Monday, 26 December 2011

The Misfortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Nearly 20% of India's population forms the base of the
socio-economic pyramid, earning less than Rs. 100 per day
By the time Mr. C.K. Prahalad published his most famous and cited work in August 2004, I had spent two years in Pratham, the largest primary education NGO in India. Till then, I had seen the innards of our metros - particularly Delhi and Mumbai - and had seen enough to know that the reverend management Guru had a point, but was not convinced in entirety. The book spoke of the BoP as the 4 billion poor of the world, living on an annual income of less than $1500 (which translated to just over Rs. 5000 per month then). In the Indian context, this Bottom of the Pyramid had a population of 400 million, around 40% of the country's people. But it was clearly visible, even then, that this BoP has several layers, and the bottom-most of these layers (often called the poorest of the poor) did not qualify for any of Prahalad's theorizations.

Thousands of young men migrate to the cities leaving
behind their wives and young children

Now, 7 years later, I have had the chance to peer at the bottom of the barrel in the rural context as well. It is here that the economic divide is at its most stark, and most troubling. Last week, I was in Kalahandi and Bolangir in Orissa, among the poorest districts in the country. The region had gained international infamy in the mid-1980's when the sub-human conditions here had led to several starvation deaths, catching the attention of the bourgeois media. The starvation may not be as rampant now, but the poverty certainly is. Significantly, whatever growth that has happened in the region has largely been an urban phenomenon - property rates in the town of Bolangir have more than doubled in the last ten years, but the conditions in the rest of the district - entirely rural - have worsened. The average household income would not be more than Rs. 10000 per annum, or around $200.

Is there hope for these children?

Numbers, we know, conceal more than they reveal. It is not the 200-odd dollars that these people earn is significant, what is more significant is how they earn it. Since local employment is not an option, and returns on farming are marginal, migrating for work is the only recourse for a livelihood. Hence, in some of the villages that I went to, nearly all the adult males were away to distant cities such as Mumbai and Chennai. Many others go to work at the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh each year, family in tow, working and living in abysmal conditions, and being paid just about Rs. 200 per week as subsistence wages. Their incentive: in addition to the weekly wage, they are given an advance of Rs. 8 to 10 thousand which proves to be an irresistible bounty for them. They do this year after year, and generation after generation - as they never have a chance to develop their skills to do anything better.

With Mr. Abhimanyu Rana (left) in his office at a village
called Mahaling in the Kalahandi district

If there is a solution to this, it is certainly not within the current political system: the administration at all levels refuses to acknowledge the existence of migration from Orissa. Schemes such as the MGNREGA and IGAY (Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana) may have the potential to bring on an economic upturn, but their shoddy implementation has made the rural populace turn away from them. Commerce and industry too have shied away from investing in this region, as they have several better, more profitable options. If there is some hope, it is in the collective conscience of our society, as evinced by youngsters such as Abhimanyu Rana who runs an organization called Karmi in the Kalahandi district. Karmi is a small organization - too small to even have a website of its own. With the limited resources that Rana has been able to muster, he is doing some commendable work for poverty alleviation and livelihood promotion in the region. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust has been an important supporter for Karmi over the years. But it will take hundreds of Karmis to make any perceptible impact in the fabric of a Kalahandi, and thousands of supporters to champion the cause. Till then, the bottom of the pyramid will only get more and more distanced from the rest of us.             

1 comment:

  1. very heartrending! commercial & industrial interventions are not even an option. Govt apathy, much less surprising. However, how is there not any major NGO playing a role there, other than the ones like Karmi?