Poverty means different things to different people. For some it is just the lack of money; for others it is the lack of things that money can buy. The World Bank talks of poverty in terms of incomes less than a dollar a day per person. Some define it in terms of eating less than 1800 Kcal per day. The UNDP expanded on both of these and added more dimensions. Recently University of Oxford brought out the multidimensional indicators (MDI) of poverty. Our own Planning Commission has not been too far behind in this debate. Whether it is the Saxena Committee or the Tendulkar committee, we are still wondering which one should be official and which would be politically acceptable to our planners and policy makers. Not to be left behind, economists and academicians at the National Council of Applied Economic Research have their own indicators and proxy indicators. What do all these mean to the man on the street? What do these mean to the millions of Indians toiling away each day with only hope in their hearts and sweat up their sleeves? Will these definitions mean anything more than the paper on which it is written? Will changing these definitions end up in making any difference to these people? Can anyone capture the dignity, the poise, the adaptability, and the ability to cope of these toiling millions?
Having lived and worked with the tribal and rural people in interior Karnataka, I am still grappling with this issue. Poverty and its effects seem to be more an issue for me than for the people whom I feel are poor. One always forms such value conclusions about the poor that we never see it from their perspective. Recently an incident at our hospital changed many of the beliefs that I have been holding for the last many years.
Kumar is a shy and quiet Jenukuruba youth whom I first met several years ago. He was sitting in a corner in one of the youth group meetings, desperately trying not to get noticed. When someone tried to a take a photograph of the meeting, he felt threatened and slipped away quietly. He recently came to our hospital with his father-in-law who had become unconscious after eating some poisonous tubers. He needed specialized treatment and care, and our hospital referred him to a larger set up in Mysore. Kumar felt lost when he was told to take his relative to distant Mysore. He never knew this big city and more importantly, had no money to take him. The humane doctors at our hospital promptly explained to him the need for immediate critical care and unhesitatingly gave him Rs.1000 to take along. Kumar was convinced and left to Mysore.
Life went on and Kumar was soon forgotten. He suddenly appeared one day and met our team at the hospital wanting to return the money given to him. Everyone was surprised, for they had never thought that anyone in Kumar’s state would be able to repay them. Puzzled, one of them asked Kumar why he wanted to return the money. Kumar’s answer not only left them humbled but also gave us so much to think about. He said that he knew that hundreds of poor people like him came to our hospital seeking assistance and there was no way that we could care for all them. Now that his father-in-law had recovered and was back in the tribal hamlet, both of them could afford to go to work in the farms nearby. Having earned the money, he felt that he had to return it, as it would help take care of someone more deserving. It was his way of not only conveying his gratitude, but also contributing to other less fortunate ones in the society.
After this incident, but my admiration and respect for him increased a hundredfold. Being poor and in constant search for a dignified livelihood, people like Kumar are usually at the receiving end of Government doles and NGO support. Somewhere, we take on the role of the provider and take for granted the dignity and self-esteem of the poor. More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda asked his disciples not to stand on a pedestal and say “here my poor man, take my five cents.” He wanted us to feel fortunate that the poor gave us the privilege of serving them. It is only people like Kumar who can understand and appreciate what poverty means to them. We may define poverty in many different ways, but will never understand it the way people like Kumar do. However hard we try, we will always see poverty through our own lens and form our conclusions based on our narrow interpretations and experience. We can never understand the humiliation and difficulty of coping with a society that can only counter poverty with charity. While people like Kumar do need a safety net in extraordinary circumstances, we also need to understand that in the process of helping them cope, we do not take away their dignity and self-esteem. Kumar not only understands his own poverty, but is also possibly the best resource that we have to reach out to people like him and help them not only to cope with poverty but also get out of it.
Kumar has learnt to stay rich despite being poor. And the myriad indicators that development professionals keep creating can never capture this.