While the world remains in awe of India for its unfailing GDP growth rate of 8-9 per cent, readers of local and foreign reports on the economy scratch their heads at the fact that almost half of India’s population continues to wallow in poverty. It is just not the number of persons with a daily income below $1.25, but the quality of life they lead in terms of basic requirements that comes into reckoning. New, internationally comparable data put together by researchers at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative have created what is known as the Multidimensional Poverty Index, which will be used in the forthcoming issue of UNDP’s Human Development Report. India’s poor, reportedly, will comprise nearly 55 per cent of its population, ahead of Pakistan and comparable to Nigeria and Cambodia.
In July, the Supreme Court used strong language to question the basis of India’s claim of being a successful nation economically. Delivering their judgment on the case concerning the acquisition of tribal land by Mahanadi Coalfields Limited in Orissa, in which the displaced had not received any compensation for 23 years, the learned judges wondered how, as the second fastest growing economy in the world, India is placed 134th among 182 countries in the Human Development Report of 2009.
National figures are pulled down by the poverty stalking India’s rural areas. Useful programmes have been developed — like the Mahatma Gandhi rural employment guarantee scheme — to take corrective measures. What surprises me, however, is the lack of any matching programme for boosting the earnings of the urban poor.
I would like to highlight here only one section —poor people who have high visibility but lag far behind in every aspect of development. I am referring to construction workers: migrant labourers who come with their families and live in wretched conditions at construction sites.
During my frequent visits to Delhi, I often pass construction sites near the venues for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. There is hardly ever a mention of the living conditions of workers who stay in jhupris, whose children crawl around in the slush in neighbourhoods that lack education or healthcare facilities. The same situation prevails in Gurgaon, Rajarhat or any major urban area where large numbers of luxury apartments and posh offices are under construction.
If the lot of construction workers could be improved, that would be the most significant step to tackle urban poverty. Since these workers are largely migrants, most of the additional money that would reach their hands would find its way to their homes in villages. What would be the impact on the economy if building licences were given to contractors on condition that they provide decent living conditions, healthcare and adequate wages to the labourers? Will real estate prices shoot up considerably? Will contractors’ profits be diminished to levels unacceptable to them?
Whatever may be the consequences, civil society must bring changes to the abysmal lives of construction workers. If we are worried about the skewed distribution of wealth, this could be a significant area to explore without creating disincentives in the path to true industrialization.