of quality parameters, as oppose to the current fashion of counting sterilization numbers.
  6. Female education and empowerment is the best contraceptive; counseling on these issues should be included into programs designed for rural areas.
  7. Motivate men to get involved in the family planning program: Men can play a vital role in propagation of awareness on above issues. A good suggestion is to engage male volunteers to operate alongside ASHAs to work with men.

Why too much focus on female sterilization and sterilization camps are bad?

Making only females responsible for family size is a striking example of gender bias in India. Men should also be made equally responsible for fertility and child care related activities. Gender bias apart, there are other compelling reasons why focus on permanent sterilization method is a wrong prescription to check population growth.

  1. When sterilization is the only available method to prevent pregnancy, it leads to several distortions. For example, people tend to go for quick pregnancies before sterilization. This actually adds to population momentum which is the prime cause of population growth. Reducing population momentum demands delaying pregnancies.
  2. Experts advice against female sterilization below the age of 27 because it leads to higher complication and failure rates. NFHS – 3 data clearly indicate that most of the sterilizations are done at younger age – sometimes as young as 20 year or even younger. Moreover, female sterilization also increases the risks of hysterectomy by four times. Therefore, heavy dependence on sterilization is not only putting young women to future health risks, but also depriving them of other contraceptive choices – better suited to their needs.
  3. Encouraging sterilization camps is bad for two reasons: One, it encourages government bureaucrats to adopt coercive means to get people to the camp, neglecting proper screening for the sterilization operation. Second, camp conditions badly compromise quality of healthcare. Women also need pre- and post-operative care which is rarely provided. A lot of NGOs and other organizations familiar with the realities of camps even question the quality of operative conditions of the camp. They mention that most sterilization camps become active only during November to March, with the accompanying mania to meet the targeted numbers. Some activists even report death during or after such operations; fortunately such incidents rare but are fully preventable with proper care.

References

You may also like to explore the following pages:

Popultion of India: What he Government should Do
How to Stop the World Population rom Touching 9 Billion in 2050
Indian Population: Finlly a Trend of Declining Fertility Rates

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