Dipawali is a festival when lamps and candles are lighted in the homes of even the poorest with the hope of economic prosperity. This is a time of light and hope, yet we cannot forget that millions and millions of people are still unable to meet even their basic needs. Much needs to be done still to ensure that prosperity at least in the form of basic needs being met can reach these millions of homes.
The government has done well to announce that the scheme of free food grain is being extended by another one year—this will certainly bring some relief—but surely the challenge of meeting all basic needs in a satisfactory way is much bigger.
Experts can debate endlessly how many of the households are below the poverty line and how many are perched precariously at the margin; what we know for certain is that an unacceptably high number of households in the country are not able to meet their basic needs in a satisfactory way and an unacceptably high number of people do not have satisfying and secure, sustainable livelihoods. For significant sections of people the challenges of ensuring access to basic needs has actually increased in recent times, following the disruptions caused by demonetization and pandemic related lockdowns in particular.
As numerous studies from around the world have confirmed, a high commitment to equality and justice is very important for reducing poverty and deprivation. Unfortunately India has lagged behind in moving towards a society based on economic equality. In fact there are all the indications of increasing inequalities. According to the country profile for India presented in the World Inequality Report ( 2022), the bottom 50% of the population in India has just 6% of the country’s wealth. At the same time the top 10% has as high a share of wealth as 65% while just the top 1% has an enormously high share of 33% of the wealth.
In addition there is high inequality in terms of income as well. The bottom 50% of the population has only 13% of the country’ income, while the top 10% has 57% of the income. Just the top 1% has as much as 22% of the country’s income.
Clearly such intolerably high levels of wealth and income inequality need to be reduced in a big way and a much higher share of the wealth and income should be available for the bottom 50% of the population, with special care being taken to meet the basic needs of the bottom 20% of the population in particular. The rural landless people deserve special attention and the program of land reforms for providing them at least some farmland which has been neglected in the recent past should be revived.
In addition there is considerable room for improvement in the several government programs and schemes which are specifically aimed at helping the weaker sections. As a first step, the allocations for such programs and schemes should be in accordance with their stated aims, and there should be careful monitoring to ensure that the actual expenditure is in accordance with the original allocation. In addition their implementation should improve in significant ways to curb corruption and to see that the rules are observed. In the case of NREGA, for example, there is need to ensure timely payment of fair wages as well as to ensure that the work is not done on the sly by machines and the basic aim of generating employment for the poor is fulfilled. In the case of PM Awas the most genuinely needy households should be selected on the basis of priority and there should be no room for corruption.
The overall direction of the economy should shift in favor of generating more satisfactory and sustainable livelihoods as well as meeting the basic needs of people in satisfactory ways.
A combination of many-sided efforts to reduce inequalities as well as making the economy more broad-based and balanced, apart from improving the functioning of various government schemes aimed at helping the poor can together help to bring significant relief as well as longer-term improvement for the bottom half of the population.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, When the Two Streams Met and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.