The Poor in Today’s India 

Photo by V Srinivasan

As Indian parliamentary elections approach, politicians’ promises resting on uplifting economic status of the poor will get more assertive and aggressive. As these promises become louder, headlines may be expected to display the same more prominently. The unwritten rule followed in general by most politicians is to try convincing voters that “magic wand” to achieve this rests only in his/her hands. If this was really possible, the poor Indian would not have continued to suffer as he and his family still remain deprived of even proper meals. Death of farmers by suicide, owing to their being debt-ridden and/or being unable to earn enough just to barely feed their families has not come to a halt. Unemployment continues to hit practically all, except of course the millionaires and billionaires who have enough to sail through probably for few generations.

A typical village remains devoid of medical facilities, a proper school and most houses don’t have proper toilets with their residents continuing to use fields. This is where the majority of Indians reside. Yes, a member or two of practically each family moves to urban areas in search of employment in various capacities- where educational certificate/degree is not a requirement. These include jobs as laborers, car-cleaners with women primarily working as domestic maids- cooking, cleaning, etc. Each moves to cities with the aim of gradually getting other members join in the hope of securing better life with education for their children. The recent years have witnessed a traumatic impact on these sections, reducing dreams they entertained once virtually to dust. When Covid first struck, it forced thousands from cities to their rural roots. Many had to walk back. Life hasn’t been the same for majority since then. It may be recalled, attempts were certainly made then to provoke communal discord by blaming several sections of Muslim community as responsible for Covid-trauma. Of course, it sounds preposterous now. But it happened. Some Muslims were also pushed behind bars on these “charges.”

Certainly, Covid-phase spared no one. Economically, the worst hit were poor Indians and as mentioned, they haven’t as yet fully recovered from its impact. They have had no choice but gradually return back to urban areas and try start earning again. Substantial coverage was given to their leaving cities. But news about them was then largely limited to this aspect- rough estimate supported by photographs as well as videos about their leaving urban areas. True, when misery – in any form- strikes, media pays substantial attention to how the poor are hit.  When farmers commit suicide, if noticed by one outlet of media, others don’t take long to cover this “news,” else chances of this issue being confined to statistics remain.

The tragedy is that despite all promises repeatedly handed down to them, economic conditions of poor have barely improved. Nor has sufficient attention been apparently paid in this direction. India is the most populated country, where the super-rich – a percentage of the population own more than nearly 50% of country’s total wealth, with only three percent of it being with 50% of the poor, according to a report of Oxfam for 2021. As rich are growing richer, poor are becoming poorer. Be it even slight inflation, Covid-lockdown, floods, chaos/conflict/tension or any such factor, the poor are the worst hit. One doesn’t need to draw attention to plight of laborers in urban as well as rural areas. The list of work engaged in by laborers is fairly exhaustive. This includes small farmers, construction workers, labelling and packing, workers in factories and numerous jobs of various categories. Recent decades have seen an increase of self-employed workers in primarily urban areas engaged as parking attendants, car-cleaners, car-mechanics, hair-dressers, domestic workers, mobile-repair, tailors, sanitation workers and so forth. There has also been an increase in vendors selling fruits and vegetables, road-side eating stalls, weekly/evening markets with pavements dotted with small stalls selling goods ranging from clothes, buckets, cosmetics and a lot more at reasonable rates for poor, where middle-class sections also shop.

The self-employed in various sections have no job-security. Their demand rests on expertise in their work and its market. It may be noted the demand and market of these self-employed workers is not decided by their religion, caste or region. It is decided by their expertise in their fields, whether they are carpenters, construction workers, tailors, hair-dressers, car-mechanics, car-cleaners, food-sellers, gardeners, vendors, electricians, plumbers or of any field. Of course, the demand, pricing and labelling of certain of these fields, adopts more sophisticated and expensive tags among richer sections- be it that of designing clothes, parlors, restaurants and so forth. But, here the focus is on poorer sections. The self-employed can work only till they retain health to do so. They can’t retire banking on any pension-scheme. Those employed with others, including construction workers also suffer from the same problem, whether they are farmers, domestic helpers, construction-workers or in other areas. In most circumstances, they are not paid when they can’t work due to illness or any other reason, can be fired at any time and so on. These laborers form roughly 50% of India’s population. Their income is not decided by their religion, caste or region but literally by sweat and blood they put into their work. India, reportedly, has the highest poverty rate with 22.89 crore (228 million) living in poverty, of which more than six crore (60 million) live in slums.

Of course, when communal tension strikes, it affects all in areas targeted, but as suggested the poor suffer the most. While the well-off in most circumstances can afford to move to other areas, continue working from home, the poor usually lose everything- from their houses to their work. Pictures of shanties targeted in Manipur and Haryana are just a mild indicator of this harsh reality. And yet, come election time, it is the vote of the poor that is reached for the most. Why not? It is not just the case of their vote being numerically the most important. But they are the ones who exercise their right to vote in greater numbers than those from richer classes. The poor Indian retains his/her importance, democratically but continues to suffer economically. Whatever claims may be made about India being a rich country, among the most developed countries and so on, at the grass-roots, the Indian remains poor, suffering from economic hardships!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. Her latest book is Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019). Others include:– Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).