Up For Discussion

India Looks Like Such a Success

So What Explains The Stubborn Poverty?


For a quarter century, India has had one of the best-performing economies in the world, averaging over 6 percent of growth per year. Its middle class has quadrupled. Its business leaders enjoy international admiration. At the same time, we read stories of unspeakable poverty and misery–of disease, hunger, and deprivation. We asked several scholars of India’s past and present to explain the divergence. With all of India’s growth, why is its poverty so obstinate?

Well, there’s a lot less poverty than there used to be–but rural areas have been lagging

Before we look at the tenacity of poverty in India, we must acknowledge that India has been successful in reducing it. India is one of the few countries in the world that will achieve the target of cutting the percentage of its population living in poverty by half in just 25 years.

One of the major reasons for the slow pace of poverty alleviation in India has been the fact that 65 percent of its population resides in the countryside, where innovation in poverty alleviation has moved far too slowly. Agriculture and allied sectors employ 52 percent of the workforce but add less than 16 percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country,. Agriculture has grown at about 3 percent when the national GDP has grown at about 8 percent. This has led to serious inequalities. Lack of access to education, employment and high degree of corruption are a host of other issues that have slowed down India’s emergence from the clutches of poverty.

The country has seen an impressive growth of the middle class in the past 20 years, and this has pushed a generation of people above poverty line. But now India needs to find an inclusive model of growth that helps a larger section of its society transition towards the right side of the poverty line in a shorter time period–without disturbing the delicate social, demographic, cultural, and ecological fiber of the country.

Manoj Chandran is director of marketing at Ashoka Innovators for the Public, India.


Only concerted state action–if even that–can eliminate India’s poverty

The celebration and branding of a rising India partially reflects the material improvement in the condition of many Indians over the past three decades. But it also conceals the fact that, for many more Indians, poverty, insecurity, hunger, and sickness remain constant and insuperable features of everyday life. Even with a broad definition of “middle class,” only the top quarter of Indian households is estimated to belong to this income group. About 70 percent of Indian households live on incomes that are substantially lower, with at least 40 percent living in severe poverty.

Why is this? Calling India’s economic growth lopsided is almost too kind. It stems from tiny sectors, such as IT, finance, and business services, in which the beneficiaries speak English, are educated, urban, and from relatively privileged backgrounds. The success, in other words, mostly benefits those who are already well fed and well educated. The poor live primarily in the villages, where cell phones may have arrived, but not food security.

The truth is poverty does not magically disappear, and wealth does not naturally trickle down. It never has. Poverty must be made to disappear by concerted state action. In India’s case, the state has simply not been willing–or perhaps able–to undertake the massive investment in health, education, and manufacturing that the country needs in order to have a nation of people who have a future. At this point, alas, India seems more interested in its global branding than in its own reality.

Raka Ray is Sarah Kailath Chair of India Studies, and chair and professor of the Sociology Department at the University of California Berkeley.


Corruption and a failed justice system are to blame

The underbelly of “Shining India” is the stark dispossession of those who are at the bottom of the social structure. As the political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have noted, the bottom 25 percent of India’s poor endure a life that is worse than that of the poorest in Africa.

Two conditions of Indian life contribute especially to its poverty: corruption, and a failed justice system. Those who wield power–in the state and outside it–are often corrupt, and they know that an ineffective justice system will not hold them accountable. When 74-year-old veteran social activist Anna Hazare led a non-violent (although problematic) anti-corruption campaign for a strong Jan Lokpal bill (a citizens’ ombudsman bill to fight corruption), it was a cry for some measure of honesty and accountability from members of the state machinery. That India failed to pass even a weak version of an anti-corruption Lokpal bill in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament) owing to a lack of quorum signals the unwillingness of Indian politicians to fix a broken system.

The state’s inability to hold those in power accountable, to dispense justice, or to rectify inequality makes it nearly impossible to ameliorate the lives of the poorest. Women and children disproportionately bear the brunt of the injustice, since they constitute 73 percent of those living beneath the poverty line.

Indian literature bears eloquent witness to this state of affairs (see Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger or the writer-activist Mahasweta Devi’s fiction in Imaginary Maps), but, by and large, the shameful deprivation of millions of Indians gets erased from the public sphere, where the focus is on the story of shining India.

Kavita Daiya is a cultural critic and author of Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender and National Culture in Postcolonial India (2008). She is Associate Professor of English at George Washington University, Washington DC and founder of

*Photo courtesy of erin & camera.