India’s poverty: Help the poor help themselves

Kirsty Hughes – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, MAY 9, 2005
NEW DELHI While India’s growth makes it an economic and political player to watch in the next decades, the country remains desperately poor. Almost a quarter of India’s 1.1 billion people live on less than $1 a day; 700 million more live on less than $2 a day.
Can India ever overcome its huge poverty problem? It depends on what strategy the country takes.
Today, India appears to have four broad approaches to tackling poverty. The first is essentially to abolish the poor, rather than poverty. This was graphically illustrated in Mumbai this year when slum neighborhoods were razed, making 400,000 people homeless. The Mumbai police followed up by beating protesters whose shacks had been demolished.
The second approach is often termed the trickle-down model, but perhaps better described as “ignore the poor.” A favorite of many Indian economists, it argues that in the next two to three decades poverty will disappear as market forces go to work.
But even if prosperity does eventually trickle down, sitting back and doing nothing about poverty for yet another generation is a human and economic waste.
India’s government is backing a third, developmental approach that aims to improve the social and physical conditions of the rural and urban poor. This means more and better roads, improvements in water supplies and rural electrification; it also means big steps forward in education and health, together with efforts at microfinance.
The fourth and most ambitious approach seeks to exploit the unused entrepreneurial abilities of the poor.
In the state of Kerala, near India’s southern tip, bureaucrats work with the poorest women in a program called Kudumbashree, or Family Prosperity. The aim is to identify the women’s needs – from literacy and training to housing, health care and jobs – and to put them in charge of managing their own development.
The women set up self-help savings groups, move on to microfinance and loans, and then establish their own micro-enterprises; the government helps them identify opportunities and gives them training in areas like information technology and marketing.
Thousands of enterprises have been established, from a data-processing company that has grown in two years to employ 20 people, to businesses offering beauty products, plumbing services, catering and garbage collection.
Further north, in Gujurat, even more ambitious schemes are being led by the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a trade union, development organization and women’s movement rolled up in one. The association runs a bank catering to the poorest women, champions the rights of the poorest workers, offers literacy classes and computer classes for teenagers, sponsors doctors in rural areas and organizes agricultural and textile cooperatives.
It too has recognized that it has to do more to develop the entrepreneurial skills of the poorest. In the face of global competition, the association sees that helping market its members’ textiles is not enough. To protect jobs, it has to analyze global trends in fashion and then train and manage its members.
And in Mumbai, a millionaire property developer, Mukesh Mehta, is the brains behind plans to transform Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. The goal is to build better housing through public-private partnerships and to upgrade the skills and equipment of the workers in Dharavi’s cottage industries, from potters to leather workers, and to give them advice.
The bold plan also aims to bring the rich into Dharavi without driving out the poor. The goal is to attract leading designers, doctors, cultural institutes and top schools, which in return for providing cheap or free services to the poor can use the facilities that are being built to provide much more expensive services to the rich.
If India can harness the vision and innovativeness of these curious bedfellows – from bureaucrats to women’s trade union to millionaire property developer – then it may find a way to tackle poverty today, not in 20 years.
(Kirsty Hughes writes about international affairs.)

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