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!
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.