Kerala and Poverty
Prof. Joseph K Alexander
Recently I read an article about poverty in Kerala. It argues that it is a majour concern
and warrant social and economic changes to eliminate it. Eliminating poverty is a mirage
It exist even in the richest society. It is a relative concept. Moreover there is another view
about poverty in Kerala. A couple of decades ago I was introduced to Air vice Marshall
K. A. Joseph in his coupe in the train journey from Ernakulam to Trivandrum. A fortyone
day old strike in Aluva FACT was on. We in our discussions came to this topic. The
Marshall who had seen India in his wide travels said that such a long strike will not
happen in any other part of India. Kerala is God’s own country. Every inch of it is fertile
and produce edible fruits, roots, leaves and meat. Hence even if none of these exist in
your homestead, they are there in the neighbor’s plot of land. Except destitutes, no one
knows the real pinch of hunger in Kerala. Staying power enables the Kerala strikers to
continue it endlessly.
Poverty is a state of the mind. It is an experience of not having; not getting what you
want; what you have a right to get. .Basic needs of life like food, shelter and clothing are
examples. The assumptions are potable water and pollution free air is freely available.
The reality is that they too are now costly. Water cost Rs. 10 a bottle and to get fresh air
you have to incur the cost to go to Sea shores or Silent valley like forests.
Those who do not get enough income to purchase even the basic needs to keep soul and
body together should be said to suffer abject poverty. All others, except monks and
abstinence practitioners, encounter only relative poverty. Economic wants are
necessaries, comforts and luxuries. With increase in income of the consumer, comforts
escalate into necessaries and luxuries into comforts. In Kerala electric fans have become
necessary and motor cars and mobile phones have slided into comforts.
Physical needs like minimum food, clothing, shelter and sex are easily satisfied. The rest
are psychological needs. Full satisfaction of them is impossible. A feeling of not getting
wants is relative poverty. This can be due to the relatively very low income of the
individual or awareness that he has a right to get them and not getting them or again an
understanding that others relatively have and enjoy them.
The pinch of such poverty depends on the percentile income band of a social group vis-avis
of the individual’s income. A person getting a higher income than that of those in a
group can maintain a higher level of consumption pattern and feel himself to be very rich.
If the same person moves his residence to a higher income group locality, his
consumption basket is relatively less than that of others in the group. He realizes that he
is poorer. He suffers relative poverty. Such poverty exist at all times and in all societies
and countries; rich and poor.
One who practices abstinence in his wants for short or long periods, as monks do, they do
not experience poverty. During lent periods or Ramadan month those who practice them
do not consider them to be suffering from poverty.
In the light of these facts “below poverty line” (BPL) concept looses its significance.
BPL and APL (“above poverty line”) are conceptual attempts to measure the number of
poor who require anti-poverty help. It is calculated by the minimum income necessary to
consume 2500 calorie of food per day. This income varies with the price level. Those
who have that income are APL and others come in the BPL category. When India became
independent more than 50 % of the population was in the BPL group. The Planning
Commission of India claims that because of economic planning and the resultant
economic growth income has increased. Now only 28 % or around alone are in the BPL
group. But many argue that BPL calculation criteria must be changed. With growing
income, literacy and awareness, the criteria must be enlarged to include good food,
decent shelter, clothing, health care and education facilities, freedom of expression etc;
If this is adopted, more than 60 % of the population will come under the BPL category.
This calculation of BPL in the light of the provision of food security for all in India is a
current topic. Central Government is for Targeted Public Distribution of food materials
only to the BPL families, because of the heavy subsidies involved. States like Kerala
insist on ration card supply of subsidized food to all in the State. Kerala has this system
for decades. The problem is that the State has to bear the extra cost of the subsidy or limit
rationing to BPL families. .If universal rationing is not possible, at least make the BPL
criteria broader to include more families in. This will enable the State to get more
subsided ration food from the Central Government and thus reduce the subsidy burden of
the State Government.
Poverty is caused by low or no income. It can be further clasisified into Destitutional,
Conjectural and Mass poverty. Poverty of the destitutes is due to lack of love and care or
no income. Their rehabilitation is more effective in thbe hands of the voluntary NGOs
than the bureaucratic machinery of the State. Conjectural poverty arise due to inadvertent
maladies like earth quakes, flood war destruction and the like misshapenness. In this case
massive transfer of resources from those who have income to the victims can be arranged
by the State and NGOs. . Here again servicing the aid will be better done and without
corruption by voluntary and philanthropic NGOs. Mass poverty is often due low
economic development of the country / society. In this case heavy investment by the
Government on infrastructure, agriculture, industrial production and rural and urban
employment schemes alone can provide more income and economic development to the