From the Hunger Journals: Living on $0.60 per day

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A homeless boy holds biscuits that he received as alms as he takes shelter from rain in front of a fast food shop in Mumbai November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT)
A homeless boy holds biscuits that he received as alms as he takes shelter from rain in front of a fast food shop in Mumbai November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT)
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A homeless boy holds biscuits that he received as alms as he takes shelter from rain in front of a fast food shop in Mumbai November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT)
A homeless boy holds biscuits that he received as alms as he takes shelter from rain in front of a fast food shop in Mumbai. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT)

If you live in India, you get used to the glaring disparity between the rich and poor. It’s a peaceful co-existence, one that is almost criminal. It desensitizes you to look the other way. While acknowledging the stark economic divide, India still has the world’s 4th largest economy.

Average daily income of an unskilled labourer in rural India : Rs. 36 – Rs. 122 per day ( $0.66 – $2.25 per day)

India’s National Average Income : Rs. 100 per day ( $2 per day)

Population below the poverty line in rural India: 450 million (37.2% )

Population below poverty line globally: 1.2 Billion

Every time I travel around the bustling streets of Mumbai’s vibrant Colaba vegetable market, with it’s street vendors and their colourful produce, thousands of buyers looking for a good bargain, and school children excitedly thronging at the “mango and gooseberry in brine” stall, I have often wondered how it would be to live like the other half.

The vegetable market in all its glory, is where the confluence of the have and have nots happen. To an outsider, it is where stark distinctions are visible, where the lines that demarcate class, caste and economic status are so inherent and yet oblivious. Where an ounce of lentil is dispensable for one, it is a luxury for the other. The ignorance as well as disappointments are visible on their faces. After all, food has always been the connecting factor and the divider. And in these playing fields, survival is the only thing on everyone’s mind.

This vision of how the other half lives, would be a passing, almost fleeting thought, when I see the vendor trying to sell his wares, or the labourer on the streets, tarring the road with her child tucked around her back in a cloth, in the scorching heat. I would empathise,  sometimes even stop and offer a fruit or biscuit to the sleeping child, or overpay the vegetable vendor more than what he is asking. But that’s about the most I would do. Once the image is out of my mind, and my conscience placated, I would move on to more pleasanter and more mundane things, like buying my favourite shoes or eating at my favourite restaurant where a dish might cost anywhere from Rs. 2000 upward.

GLARING DISPARITIES:

When you live in India, you get used to the glaring disparity between the rich and poor. It’s a peaceful co-existence, one that is almost criminal. It desensitises you, makes you look the other way when you see a child begging at the traffic lights, or a woman struggling to clean perhaps, a dozen houses a day to make ends meet. No other country has this stark economic divide. Nor in such proportions. It is indeed a paradox, considering that India has been listed as the 4th largest economy in the world, next to EU, US, and China boasting a growth rate of 6.2% as compared to the rest of world  at 3.3%. The low per capita income in India highlights the sharp differences in the urban/rural divide, imbalances in the distribution of wealth, and the colossal failure of trickle-down theory — despite unprecedented growth rates.

Image Courtesy: www.wfp.org
Image credit: WFP

To add insult to injury, the Planning Commission of India (PCI) in 2011 came up with a resolution to make Rs.32 per day in the urban areas and Rs.26 per day in the rural, as the ‘cut off’ to define the poverty line. The PCI has a very good public distribution system (PDS) in place, where it distributes essential items like rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene to those families living under the below poverty line (BPL). Under the PDS Scheme, the government distributes 35 kg of rice or wheat, (under heavily-subsidized prices) to those families living below the poverty line. With the new resolution, it essentially means that if you have only Rs.32($0.60) to spend in a day, you will no longer be eligible to draw benefits of central and state government welfare schemes meant for those living below the poverty line.You have to earn lower than that to be eligible for the PDS. This elicited public outrage as many felt this was a ploy to depress the official number of poor in India by the government.

HOW TO LIVE ON Rs.32 ($0.60) PER DAY:

Imagine this: You earn only $0.60 per day. And you are expected to live within that budget- a roof, food, electricity, transportation, water, communication, etc. How would you survive? And yet 450 million Indians ‘get by’ with this basic salary every day of their lives. It is in this context that the work of 2 young men has gained worldwide applause. Tushar Vashisht, an International Banker and a University of Pennsylvania Alumni & Mathew Cherian, a software Engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who returned to their home country to do something innovative and substantial for their people, and have become household names.

Mathew Cherian and Tushar Vashisht of Rs.100aday.com
Mathew Cherian and Tushar Vashisht of Rs.100aday.com

The duo initially started-off trying to live on India’s  national average daily Income of Rs.100 per day (approx. $2) for 3 weeks, to know what most of us wonder – to  understand by empirical evidence, just how the other half lives. But outraged at the Planning Commission of India’s decision, Tushar and Vashisht decided to live on Rs.32 day a week, tracking their day-to-day experiences and expenses on a blog journal, Rs.100aday.com and on Facebook. Their real-time heartwarming and sometimes hard-hitting experiences with poverty received global media and social networking attention, especially with the growing group of foreign educated Indians who want to make a difference in their homeland. They finally submitted their findings and report to the Planning commission of India in an effort to have them revise their earlier decision.

Tushar & Mathew's Non Food Expenses ( In Indian Rupee)
Tushar & Mathew’s Non Food Expenses (In Indian Rupee). Image credit: Rs100aDay.com
Tushar & Mathew's Food Break Up Chart for Rs.32 / day budget. Image courtesy :www.rs100aday.com
Tushar and Mathew’s Food Expenses Chart for Rs.32 / day budget. Image credit : Rs100aDay.com

With that mere pittance, they had to travel on foot most of the time, drink dubious well water, and after deducting utilities expenses, they were left with Rs.17 ( $0.31) for food. They could afford carbohydrate and if they got lucky, an occasional seasonal vegetable, but protein was a complete no-no as it was too expensive. They had to substitute milk with soy bean calling it the “Staple Wonder Food.” Trying to get by on $0.60 a day was an ordeal they’d never forget and they were often disoriented from lack of enough food and protein in their diet and could hardly focus on anything else except on how to keep going for the remaining part of any given day.

LESSONS LEARNED:

With the Rs.100/Rs.32 a day project Tushar and Mathew,showed the government of India the realities of the economic bubble. It exposed the daily grind of millions of people who live on such meagre rations, and the government’s lack of empathy and unrealistic definition of poverty lines. It is not therefore surprising, that even with the urban corporate elite doing extremely well for themselves, India is still home to about 450 million hungry and millions of malnourished women and children. Says the duo, “Rs 100 a day was already a serious challenge, Rs 32 a day was practically impossible.”

Their Kitchen where they spent most of their time. Image Courtesy: Living on India's Average Income for a month.
Their Kitchen where they spent most of their time. Image credit: Rs100aDay

The Rs.100/Rs.32 a day Project happened just about the time, when the Arab Spring, India’s fight against corruption and the “Occupy Wall Street” were happening. Says Tushar, who previously worked on Wall Street, “Trust me, I have nothing against Wall Street, I think it’s a phenomenal institution and I’ve been part of that institution. But it’s just that the top elite end up making decisions for everybody without necessarily knowing what it means to be an everyday person.”

EMPATHY & RESPONSIBILITY :

In this TEDTalks video, Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN’s World Food Program, talks about why, in a world with enough food for everyone, people still go hungry, still die of starvation, and some groups still use food as a weapon of war. Her vision: “Food is one issue that cannot be solved person by person. We have to stand together.

[tubepress video=”CdxVbUja_pY” theme=”youtube” embeddedHeight=”400″ embeddedWidth=”640″]

Poverty and hunger is not confined within nations or geographical borders any more. In an interconnected world, it’s a global responsibility. With the latest agricultural technology and practices and food distribution management know-how, it is indeed a shame that we still let 8 million fellow human beings die from hunger and malnourishment, every year. What the Rs.32 a day experiment by Tushar & Mathew teaches us, is that governments worldwide need to come up with practical solutions to address hunger and poverty issues, as opposed to going by purely autocratic decisions which are made while sitting in glass houses.

One half wastes away, while the other starves and it is nothing but ignorance, grotesque societal excess and lack of empathy which allows such poverty to continue, seemly unabated. And it is the responsibility of not just governments, but also the rest of us, to confront this plague on humanity.

It has to be a global movement. And, being concerned and empathetic doesn’t make me a ‘Communist by default’ either.

As Mother Teresa once said, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one. So you begin, I began. I picked up one person — Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person I wouldn’t have picked up 42,000. Just begin…one, one, one.”

Perhaps our time starts now…

Here’s some links to get you started…

Do Something:

End Poverty

World Food Programme

Stop Hunger Now

Charity:Water

Make your Voice and opinions heard:

World Bank Live – Global Voices on Poverty

Make a Difference :

If Enough Food For Everyone

Be aware :

University of California: Center for Effective Global Action

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