Has Poverty in India Really Dropped?

In POLI 1100 yesterday, we analyzed the topic of development and underdevelopment and noted that, according to some estimates, the world has become less unequal (more equal) over the last 10 years or so, primarily (we noted) as the result of the economic rise of China and India. Given that these two countries contain more than 1/3 of the world’s total population, what happens to them (and their citizens) has dramatic global impact. So, if incomes (and wealth) in India and China are rising, then it’s not surprising that the world is becoming a wealthier (and more equal) place. Take a look at the chart below. You’ll notice differences in the two trend lines, which can be accounted for by the rise in income in China and India.

While there have been rumours for many years that official Chinese economic statistics may not be the most reliable, a recent story in the New York Times asks the somewhat surprising question “Has Poverty Really Dropped in India?” It turns out that the answer is most likely yes, though it appears, on the surface, that some of sleight was at work. However, in the end the drop in poverty seems legitimate:

Remember when the public was outraged at the idea that the poverty line should be 32 rupees, or 63 cents, a day in urban areas?

We’ve now learned it should really be 29 rupees. And believe it or not, this is no sleight of hand to show a drop in poverty.

The Planning Commission’s latest poverty estimates, [click on this link for the statistics, which are grouped by caste, religion, and other demographic indicators] released Monday evening, show a 7 percentage-point drop in India’s poor, the largest fall since the figure was first calculated in 1962.

Some critics say the Planning Commission has reduced an already controversially low poverty line even further, using the new thresholds to create the appearance of a large drop in absolute numbers.

By the way, how much is 29 rupees–the poverty threshold in urban areas? About 57 Canadian cents, at today’s exchange rates! So according, to the Indian government, an Indian living in an urban area can earn only 58% of the one dollar/day threshold and still not be considered as officially living in poverty!! Yikes!

Gender and violence during and after India/Pakistan Partition 1947

In a recent post, I made reference to a fascinating and very informative BBC documentary that deals with the final days of British rule on the Indian subcontinent and the eventual partition of that territory in 1947 into a Muslim-dominated Pakistan (east and west) and a Hindu-dominated India.  In part four of the documentary an elderly Sikh gentleman from the Punjab region tells the harrowing tale of how his female relatives were the victims of brutal violence. Many scholars have argued that the ethnicization of the violence that accompanied the Partition obscure the fact that women bore the brunt of the violence.  In a recent paper, Richard Lee writes about the gendered nature of the violence:

Women were arguably the worst victims of the Partition of India in 1947 and endured displacement, violence, abduction, prostitution, mutilation, and rape. However, on reading histories of the division of India, one finds that the life-stories of women are often elided, and that there is an unwillingness to address the atrocities of 1947. This reticence results partly from the desires of the Indian and Pakistani governments to portray the events as freak occurrences with no place in their modern nations. Literature can play an important role in interrupting state-managed histories, and ‘The Rebirth of Inherited Memories’ focuses upon the manner in which Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers (2001) unsettles official versions of Partition. It examines how the novel acts as a counterpoint to ‘national’ accounts of 1947 through its depiction of the gendered nature of much of the violence, and it explores Baldwin’s representation of the elusive concept of ‘body memory’. The possibility of remembrances being passed on physically, or born within people, has found support in the eschatologies of Eastern religions, in Western psychological theories, and in recent scientific investigations into the ‘mind-body’ problem. The transmission of ‘body memories’ between generations serves to disrupt accounts that downplay the brutalities at the splitting of India. This paper draws upon a chapter of my doctoral thesis that investigates issues of memory and the enduring influence of Partition in South Asia.

The Partition of India in 1947

The importance of international borders can not be overstated. Despite predictions that the combined forces of globalization would undermine the importance and political meaning of borders, the territorially-defined state remains the world’s predominant form of political organization. As multi-national empires/states collapse, much of the violence that ensues is the result of efforts to draw and redraw what had once been internal borders. Here is a fascinating documentary about the partition of the Indian sub-continent, into India and Pakistan. The narrator observes:

As a British barrister draws a line on a map, the once peaceful land implodes. People are forced out of the villages they have lived in for generations. Fifteen million scramble to be on the right side of the border. At least one million die in the process.


The Age of Global (In)equality?

Many of the readings from Chapter 9 of O’Neil’s Essential Readings address the issue of global divergence/convergence in economic growth and/or inequality over the last few decades (and even further back than that–i.e., the Pritchett reading). The question comes down to whether there has been more or less inequality over time. Which is it? Well, the answer depends to a large extent on how one chooses to measure inequality. I’ll begin my response to this by quoting a student’s e-mail I received earlier today:

Hello, below is a link to a video showing one aspect or area of convergence.

I don’t know if I agree that countries are converging in regards to wealth and health; after all, Africa still seems very far behind.  I general, yes, countries today are healthier (longer life spans) and wealthier (not looking at inequality) than they were 200 years ago…

…For our purposes, what is the meaning of convergence and divergence?  From Pritchett, he seems to be measuring growth in terms of GDP and concluding that there is divergence between developed and developing nations (i.e. the levels of growth are not coming together, but separating).  What about China and India, who experienced faster or “larger growth” than some developed nations in the 80’s to mid 90’s?  Then with Milanovic, he is talking about inequality – how it is decreasing at the world level (when Indian and China are included) and this shows convergence.  To me, O’Neil seems to be trying to present two sides of an issue; however, I see two separate issues.  One is divergence in economic growth and the other is convergence in equality. I suppose that China’s and India’s economic growth can explain or at least correlate to lower inequality at the world level, but is that the correct way of interpreting Milanovic?  Is he saying that there’s a convergence of equality (or lower inequality gap worldwide), because countries (when including China and India) are converging in regards to economic growth?

Thank you.

This student is essentially correct in his reading of the respective arguments. As I mentioned earlier, which view one takes on the question of the recent direction of inequality convergence/divergence depends upon how one chooses to measure inequality. To put it differently, it depends upon whether your unit-of-analysis is the country or the individual. A Gini Index score that is calculated on the basis of mean levels of national income (or wealth) may not be the same as one calculated on the basis of comparing the wealth of individuals worldwide. In fact, Milanovic tells us that the values are indeed different, and the difference is due mainly to what has happened in China and India over the last two decades or so.


India–an “exceptional” Country with Democratic Deficit

In comparative politics, there are two countries that are truly exceptional–the USA and India.  By “exceptional”, I mean just that; they are both exceptions to general rules that have solid support, empirically and theoretically.  For example, when looking cross-nationally there is a strong negative relationship between religiosity and economic development.  That is, the richer a country, the less religious (ceteris paribus) are its residents.  Except for the United States.  The USA is exceptional in many regards; i.e., it doesn’t behave like all other advanced industrial democracies.

India is also exceptional, but in different ways from the US.  For example, there is strong support for hypotheses about democracy and social (ethnic/religious) heteroeneity, which suggest that there is no way that India should still be (after more than 60 years) a fairly well functioning democracy.  Many observers keep waiting for the other shoe to drop as India’s democracy has lurched from crisis-to-crisis, and has to contend with endemic levels of corruption, particularly in its judiciary (as we see in this excerpted report–written by the Asian Human Rights Commission and which I found at the Human Security Gateway, a great source for information about security issues in world politics).  Somehow, though, India’s democracy hangs on.

By recommending the impeachment of a High Court judge, the Chief Justice of India has revived a dead debate concerning the Indian judiciary. On August 2, 2008 in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice recommended the impeachment of judge Soumitra Sen of Calcutta High Court. Judge Sen is accused of having been involved in financial misappropriation before he was appointed as a judge. It is reported that in 1984 while judge Sen was practising as a lawyer he was appointed as the receiver in a dispute concerning the Steel Authority of India. It is alleged that in the capacity of the receiver he misappropriated a sum of INR 2,500,000 [USD 59523], which judge Sen reportedly paid back on orders from the court. Later, he was appointed a judge at the Calcutta High Court in 2003. A judge accused of corruption facing impeachment, a process by which a sitting judge could be removed from service in India, is nothing special. A corrupt public servant is not worthy of continuing in service and is least desirable to serve as a judge in a court of law, a public office that demands scrupulous impartiality and untainted personality. Anyone accused of a crime must be prosecuted and the crime investigated into. The fact that the accused is a judge must not provide the person with any immunity. Judge Sen being the first person recommended for impeachment by a Chief Justice of India does not mean that the judiciary is immune from corruption and other vicious practices. There are similar allegations against some judges in India. But not a single judicial officer was impeached so far. The only exception was the case of judge V. Ramaswami who faced impeachment in 1991, an attempt that failed due to the absence of a political consensus. It is expected that history will not be repeated. If it is repeated it would be a shame upon the Indian judiciary and its accountability. The accountability of judges, particularly in the context of increasing allegations of malpractices resorted to by judges is a grave concern in India. As of now there is no open process for the selection, promotion and if required the dismissal of High Court or Supreme Court judges in the country. The entire process is retained within the whims of the Supreme Court. All attempts so far to enforce accountability on the judiciary were vetoed by the judiciary itself. There is also the absence of a political consensus over this issue.

The Relationship Between Wealth and Health

The BBC reports on fascinating new research, which concludes that “economic growth does not necessarily translate into improvements in child mortality.” There are two points I wish to make about this: First, it illustrates an important trend in the development literature regarding the correct metric to use to determine, and compare, levels of well-being worldwide. Historically, well-being has been captured by the crude instrument of Gross National Product (GDP) per capita, but the realization that, for many reasons, the measure was too crude to be a satisfactory indicator of well-being development led to the introduction of other measures, the most useful of which is the Human Development Index (HDI) put out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). (Why might GDP per capita be a misleading indicator of well-being?)

The second point follows from the first; one’s policy prescriptions vis-a-vis issues of development are to a large extent determined by just which indicator of well-being one believes best captures the essential nature of that elusive concept. As such, IGOs such as the World Bank, have focused attention on overall economic growth, while scholars such as Amartya Sen (who champions the “capabilities approach”) do not view growth tout court as a magical anti-poverty elixir.

From the BBC article:

Ten million children still die every year before their fifth birthday, 99% of them in the developing world, according to Save the Children.

A study comparing economic performance with child mortality reveals that some countries have not translated wealth into improvements across society.

Survival is too often just a “lottery”, said Save the Children’s David Mepham.

He said that even the poorest countries can cut child mortality by following simple policies, but at the moment “a child’s chance of making it to its fifth birthday depends on the country or community it is born into”.

Lagging behind

Angola comes at the bottom of a new “Wealth and Survival” league table drawn up by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The figures for child mortality in India are shocking
Shireen Miller
Save the children India

There are few countries in the world where there are such stark wealth contrasts as there are between the wealth of oil-rich coastal strip around the Angolan capital Luanda, and the war-ravaged interior.

UNDP statisticians calculate that more than half of the babies who die in Angola could be saved were the country to spread its wealth more fairly.


Click on the map to be taken to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Magazine for an article on child mortality.

[Each orange dot is equivalent to 5,000 child deaths.]


Globalization, Economic Development and Indentured Servitude

We will be addressing the topic of globalization later in the semester and will be viewing this video on the use of what amounts to slave labor in the silk industry in India.

I found this on the Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery website.

Human Trafficking Website 2007-2008. Country by country reports of human trafficking, modern day slavery, contemporary slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, forced labor, forced marriage, transferring of wives, inheritance of wives, and transfer of a child for purposes of exploitation.