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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 16.09.02

According to the official definition of poverty line in India, any person who gets 2,400 calories worth of food per day in rural areas or 2,200 Cal. in urban areas is above poverty line. And how much is this 2,400 Cal? In terms of rice or wheat it is equivalent to only about 750 grams. This definition of poverty does not incorporate such basic necessities as clothing (not even for women), leave aside the need for a roof overhead or education or medical benefits. This definition can at best be of a “destitution line” or “starvation line”. Even with such a shameful definition, the government is pleased to inform that poverty in India has now come down to only 26 per cent, that is, there are about 26 crore people who are not getting even 750 gram of wheat or rice every day. Asking why people are not eating vegetables, fruits, meat, or fish to get 2,400 calories is behaving like Marie Antoinette, since rice or wheat are the cheapest sources of calories in the country.

It is true that theoretically, unemployment and poverty are not the same; a person could be rich but not employed just as he could be poor despite working hard. But in practice, unemployment and poverty largely go hand in hand. So any government committed to alleviating poverty will have to solve, a priori, the problem of unemployment. Productive and gainful employment is the only sustainable way to alleviate poverty.

The main causes of unemployment are increasing population and advancing technology. The adverse effects of increasing population are quite obvious in the villages where agriculture is the main source of employment. Agricultural land, being fixed, can provide gainful employment to only an optimum number of persons; beyond this number, it leads to only hidden unemployment.

Technology, on the other hand, has always aimed at replacing or minimizing human labour and thus aggravated unemployment. Although every new technology does create some new employment opportunities, they are often much less than those rendered useless by it.

Clearly, population control and correct choice of technology are the two factors that can help remove or lessen unemployment, and by extension, poverty. In the prevailing conditions of globalization and free market economy, it is impossible for India to compete without going in for updated technologies which are highly “labour-unintensive”. As a result, labour-intensive small scale or cottage industries, which were earlier provided protection from larger industries, are now waging a battle for survival. The employment rate has been declining over the last few years. According to the National Sample Surveys for 1993-94 and 1999-2000, the rate of unemployment has increased in India by about one per cent per annum between 1993-94 and 1999-2000, while the population increased by about two per cent per annum.

Interestingly, the poverty ratio has simultaneously reduced from 36 per cent in 1993-94 to 26 per cent in 1999-2000. But this should not mislead anybody. Use of modern technology has lead to widespread gains in labour productivity which have resulted in significant growth in average wage earnings. This in turn has pushed up many of those workers above the poverty line who were earlier just below or on the poverty line. So this simultaneous increase in unemployment and decrease in poverty are purely signs of a transition which is going to be over soon. In fact, the resultant widening of the gulf between the people above and below the poverty line is not at all desirable.

Though the government is trying to tackle this potentially explosive situation through poverty alleviation programmes, most of them end up as mere doles of an occasional kind.

India’s population is presently about 104 crore and is increasing by about 1.6 crore per year. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of the total population of any country requires employment. So, even at an employment ratio of 50 per cent, India’s present employment requirement is 52 crore, which is increasing by about 80 lakh per year. The official employment figures are known to be inflated, as it also includes disguised unemployments that abound in rural India. Not only is the unemployment figure still very high, at about 10 crore, it is increasing by about 40 lakh per year due to increasing population.

Since India is compelled to use modern technologies designed to minimize human employment, population control emerges as the only solution to solve the unemployment problem and minimize poverty.

Although India started its family planning programmes way back in 1951 and has spent huge sums on them, the success of these incentive-based voluntary family planning programmes has been quite miserable. The main impediments to the success of population control programmes in India are: lack of education (not merely literacy), poverty, high infant and child mortality rate, preference for sons, caste and communal politics, lack of political will, non-participation of men in family planning, poor management of family planning programmes, religious fundamentalism and antagonism, and an unrealistic national population policy.

Of the above reasons, three (lack of education, poverty and infant and child mortality) relate to the often quoted slogan, “development is the best contraceptive”. But the remaining, which are no less responsible, require extra-developmental efforts for their removal. There is no indication so far that there is enough political effort to remove any of the causes of increasing population.

While capital and market are being globalized under the new world economic order, labour is being kept confined within the boundaries of nations. This is causing immense human suffering in developing and populous countries like India.

Global agencies like the United Nations Development Programme, the UN population fund are creating problems by insisting that population must be controlled only through the process of development (for instance, through education, healthcare and poverty alleviation) and no hard measures like disincentives need be employed to promote family planning. Not following their line means losing the financial assistance coming from these agencies. This is neither logical nor fair.

It must be stressed in the end that population control, though the most critical and necessary condition for poverty alleviation in India, is not enough on its own. It must also be supported by a just fiscal policy, its non-discriminating implementation and efficient governance.