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Archives for Poverty

The Distressed Farmer


On 29th February, the Indian Finance Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram, announced the yearly budget and, as expected, a series of heated debates ensued. One of the biggest points of discussion centered around a Rs. 600 billion ($15 billion) bank loan waiver for debt-ridden farmers, 150,000 of whom have been driven to suicide between 1997 and 2005.

At the outset it seems like a perfect gift – write off the debts that are driving farmers to commit suicides, and the problem, at least partially, is solved: Farmers aren’t in debt, their troubles are mitigated. For Chidambaram’s supporters, the waiver is hailed as unprecedented and generous. But there are those who offer valid counterpoints and wonder how many desperate farmers this would actually end up helping.

Take, for instance, the cotton-growing region of Vidarbha, one of the worst hit in terms of crop failure and farmer suicides. Statistics here are grim: a staggering 30,000 suicides since 1997; some three suicides a day for the last two years. The waiver does little for these farmers, who, in the absence of access to institutional credit, have mostly taken loans from private moneylenders. For these farmers, and others in the country who have relied on private lenders, not banks, the government-sponsored waiver is of no use. In fact, suicides in this region have continued even after the announcement.

The waiver is applicable primarily to those who have less than two hectares of land, which, automatically cuts out about fifty percent of the farmers in Vidarbha, whose holders are generally larger than the prescribed limit. Having more land, unfortunately, does not make a wealthier farmer, since in a lot of the areas the land is un-irrigated and uncultivable. Also, majority of farmlands are owned by families, rather than individuals. So even a wretchedly poor farmer would own – or share ownership – of more than two hectares.

What’s worse, is that there is a clause for farmers with larger holdings to receive a twenty-five percent rebate – but only after they pay seventy-five percent of their loan. This latter point has been criticized as nothing short of cruel, since it is clear that these despondent farmers have no means to pay back the seventy-five percent. For many this generous “offer” is worthless. At the end of the day only a small percentage of farmers will actually benefit. And that’s only if the funds do not end up in the deep pockets of corrupt bank officials. Then there’s the worry that those farmers who did pay off their loans would feel discouraged to do so in the future.

P. Sainath – an award winning journalist – has pointed out that the suffering of farmers in Vidarbha was one of the reasons the waiver idea arose in the first place. The irony is, that those very farmers are to gain nothing from the announcement, their plight still as desperate as ever.

Clearly, the waiver is a remedy, at best, not a cure. And a cure is what is really needed. Even if we were to assume that majority of the farmers would benefit from this largesse – as opposed to the small majority that will benefit as it stands right now – what’s next? Under the current scheme, once the loans are written off, the farmers are eligible for fresh loans. But this would only lead the farmer into yet another cycle of debt, and soon, they’d be back to square one.

The crux of the matter is that though India’s GDP has grown at a rate of 8 to 9 percent each year for the past 4 or so years, this surge in prosperity has left out rural India. The waivers, meant as an attempt to correct that imbalance, are far enough from being a solution that it’s causing its own set of problems.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 9:19 PM | Permalink

Dirty Pretty Things


In the film ‘Dirty Pretty Things’, Audrey Tautou – playing a desperate Turkish immigrant in London – almost loses her kidney in exchange for a British passport. At the last moment though, she manages to escape the horrific operation that was to be performed in a seedy London hotel.

Many of India’s poor, however, have not been as lucky. A kidney scam, that shocked the country last month, has revealed that hundreds of poor, mostly laborers, have lost their organs, either willingly, for money, or unwillingly, by being duped and forced by a doctor and his accomplices.

Organ trade is not new, having been in the news before; the fact that there thrives a big black market worth millions of dollars, is no secret. It was something that gained momentum in India in the 1970′s, after drugs that controlled the body’s rejection of foreign objects were developed. Many of India’s poor were (and still are) willing to trade their organs for money, and so started an international racket where patients from richer countries, who could found few donors in their own backyard, were supplied with organs from third world nations like India.

So the question is, why were Indians so shocked when this case came to light?

Maybe because this time it’s been happening in North India’s IT city of Gurgaon – a rich Delhi suburb, home to million-dollar penthouses and multinational companies like Microsoft. And India, with its arrival, so to speak, on the global stage, is more conscious of its image and reacts strongly to such incidents.

Dr. Amit Kumar, the main accused, was found to be running an illegal clinic in an elite part of the suburb, where about five hundred unfortunate, poverty-ridden laborers were undergoing operations and having their kidneys removed, most against their will. These were then sold to rich Indians or foreigners.

This illegal trade proved very lucrative for Dr. Kumar, whose wife and children live in Canada, as reported by the Toronto Star, in a large house in suburban Brampton, near Toronto – he is said to have bought the house last year for $610,000, and when he visits, he drives a leased $65,000 Lexus 350 SUV.

The police raided his Gurgaon clinic on January 24th, but Dr. Kumar – now being called Dr. Horror – had been tipped off and had fled; he apparently kept the political and law enforcement machinery well oiled with bribes, and thus, didn’t think he could be detained. This incident, however, became something of a national shame and the media covered it actively. After a massive international manhunt he was found in the bordering country of Nepal, and has now been deported to India. What happens now, remains to be seen. The Indian court system is notoriously slow.

Still, this case brings up many disturbing issues. One, of course, is of the long-suspected and despicable nexus of corruption and bribes between the police, politicians and illegal organ traders like Kumar whose history speaks volumes about the ease with which India’s wealthy citizens bribe their way out of trouble. It’s clear, looking at Kumar’s history, that a multi-million dollar racket such as this one could not have operated without the tacit consent of the authorities. And that is what is deplorable as well as worrying.

Kumar was first arrested way back in 1994 when he was suspected of running similar illegal trades in Mumbai – India’s financial capital. And he’s had many brushes with the law in the 14 years since. In 2000 another one of his clinics was raided, but not much came of that either. At one point, Kumar even changed his name, and set up clinics in different parts of the country. The latest ones, which finally led to his spectacular arrest in Nepal, were tucked away in private apartments in up market areas of Gurgaon.

Truth is stranger, or in as in this case, grislier than fiction. Dirty Pretty Things was a disturbing movie but what happened in Gurgaon, right next to the country’s capital, was far more gruesome and horrific. And it once again brings back the quandary that continues to stare India in the face: the stark social dichotomies and the harsh disparities between the rich and the poor.

In the same city, on the one hand you have plush villas that you can’t buy for the love of money – all sold out at a million dollars – and on the other, you have wretchedly poor laborers pawning their organs to feed their children.

India desperately needs to correct this imbalance, because such inequalities can only lead to a dangerous society, which India runs the risk of turning into, now more than ever.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 12:34 AM | Permalink

A Childhood Reclaimed


In India, if you are poor and illiterate, the odds are pretty much stacked against you. And if, added to this, you are a young girl living in an obscure village, it’s possibly worse.

You’d probably slog all day, working at home and in the fields, while your brothers would go to school. Yet, you’d barely have enough to eat. Then, one day, much before you even turn eighteen, your parents would marry you off, probably, to someone much older, who’d expect you to serve him all his life. That’s what life is for millions of rural women in India today. Most do not have the will or the nerve to question it.

Families, especially in the villages where poverty can be extreme, prefer to marry their daughters at a young age is because they look upon marriage as a security, something that protects them from male sexual attention. In a society where women are not safe, where their status depends, to some extent on the goodwill of the men in their communities, it is considered wise to marry a girl as soon as possible so that there is little chance for her bringing “shame” to the family by engaging in relationships that could be misinterpreted. In many cases, babies are married off, although they only leave for their husband’s home when they grow up and attain puberty. The other primary reason to move girls out of one household to another is poverty. A married girl goes to her husband’s house. She becomes one less mouth to feed.

Attitudes are slowly beginning to change. And it’s partly through stories like those of a fearless, thirteen-year-old girl named Congress Kanwar (odd as it may sound, it is her real name) living in a tiny, remote village in Rajasthan – a northwestern Indian state. Wanting to study, she pleaded with her parents time and again to let her go to school, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They said she was needed to work in the house, and also argued, like the parents of many village girls, that women were meant to get married and do household work, so an education would be of little use to her. Congress’ three illiterate sisters had been married off when they were about ten years old. But contrast, her three brothers were educated till grade eight.

Congress was determined, however, crying when her brothers and the neighborhood children used to leave for school. But her tears were in vain and her parents did not relent. Till, one day, a voluntary organization called ‘Prayatn’ (meaning “effort” in Hindi) opened a school, with the support of UNICEF, in Congress’s village, and she seized the opportunity to implore her parents yet again. This time the teacher from the school joined her in the effort and after much negotiation it was finally agreed that Congress could attend school, so long as she did all her chores.

Congress would wake up at three in the morning to finish her work, and then run to school, but she loved it there. Her education not only gave her knowledge but also developed her confidence to use that knowledge. During a student’s excursion she learned that child marriage was an offense under the Indian law, a law that was often flagrantly disobeyed not only in her village, but by her own parents. This information gave her the strength to fight off her parent’s decision to marry her off when, soon after this trip, a prospective groom appeared at her doorstep with his family. This rather formal courtship is custom in most arranged marriages; the man goes to see the woman and the respective parents do most of the talking, deciding the future of the couple in question. Most girls sit quietly – so do many grooms. But Congress, newly informed of her rights, threatened to call the police. Her parents caved.

Her fortitude did not go unnoticed. Last December Congress was selected to attend the releasing of UNICEF flagship publication “Status of World Children 2007” in Berlin. Recently she attended a forum on Indian youth in the parliament in New Delhi, and has been given a national bravery award thanks, again, to the efforts of UNICEF and UNFPA. She recounted her experience of fighting off her parents’ desire to get her married and talked about education and child marriage, which remain very common in certain sections of the Indian society.

On average in India, 44 percent of females and 37 percent of males are married before the legal age, which is eighteen for women and twenty-one for men. Some states are worse than the others. For instance, in Rajasthan, which is the state where Congress’s village is located, the average female age at marriage is below sixteen.

The government is trying to take measures to curtail the problem. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was amended in 2006 and treats everyone who attends a child wedding as guilty – including the guests and the hosts. And it is a non-bailable offense so those accused to go to jail to await adjudication and must plead their case to be released. Furthermore, the Indian Supreme Court has made the registration of marriages compulsory – since most Indians have religious and traditional weddings, very few actually register them with civic authorities. Officials also conduct raids on auspicious dates, when most parents tend to perform the ceremonies.

But a lot more needs to be done, and not necessarily in terms of the law. The problem is rooted in a society where women are seen as burdens who can’t contribute economically to a family. That’s obviously not true. If every girl had Congress’s courage and determination, things might move a bit more quickly.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 10:39 AM | Permalink

India At Sixty


On the 15th of August this year, India celebrated its 60th year of independence from British rule. So for the past month, the country – its intellectuals, prominent personalities, the media, the government and even the common man – has been indulging in a fair amount of self-examining and soul searching.

It’s a time of colossal enthusiasm for India, so it’s interesting to note the varied perspectives that this honest assessment has produced. Though some have been immensely optimistic and celebrated what they see as India’s arrival on the global stage, there are those who’ve been a little more realistic, and some others downright pessimistic, insisting that this kind of growth that leaves out the masses is bound to spell disaster.

The media, predictably, has been busy bringing together panels, comprised of leading businessmen and senior ministers, for healthy debates about the country’s achievements, failures, and the road ahead. While there’s been the usual pointing of fingers and patting on the back, what’s been almost unanimously agreed upon is clear: although since 1947 India has had some remarkable achievements, they’ve not been near enough, and India still faces many difficult challenges.

A look first at some of the hard facts: Eighty percent of India’s population – some 836 million people – lives on less than a dollar a day, according to a recent government report; one-third of the world’s malnourished children and a quarter of its vaccine-preventable deaths are in India; the country houses 2.5 million HIV infected people; it ranks a dismal 126th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index; water and electricity are scarce, with cities like Bangalore – hailed as India’s silicon valley – getting fresh water for less than three hours a day; it has one of the lowest proportions of medical services supplied by any government; it fares miserably low on the corruption index – 88th out of 158 in a survey of countries by Transparency International in 2005; and, with its obsession for sons, India has one of the lowest child sex ratios of daughters to sons in the world.

The must-do list, therefore, is a long one – education, health care, poverty, crime, infrastructure, and corruption – to name a few. The government has not done enough on any of these fronts, making life for the common man a constant struggle. The rich are not affected since money can buy you out of anything (even murder) in the country, but the poor are left to fend for themselves. There are social welfare programs that allocate funds for the lower classes, but hardly any of that money actually reaches the poor, getting lost in the countless layers of the corrupt bureaucracy.

But, having said that, I must now add that not all is gloomy, and it’s not as if nothing has been done. Some inspiring facts: since 1947 India has dramatically reduced its poverty levels (defined as those living at or under the official poverty line) – from 55 percent of the population in the mid seventies to around 26 percent in the last few years. According to the IMF, during the nineties – which is when India’s economy opened up – the poverty rate fell from 34 percent to 26 percent, indicating a link between faster growth and poverty reduction; literacy rates too have gone up radically – from 12 percent at independence to 64 percent today (the southern state of Kerala is at 91 percent); it is still a healthy democracy; famines, which took millions of lives in pre-independent India, have been successfully eradicated; India is one of the fastest growing economies of the world with the growth rate averaging 8 percent annually over the past three years; it’s now a leading powerhouse in information technology and business process outsourcing and is home to world class institutions for higher education like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) – the former having been described as an “incredible institution” by Bill Gates.

India is a diverse country with diverse problems – it’s the world’s second most populous country, home to more than twenty-two languages, some 1600 dialects, more than six religions and a rigid caste system. All this makes it a difficult country to govern, though that is not to say that the government shouldn’t be blamed for the nation’s failures, especially in key areas such as education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Sixty years is a long time, and India has come a long way from the pre-independence days, but if India hopes to truly become a world economy it will have to face its failures and work hard to redress them.

As India’s prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, said on Independence Day –
“We do feel a sense of satisfaction that on many fronts we have done well. Yet, we are aware that there is much more to be done. We have moved forward in the many battles against poverty, ignorance and disease. But can we say we have won the war?”

I think not.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 2:16 AM | Permalink

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