Is water a human right in India?

On June 18, 2014 the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further cut-offs in Detroit (http://www.canadians.org/blog/violations-right-water-detroit). In their submission they say that Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic human rights – right to water, in this case. Residents of Detroit city, the United States and the United Nations have been grappling with this issue for the last couple of months. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. (For more on this see http://www.democracynow.org/2014/6/24/water_is_a_human_right_detroit).

This act is being considered a violation of the human right to water with the argument that the U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water. Activists are now putting pressure on the United Nations to put pressure on the Federal Government and through them on the State of Michigan to take action.

As I was reading this I was thinking about the right to water in India and the associated inequity. Millions of urban and rural poor do not have access to drinking water on a daily basis irrespective of whether the country has had a good monsoon or not. No water (both in cities and villages) is a general condition. Standing in long queues to get 2 pots of water is normal for the vast majority of Indians. Why is it that nobody in India has challenged the Government on behalf of these people?

In our corner of Rayalseema, like in many other villages, drinking water is just not available in the summer months. Over the last 3 months people have been receiving water in tankers probably once in 3-4 days and each home can fill only 3-5 pots of water which they have to use for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and for personal hygiene. There are not enough water sources available to fill the tankers. People approach the Panchayat which had no funds till a week ago. The Water Supply and Sanitation Department which is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation to the villages Panchayat does not seem to think this is really an important issue…but considers it a routine matter that has to be dealt with in the course of time. Desperate some families try and get water from the agricultural borewells of neighbours who provide the water as an act of compassion at no cost! When these agricultural borewells started failing several people from some of the villages marched to the local Mandal Development Officer and expressed their anger and frustration. A special officer who has been posted to manage watershed development in the area took action last week which has provided some relief to some of the villages. Why is it that these small farmers, who produce 50% of the food in India, have to work so hard chasing the Government functionaries to get what is a human right?

This begs the question for India and particularly its poor….do we not consider access to water to be a human right? Why are we not demanding this of our Government? Maybe it is time for all of us to appeal to the United Nations to help us help our urban and rural poor to assert their right to water.


Nutritional Insecurity through the PDS

The Preamble to the Food Security Act, 2013 states that the Act’s intent is to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”(emphasis added). One vehicle that will be used to implement the Act is the Targetted Public Distribution System (TPDS). While targetting access to food in itself is contrary to the intent of the Act, the purpose of this article is not to discuss universalisation vs targetting rather it is to explore the connection between the PDS and the increasing reports on the high incidences of Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in rural India and among the poor in urban India. Why should these non-communicable diseases (NCD) normally associated with overconsumption and obesity be so prevalent among the poorer sections of our society?

There are two components of the PDS that must be examined in this context – subsidised rice and edible oil. The PDS centrally procures and distributes polished white rice which apart from being of poor quality (stale, insect infested) in most States, has zero nutritional value. In fact it has negative nutritional value by virtue of its high glycaemic index. Providing subsidised white, polished rice has forcibly replaced local fibre rich millets and varieties of red / brown rice which have a low glycaemic index. This has resulted in (i) loss of nutrition from the poor household’s food basket thereby contributing to metabolic disorders such as Type II Diabetes along with other causal factors such as stress, poor sanitation etc. and (ii) erosion of local agrobiodiversity leading to loss in ability of communities to adapt to changing climate conditions in the long-term which further compromises the country’s food and nutritional security. The centralised procurement under PDS has destroyed local nutritious varieties of rice. It has replaced more nutritious local grains – a range of millet varieties which are rich in fibre and protein. Some of the millets are excellent sources of iron, calcium, and trace nutrients.

Edible oil that is being pushed through the PDS is palm oil, a replacement for dalda which used to be supplied under the PDS in the pre-TPDS period. It is reported that palm oil contributes to nearly 48% of the domestic edible oil consumption in India partly because it is 20-30% cheaper than other edible oils. Why is palm oil being supplied at a subsidised rate across the country when (i) it has to be imported (ii) the content of saturated fats in palm oil is significantly higher than locally used oils such as groundnut oil, rapeseed oil and sesame oil which were always part of local diets? What is the justification for further compromising the health of people who are already nutritionally compromised? Introduction of Palm Oil to meet the vegetable oil demand in India is ridiculous at so many levels – it is driving the large-scale cultivation of red palm which has resulted in ecological and social devastation in Indonesia and Malaysia; it is replacing traditional fats which were suited to local climate and local dietary needs in India; it is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor in India thereby increasing healthcare costs and driving people deeper into poverty. It is also destroying the local oilseeds agroecosystems where grain, pulses and oilseeds were cultivated as intercrops to meet the needs of humans and animal feed.

In this context it is worth mentioning a recent study published in the British Medical Journal in October 2013 (http://www.bmj.com/ content/347/bmj.f6048) which looks at how economic instruments such as taxes may affect population health in India. The study uses a mathematical model to project that if a 20% tax is imposed on palm oil for domestic consumption, it is likely to avert between 710,000 and 930,000 deaths from myocardial infarction and stroke over 2013-2014. This decline of course is a function of how the consumer uses other fats to substitute the palm oil. The discussion of taxation is probably relevant for consumers who have a choice in the market and who can afford to opt for another edible oil. In the case of India where the State is promoting the use of palm oil by providing it at a subsidised rate in the PDS this is a moot point. People are using this oil because it has been made the cheapest edible oil in the market as a result of skewed State policies. It is contributing to increased healthcare costs for a section of the population that is incapable of accessing good, affordable healthcare since India’s social welfare system does not provide universal healthcare. The PDS therefore is not enabling the individual to be nutritionally secure or adequately nourished rather it is actively compromising the individual’s health and preventing him/her from being able to earn a living or practice a livelihood which is affecting all other facets of his / her life. In essence, the State is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the poor.

While the FSA, 2013 is a step forward towards addressing the issues of undernutrition, unless the PDS basket of goods is revamped with the intention of ensuring true nutritional security it will be a huge waste of resources. The State must put in place a mechanism to decentralise the PDS – decentralised procurement and distribution. This will stimulate local agricultural systems including the much neglected rain-fed areas, revive local oil seeds,  provide access to nutritious food including traditional healthy fats as opposed to palm oil, enable people to practice their livelihoods and improve health. The resources that are being used to research and understand why there is an increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor are probably better spent if allocated to stimulating local agroecosystems and locally relevant food systems.

 

 

 


Our very own Santha (Farmers’ Market)

The idea of fresh, seasonal vegetables, freshly plucked leafy greens making their way to your plate in a few hours has immense appeal to most of us. While it might be a bit of a dream for the urbans among us for those of us living in this corner of rural Rayalseema it is a real possibility. On most evenings women come around to our houses with fresh greens, brinjals, okra, gourds (or whatever else the season permits). The idea of having a santha however was more exciting. One could pick up a few recipes along with the vegetables and some local gossip as well! Although agriculture is one of the main sources of livelihoods for small farmers in the area they would travel about 10-20 km to the nearest wholesale market or bus depot to transport vegetables to Bengaluru, Chennai etc. It was surprising to some of us that there was no local santha. After a year and a half of deliberation and discussion at hamlet level meetings, womens’ group meetings etc. the santha became a reality on January 19, 2014. Women were vocal about the need for one and their reasons were many…..

Food prices have skyrocketed. Those among us who are landless or have land but no water have to go to the santha at Angallu or Madanapalle (which are 10-20 km away). This means we have to take an auto or a bus so add the transport fare to the cost of the vegetables and it becomes inaffordable. How can we afford to eat vegetables regularly?

Our men usually go to the santha since we have to cook, clean, take care of animals and children. The men take Rs. 100 with them, come back with vegetables worth Rs. 50 and spend the rest on drink or some other worthless item. If we have a santha nearby, we women can go there walking, buy fresh vegetables and greens for a lesser price without spending money like the men do! And we can do this while managing the home.

Our own santha will mean that all of us living in this Panchayat can sell our produce locally. We don’t have to pay for transportation, take it to another santha where a middleman will offer to take it off us for a wholesale price and make money on our produce. We the producers will get a good price…a price that we deserve for our produce. The customers like you and other teachers at Rishi Valley and the residents of our Panchayat will also benefit. They will get fresh produce at a reasonable price.

In the face of all this what arguments can there be for not setting up a santha.

Most of the arguments were political. A leader must get credit for setting up the santha….political mileage could be pretty high. The previous Panchayat leadership kept postponing the setting up of the santha. As the old order changed yielding place to new – we elected a new Sarpanch in June-July 2013 – all barriers (political and otherwise) to setting up a santha were overcome. The site selected was by the Paleti Gangamma Temple (goddess of rain for the goatherds and shepherds) under the shade of tamarind trees and a Nux Vomica tree lining both sides of a Panchayat road that connects the Highway to various hamlets in the Panchayat.

So here we are creating our own markets!

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Fresh veggies – beans, tomatoes, chillies, greens, radish, field beans, potatoes, onions, garlic……..in this season. We can look forward to all shapes and types of  gourds in the summer.

Our santha is a Sunday market, a socializing space where stories and recipes are exchanged and where bulls and cows wander in and out.

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This week’s market saw the Devayaddu or the sacred bull blessing the vendors. He picked on a few tomatoes  from one vendor, a few veggies from another and moved on…taking only a little as tax for his blessing unlike the Indian tax man or the Finance Minister as a friend remarked :)


Celebrating food…..Celebrating a way of life…

Dedicated to G. Nammalvar (Aiyya)…………

There were more than 300 of us – adivasis, dalits, shepherds, goatherds, peasants, students and activists – along the banks of the Pellipadugu Kalva celebrating food and the ways of life that produce this food. Three days (December 28-30, 2013) of deliberations, animated debates, dialogues and celebration on topics ranging from what is food sovereignty, articulating the real meaning of “the market”, the role of the State, globalisation, world trade and food to the struggles and successes of people in gaining control over our food, our seeds, our land and our water.  In this post I’d like to share the experience more through pictures rather than words (a departure from the usual style of this blog)!

The landscape that hosted the Summit……hills and forests encircled the meadow where the celebrations, dialogues and debates were held  with the Pellipadugu Kalwa providing us water.

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Korra (Foxtail millet) being handpounded for breakfast on the first day….

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Planning in progress….tasks being assigned to the team! Toranas being tied….

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Dialogue spaces, sleeping quarters, toilets everything being built with local material and local skills……no plastic, no cement, no brick! Handpainted murals on canvas flanked the stage set up for panel discussions. The stage was made with compacted mud and held together with bamboo….

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We prayed to Bhutalli to bless and protect us…..with offerings of seeds brought from various corners of Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. The offerings were celebrated with song and dance…

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We talked ……..in large groups and small groups, through plenary sessions and in dialogue areas, over food, in the mornings, late into the night deliberating on the meaning of food sovereignty, our definitions of markets, our expectations of the State, our expectations of ourselves as individuals and as a collective, about trade and the WTO, about seed sovereignty……..we shared stories of our struggles and experiences, successes and setbacks….learning from each other and strengthening the alliance, that was emerging, to gain control of our food.

The threats to our food system, the struggles to overcome these threats and the spirit of freedom were captured in a street play Bhutalli. We did not just watch the play under the stars but were a part of it…were provoked by it and responded in spirit and action.

CIMG3480CIMG3482CIMG3505CIMG3495CIMG3506 all this happening around the tree where offerings had been made to Bhutalli.

We exchanged seeds and what a diversity there was of grain, pulses, vegetables from over nine districts…..

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We celebrated the diversity of seeds and the diversity of food…..korra upma, ragi ambili, jonna annam, fresh fish from the Godavari, ragi sankati, mutton curry, pumpkin sambar all cooked on site by our farmer and adivasi friends from the various districts….. traditional sweets and steamed tubers were served with tea as we continued our discussions. No paper and no plastic….leafy plates that when disposed would become part of the landscape…..

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At the end of the deliberations and the celebration we put forth a declaration…..the Pellipadugu Declaration on Food Sovereignty – a new alliance was born. A draft prepared in Telugu and English was read out and comments, edits invited….it was then finalised and signed by all of us with the resolution to take it forward through action – individually and collectively!

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The people who hosted us …….the Girijan Deepika team at D. Bhimvaram in Addatheegala Mandal, East Godavari District and the young volunteers who made it all seem effortless!

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We bid our goodbyes while resolving to take the Declaration forward and empower ourselves with the sovereign right to our food! Till we meet next year…..

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Nammalvar (aiyya) who was there at the first Food Sovereignty Summit in 2009 could not be with us this year but we know he was with us in spirit as we drafted and signed the declaration on December 30, 2013. He passed away on that same day fighting against the destruction of groundwater in Thanjavur District…..

The Pellipadugu Declaration on Food Sovereignty

We the adivasi, dalit, pastoralist, peasant, scientist and student communities have gathered here from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, between 28th and 30th December 2013, in D. Bhimavaram village of the adivasi territories, with the collective concern to defend our sovereign right to food and the rights of mother earth.

We deliberated on the fundamental questions that concern our food: the plunder of our resources; the threats to seed sovereignty; the health of our soils; the commodification of our biodiversity, knowledge and cultures; and the destruction of our local markets by the Global Corporate industrial food complex.

For us, food is the abundance of life that mother earth provides: the diversity of grains, pulses, oil seeds, tubers, fruits, vegetables, animals, insects, fish; and the associated food cultures celebrated in our various communities. Ownership and control of land is central to our struggle for food. Markets are networks of relationships to protect, sustain and nurture our food through local reciprocal systems of exchange. They are not spaces to extract profit.

Women are leaders in the Food Sovereignty Movement. It is women who are at the frontlines of struggles for Food justice; and challenging patriarchy is an integral part of restoring Food Sovereignty.

We reaffirm the power in our peasant food webs to feed ourselves and to resist the corporate capture of our lives.

We declare that our lands, forests, water, air, diversity, seeds, knowledge and cultures are not for sale. We will resist the monetization of our lives and resources.

We assert that food security can only be met through Food Sovereignty.

We call upon the State with the following demands:

We demand that the State implement without further delay, the recognition of individual rights and community forest rights according to customary boundaries of adivasi and other traditional forest dweller communities.

We demand that the State uphold the supreme powers of the gram sabha under the Panchayat Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

We demand that the State commit its resources to our autonomous local systems of production, procurement and distribution to ensure food security.

We condemn the State-Corporate nexus that has decimated our farming systems: including seeds, agronomic practices, dairy, poultry and fisheries.

We further condemn the State’s continued aggressive promotion of national and multinational Corporates to take over the last bastions of autonomous farming: adivasi food cultures and pastoralist livelihoods.

We condemn the decision of Government of India  to ratify the “Peace Clause” at the Bali round of the WTO negotiations, that trades away our sovereign right to define our food systems.

We call for a moratorium on all  ‘Free Trade Agreements’ that destroy our lives and livelihoods.

We oppose the entry of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Food and Retail.

We strongly condemn State efforts to promote genetically modified crops and call for a moratorium on all field trials in accordance with the recommendations of the Technical Expert Committee on GMOs,  appointed by the Supreme Court of India.

We oppose the global patent regime that privatises and commodifies our knowledge and biodiversity.

We denounce the false market solutions to climate change, and declare that Food Sovereignty is the only way to build resilience and in fact combat the Global Food Industrial System as a primary driver of climate change.

We call for the roll back of destructive State programs such as INSIMP, which in the name of promoting millets, threatens local biodiverse and autonomous agro-ecosystems.

We demand a halt to all monoculture plantations in our fields and forests.

We commit to the following actions:

We shall continue to defend our rights over our lands, forests, water and air.

We commit to deepening our relationships and traditions of reciprocity and collectivism as a means of solidarity with one another. This solidarity is the basis to resist the violence of the corporate food industry.

We shall build power through democratic local systems of governance to further food sovereignty.

We will use the power of our vote to raise Food Sovereignty as a political issue.

We shall shift from growing commodity monocultures to cultivating diverse food crops, through ecological and organic farming practices.

We shall save and exchange our seeds and thereby resist the corporate seed markets.

There is an interdependency between animals, crops, forests, water and other resources of the commons that has been broken by the industrialization of our food systems. We shall restore these broken links by rebuilding our indigenous animal resources, which in turn nourish and are nourished by these commons.

We shall reestablish local markets as a means to exchange our produce with one another, and to feed and support local communities.

We celebrate the spirit and commitment of young people in the food sovereignty movement.

We shall conscientiously nurture intergenerational spaces within our movements for sharing knowledge and practices for the future.

We hereby come together as a Food Sovereignty alliance between our movements, which shall advance this shared vision.

December 30th 2013

Pellipadugu Kalwa, D. Bhimavaram village, Addateegala Mandal, East Godavari , AP

V. Murugamma and V.Krishnamma, Dalit Mahila Sangham, Chittoor

K. Pandu Dora, National Convenor, Adivasi Aikya Vedika

M. Shivaprasad, Convenor- Telangana, Adivasi Aikya Vedika, Adilabad

K. Krishnarao, Convenor- Northern Andhra , Adivasi Aikya Vedika , Vishakapatnam

M. Kamala, G. Satyam and P Dharmu , Adivasi Chaitanya Sangham, Adilabad

Hussain Swamy, C.H Malikaarjun and Nandeswari, Chenchu Rakshana Samiti, Mahabubnagar

M. Rambabu, E. Jyoti and M. Satyavati , Koitur Kutuva Sangham, Khammam

K. Veeraswamy and C.H Durga, Adivasi Seva Sangham, West Godavari

K. Venkatesh Dora, Venkatlaxmi and K. Satyavati, Girijana Deepika, East Godavari

P. Somalingam and K. Pandamma, Jeevam, Vishakapatnam

V. Jogiraju, Derala Girijana Chaitanya Sangham, Vishakapatnam

P. Thammaiah and , Manya Deepika, Vizianagaram

S. Jayprakash, Syuryakanti Yuvajana Sangham, Vizianagaram

S. Vykuntarao and K. Prabhavathi, Savara Sangham, Srikakulam

N. Adinarayana, Sri Gopi Rytu Sangham, Chittoor

S. Apparao and K. Narayanamma, Chinna Sanna Karu Vyavasaidarula Sangham, Vishakapatnam

N. Satyamma and N. Pochamma, Ottavapantala Mahila Vedika, Medak

G. Yadigiri and Kavita, Deccani Gorrela-Mekala Pempakadarula Sangham, Medak

N. Deviah, Grama Sangham, Warangal

Prof K.R. Chowdry, Hyderabad

Dr Radha Gopalan, Chittoor

Dr Sagari R Ramdas, Hyderabad

Madhusudhan, Hyderabad

Charanya R., Hyderabad

Shruti Thrayil, Pune

M. Deepu, Hyderabad

Rahul Ramakrishna, Hyderabad

Srikrupa, Hyderabad

N. Bhavana, Hyderabad

E. Jayant, Bangalore

Aditi Pinto, Mumbai

Sandeep K Singh, Bangalore

Sharib Ali, Kolkata

Amol, Mumbai

Siddharth, Mumbai

Alia Farouqui, Mumbai


Grassroots democracy in waiting….for how long?

The idea of Panchayati and Panchayat Raj is not new to the Indian Sub-Continent. Our villages have always had Panchayats to settle disputes at the local level. Mahatma Gandhi articulated the need for decentralisation and a village republic in the Hind Swaraj and other writings. The enactment of the 73rd (Constitutional Amendment) in April 1993 in a sense formalised this institution. Watching the Panchayat Raj in action (more like inaction) in the villages where I have been working over the last 5 years forces me to ask the question – Is this really decentralised, grassroots democracy? Have the Panchayat Raj institutions, specifically the village Panchayat, improve the living conditions and lives of people in rural India?

I am raising this question specifically in the context of the sham that has been taking place in Andhra Pradesh over the last 2 years. Panchayat elections were postponed indefinitely in the State for over 1.5 years and finally held in May-June 2013. During the interim period there were no functioning Sarpanchs or Ward Members. All responsibility was with the Panchayat Secretary and the Tahsildar (who has Revenue responsibilities across the Tahsil/Mandal). Nothing moved! All problems associated with water, sanitation, street lighting, was held in abeyance – nobody knew who was responsible, rural residents did not know who to go to. There was no money to fix any problems. So when the elections were finally held and new Sarpanchs and Ward Members finally elected there was a sense of hope in our villages. We finally had a Dalit Sarpanch and she was one of the residents. Everybody felt that now funds would come in and maybe we could address sanitation, waste management and water issues. But not so fast……..Along came the State bifurcation issue and the formalities of according cheque powers to the Sarpanch were delayed. The Sarpanch and the Ward Members had no clue what their responsibilities were, who does one approach for funding, where does the funding come from, how is it allocated and disbursed, what are the various Government Programmes which can be accessed to improve the infrastructure in the villages, what is the power of the Gram Sabha etc. Meanwhile dengue and chickanguniya are running rampant thanks to the stagnant water in drains (where they exist) and lack of drainage in other places. Works under NREGS programmes are being selected and implemented in the absence of Gram Sabha decisions and so on and so forth. What this has led to in our villages is people putting in their money to get the drains cleaned, trying to collect contributions to fix street lights etc. People whose lives and finances are already stretched as a result of food inflation and unpredictable income from agriculture as a result of the very evident changes in climate are forced to find their own resources to fix services which the State must provide. This is the reality!

In the public domain however reports abound about how the Panchayat Raj has resulted in grassroots democracy and women’s empowerment. Reservation of 50% seats for women in A.P. since 2011 is reported as an achievement. Panchayat Raj has worked at best in Kerala and possibly parts of Tamil Nadu as a result of their history of social movements. In other States it has made a difference only where NGOs and other Institutions have provided support to Panchayats. If we are to make any difference to the lives of rural Indians or hope to improve even marginally the appalling state of malnutrition in India, a social movement with more urban Indians is essential. More of us will have to serve as bridges between the Government and the rural communities, more of our young people must be involved in the process and our education system must recognise the need for place based learning – be aware of and learn from what is happening around you….be the change that you want to see (as Gandhi said).


Panchayat Raj in a Corner of Rayalseema – A shift in power maybe?

The recent Panchayat Elections seemed to have created tiny ripples in the power structure in this corner of Rayalseema – or has it really?

The seat was reserved for Scheduled Caste women candidates. Five women candidates from the Scheduled Caste were nominated, some with strong political support from the old power structures in the area and some independent. The traditional rivals in the area are a Brahmin family (one of the largest landowners in the area) that has passed on the position from father to son to uncle to nephew etc. and the Reddys (the other large landowner). This time around the Brahmin family threw its support behind Adamma, a Dalit woman (politics makes strange bedfellows forcing deep-rooted prejudices to be kept aside for a while) while the Reddys threw their weight behind another Dalit woman, Malamma. Adamma is a quiet, shy woman who was almost apologetic whilst accompanying her campaigners.  Her political campaign was so weak that it almost appeared as if she was an afterthought. All the stories and promises were those of her political backer. Malamma, on the other hand is outspoken, an active member of the women’s SHGs,  and is very aware of her rights. She spoke for herself during the campaign and won by close to 800 votes. Nice story right?  It gets better….following the election when I visited several of the villages and sought people’s reaction to the results I was told…”we are glad one of us has won”; “she lives in our village unlike the previous Sarpanch who lived in the nearby town of Madanapalle and we had to seek an appointment to meet him”; “we can knock on Malamma’s door anytime”; “I can talk to her as an equal and not fold my hand and be deferential”.  I am not sure how much the power structure has truly changed since the powerful Reddys are the political and financial muscle behind Malamma but at least there seems to be hope of a more accessible local self-governance. Will this lead to a new way of thinking in this remote, feudal village in Andhra Pradesh – a bastion of feudal landlordism where land reforms are probably never likely to be truly implemented? Can we be hopeful that if more Malammas emerge in the years to come there will be a true shift in political power at the grassroots? What does this really mean? More questions than answers at this point of time. But interesting times…..meanwhile Malamma is getting down to real work – getting drains cleaned and arranging for tankers to provide drinking water in yet another drought year!


Why do we really want to know who is poor?

In the shrill rhetoric surrounding the “counting of the poor” in India, the question that is not being asked is – Why count the poor? or more specifically Why do we want to know who is poor? What is anybody doing with this information? There are several answers to these questions – politicians, Governments, the World Bank want to know how many poor are there so that they can show that their policies or programmes have reduced the number of poor (nobody really wants to show how their programmes have increased the number of poor!). There is clearly a certain kind of politics at play here in how “poor” are defined. Another reason to define the poor is (one hopes) to allocate resources (read finances) in a just manner so that inequity can be reduced. Again, the smaller the number less competition for the limited resources. In this counting game nothing changes for people on the ground who are deprived of basic “roti, kapda aur makaan”. In fact in today’s economic climate, things are getting worse and poverty is degenerating into severe deprivation.  Isn’t it time therefore to move away from this numbers game? Politicians and international agencies are not going to move away from the numbers game – it is too inconvenient. In this situation, what is the alternative?

The second part of the question and in my mind the REAL question is – Why do we need to know who is poor? or how many are poor? Related to this is an even more important question – How do we define “poor”? What are the criteria? The multidimensionality of being poor has been addressed for the first time by the MPI developed by Alkirie et al (http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/OPHI-MPI-Brief.pdf) based on Sen’s ideas on the multidimensionality of poverty. The next step to build on this “more multifaceted
and more accurate tool for measuring poverty” is to qualify the quantitative values of the health indicators. If poverty is to be eradicated and people are to move from deprivation to a life of dignity and well being in India one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the idea of nutritional adequacy in the measurement of malnutrition. Knowing that somebody is anaemic, or has low body weight, or is stunted is not enough. We need to know why and understand the role of environmental, social and cultural factors in defining nutritional adequacy and how these factors can be used in creating an enabling environment to ensure nutritional adequacy.    

Closer home the effective use of multidimensionality of poverty has been done through the Kudumbasree Model in Kerala and this was fully conceptualised and implemented in Kerala as early as 1998 (indiagovernance.gov.in/files/kudumbashree-casestudy.doc). For some reason the economists and planners at the Planning Commission and others working in the area of “poverty alleviation” have not included it in the ongoing debate on poverty indices and lines. The HDI performance of Kerala State should be proof enough of the effectiveness of this Model.

Unless the politics of counting is replaced by the real work of defining poverty, deprivation and well being in a multidimensional, linked and realistic manner AND we are able to answer the question WHY? Why are we trying to count the poor? this meaningless exercise will go nowhere and we will continue to drive more and more people deeper and deeper into an abysmal existence while we argue over the theoretical inconsequentialities.


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