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Country on Parade

By Dilip D'Souza
April 15, 2005 14:35 IST
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The overwhelming impression? Poverty. Two recent 24 hour journeys in second-class compartments on trains, and I came home stunned -- I mean this, I was simply stunned -- at the number and variety of people who streamed through the coach asking for coins. Or who did so from the stations we stopped at. Or who were obviously destitute and desperate even if they did not beg.

Eunuchs; blind men; blind couples; men on their behinds with a leg draped around their necks, one with a bag of grapes hanging from his toes; young kids doing some little act; young girls singing tunelessly; boys and men and women sweeping the compartment, some with the shirts off their backs; filthy mothers with a seemingly lifeless kid lolling in their arms; a bearded midget who didn't say a word; men without one or more limbs; men on crutches; a young man who picked up discarded watermelon rinds from under the train and chewed on them; a smiling old man who switched from Tamil to English to Tamil again, asking for money all the while; assorted others. From early in the morning, all through the day, well into the night. On and on.

I've travelled second-class for over 35 years now: short journeys, long ones, in every part of the country. For the sense it gives you of what India is about, it is indisputably the best way to travel. It occurred to me that on none of those journeys, over all those years, did I see so many beggars, so much poverty. All of which, like always, gave me a sense of what my country is about, circa 2005.

Yes, this is 2005. We are a decade-and-a-half into reforms and liberalisation and the tearing down of socialism that, we have been told, is addressing India's gargantuan problem of poverty in the most efficient way possible. The proponents of this great exercise will quote arguments and figures at length to make that case, to persuade us that poverty is on the wane. And if you look at their figures, you will indeed be persuaded. Figures are like that.

But then I do this second-class journey, and I am left with fumbling, groping questions: Why can't I see it, this dramatic decrease in poverty that's supposed to be chugging along so nicely? Why, in all the years that I've noticed and been aware of realities in my country, have I not felt there is a perceptible drop in the number of poor people? And on this one journey, why do I see more beggars -- many more -- than I ever have on such a trip?

Anecdotal evidence, those proponents will say, supercilious smile spreading on their faces because they believe they know better. Anecdotal evidence doesn't count. You have to look at the numbers. If you do, you will understand what we've been saying: the move to free markets is bringing more people out of poverty faster than anything else ever has, at any time in our history. In fact, it's a proven fact that free markets are the only mechanism there is to truly address poverty.

So just give it some time.

Oh yes, time. After all, who would expect an end to widespread poverty overnight? It must and will take time.

Then again, the reforms have been in place nearly 15 years. That's over a third of the time from 1947 till liberalisation began. By any standards, that hardly qualifies as "overnight" any more. By any standards, after 15 years during which droves of people escaped from being poor, I should see around me some perceptible decrease in poverty.

On this trip, I didn't.

Look at it this way: let's say I've been piling our household trash outside my front door for a year. Let's say I've steadily ignored my wife's pleas to clean the godawful mess that's now built up there. Until today, when I finally tell her I'm going to clean up. It's a huge job, but I do get started on it. Every day, I show my wife figures of the number of truckloads of dirt I've carted off from our door to the city dump.

Four months from now -- one-third of the year that I dumped garbage uncaringly at our front door -- would she be entitled to expect that the rubbish pile has visibly diminished?

And if she doesn't see this -- if she instead sees it looming just as large, perhaps even larger -- would she be entitled to think, this husband of mine is doing something wrong. If he's doing anything at all. What's more, would it make sense for me to smile superciliously at her worries and whip out my figures again? Tell her that her fears about the non-decreasing pile amount to just so much anecdotal evidence, and that doesn't count?

Absurd, of course. By themselves, figures mean nothing. The anecdotal evidence gives them heft and credibility.

Again, look at it this way: If I never had seen Indians defecating on the tracks, on the rocks at low tide, by the side of the road -- yes, if I never had seen such sights, it would be difficult to believe the troubling statistic that nearly seven of every 10 Indians lack access to reasonable sanitation. But I have seen them. That's why I have a sense that the figure is likely to be true. What's more, it's the only way I have of judging the truth in the figure.

In much the same way, our encounters with poor Indians are the anecdotal evidence that allows us to judge the truth about levels of poverty; about claims that those levels have decreased. What's more, they are the only way we have to judge those claims.

There's no doubt in my mind: reforms must happen. But 15 years after the process began, I can't help feeling that something is wrong about the way we are pursuing them. For I am yet to see the one effect they must have, first and above all: a visible lessening in the level of Indian poverty. Fewer poor Indians around us. I can't see that.

This train journey, in which Indian poverty streamed past me as if we were t some surreal alternate Republic Day parade, showed me as much.

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Dilip D'Souza