GG 2002 Regional Geography of South Asia and the Himalayas

7: Inequality and Poverty in India

The historical legacy

At the time of independence, India was characterised by deeply entrenched social hierarchies, defined by caste, gender, region and religion. The feudal zamindari system divided rural society into three broad classes: landlords (zamindars), tenant farmers, and landless labourers. Women, Untouchables, and tribal peoples were excluded from decision-making at both regional and national levels. The new government of India set the goals of unifying the nation, building industry, promoting economic growth, and in the course of these, reducing inequality and poverty. (This is a ‘trickle-down’ model of development) To what extent has it succeeded?

Trends in poverty

In India, the poverty line is defined as an income sufficient to buy food providing 2,400 calories (rural) and 2,100 calories (urban), plus 20% of that amount for other basic needs. During the 1950s - 1970s, the percentage defined as below this line fluctuated around 50% of the population. Since that time, there has been some decline but even in the early 1990s it stood at over 30% for both rural and urban populations. These rates do not apply equally to all sectors of society. Poverty is especially pronounced among the Scheduled castes and tribes, and among agricultural labourers. There is also a growing class of urban poor, economic refugees seeking an income in the city and finding themselves with no job or housing. Beggars are still very common, and provide the western visitor with their most disturbing images of India. Inequalities in India are not only very widespread: they are very visible, with beggars living on the pavements outside luxury hotels.

Aspects of the problem


India is one of the most populous nations on Earth, with around 15% of the global population. Population increase since 1960 is alarming:

Is India simply too populous? Poverty has existed in India for generations, at times when the population was far less than today. It is clear that the problem lies not so much with the numbers of people as the distribution of wealth and access to opportunities. Nevertheless, the growth rate of India’s population is still high: 1.68%. This rate is falling as birth rates have declined more slowly than death rates. Trends of birth and death rates indicate that India is in Stage 3 of the Demographic Transition (slowing population growth).

The population of India is not expected to stabilise until the middle of this century, Various measures have been taken to limit the growth of India’s population, with the first government program being introduced in 1952. The most severe measures were implemented during the Emergency of 1975 - 1977. The Emergency was a suspension of democracy in India, prompted by the instability of the government, led by Indira Gandhi (daughter of Nehru). It followed a move by political opponents, with judicial support, to remove Mrs Gandhi from office for corruption. Gandhi responded by rejecting the judgement, and suspending both the constitution and the rule of law. A wave of persecution of political opponents followed, effectively by martial law. During the Emergency, the government launched a sterilisation program, largely aimed at the poor. Tactics ranged from bribery (e.g. the infamous "free transistor radio for sterilisation" program) to force. People were abducted from the shanties and forcibly sterilised. When the 19 month program ended with the end of the Emergency, the cause of family planning in India had been set back by years. Recent family planning initiatives in India have focused on education for women, and encouraging condom use. The latter has the additional benefit of limiting the spread of AIDs (currently an estimated 1 million cases in India). The population problem cannot be viewed in isolation, and is certainly not the primary cause of poverty. For these, we must look at the deeply ingrained inequalities in Indian society.

The Caste system

We have seen that the Caste system has been part of Hindu culture for thousands of years (Lecture 4). One of the effects of this system is to formalise discrimination against the lower castes, a problem that was (and still is, to some extent) most severe for the very lowest rung of society, the Untouchables. Much of the basis for this discrimination is connected to Hindi views of ‘unclean’ activities. Working with leather (tanning and shoemaking), cleaning toilets, clearing garbage, and trades such as oil pressing were regarded as ritually unclean, and would pollute those associated with them. (Similar attitudes towards death lay behind the custom of sati - or suttee - the ritual suicide of widows). Unclean trades were essential to society, but could not be part of the mainstream, so castes associated with these trades had to be isolated from society. Prior to independence, the number of people labelled as Untouchable accounted for perhaps 20% of the population of India. These people were subjected to severe limitations, and were excluded from temples, cremation grounds, wells, and other public utilities. Social prejudices excluded them from barber shops, restaurants, and hotels. In some areas, even the sight of some Untouchables was regarded polluting, and they were only allowed out of their houses at night, and banned from living within half a mile of a village. Despite the discouragement of British rulers, in some areas, the caste system was expanding in the early 20th C. In one area, new restrictions imposed in 1930s, prohibited Untouchables from wearing gold and silver, prevented males from wearing coats, shirts, sandals, or carrying umbrellas, and prevented women from wearing flowers or cutting their hair, and banning literacy.

Gandhi opposed Untouchability, naming them ‘Harijan’ or ‘Children of God’. After independence, Congress embarked on a widespread series of reforms, introducing preferential treatment. The 1955 Untouchability Act declared Untouchability illegal. Untouchables were grouped with Scheduled Tribes, and given reserved seats in central and state legislature , a quota of about 12% of higher-level civil service posts. They were also exempt from payment of education fees, given hostel accommodation and scholarships, special land allotments, access to housing, health care and legal aid. However, in practice, the reservation of higher education places had little impact because of the low level of basic education. Deep prejudices remained, and children from ‘Untouchable’ families were excluded from schools, or ignored if they were allowed to attend. By the 1960s, the Scheduled caste literacy rate was still only 30% of that for the nation as a whole. Lack of education is also perpetuated by economic necessity: the need for children to earn income limits the hours available for education. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that village healthcare is denied to the Scheduled castes, because high caste Hindu health workers refuse to enter their homes. Thus, those from the scheduled castes still tend to remain in poorly paid and ‘unclean’ occupations.

Inequalities in landholding and property

As we have seen, poverty is particularly widespread among landless agricultural labourers and their dependents. At Independence, India had a large population of landless poor in rural areas, and set about an ambitious program of land reform. National and State laws were introduced to limit the size of family holdings, and to protect the rights of tenant farmers. Progress was rapid at first, but has slowed considerably. Corruption at a local level ensured that much land was not in fact transferred. For some who did acquire land, the benefits were short-lived. Loans for capital improvements and inputs are often secured by land, which was forfeit if repayments were not made. The main benefits accrued to farmers with small to medium holdings, who gained at the expense of large landowners, and little benefit has accrued to the poorest. Another example of perpetuating inequalities is given by the Green Revolution. This was a transformation in agricultural practices that occurred in 1967-1978, associated with the expansion of area under agriculture, double cropping, and the introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of staple foodstuffs such as rice, wheat, and maize. India enthusiastically embraced the Green Revolution, as part of its move to ensure food security after Independence. (A severe famine had occurred in Bengal under British rule, in 1943, when 4 million people died of hunger). In material terms, the Green Revolution was very successful: yields increased dramatically. However, these benefits mainly went to the larger landowners. HYVs require greater inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, which the poor could not afford. This problem was exacerbated by the high rates of interest demanded by rural moneylenders in India. Pesticides have also created environmental problems. Additionally, the greater mechanisation of agriculture actually reduced the number of labouring jobs in some areas, making the landless even less secure. Thus, while the Green Revolution has resulted in benefits for some, it has also tended to increase inequalities in many areas. Plenty of food is available in India: in most parts of the country, the markets are well stocked with produce. Malnutrition is caused by a lack of ability to grow or purchase food.

Gender inequality

Discrimination against girls and women is widespread in India, in both Hindu and Muslim communities. The dowry system (payment of money or goods by the family of a bride) means that girls are a financial burden, whereas boys are viewed as a source of income and prosperity. Nationwide, girls are fed less and taken to doctors less frequently, so mortality is greater. Death in childbirth is also unacceptably high: maternal death rates are over 0.5% of births. Education is also less available to women, and as a result, literacy rates are lower: nationally, literacy rates are 64% for males, but only 39% for women. In the poorer states, female literacy may be less than 25%. As a result, the level of opportunity for women is low. Lack of female education and power has been linked to high birth rates and population increase in the developing world. Recent government and international sponsored aid programs aim at improving education and economic opportunities for women, in the hope that more equitable development will result in an alleviation of poverty and a slowing of population increase.

Concluding remarks

After 50 years of Independence, India has made great progress. Significant industrial and economic development has been made, and the country is now much closer to self-sufficiency than ever before. India has a rapidly expanding middle class, with unprecedented access to goods and opportunity. Nevertheless, inequality is still very much a fact of life in India, largely a result of deep-rooted social and economic structures that perpetuate privilege and limit opportunities for the poor. The degree to which poverty and inequality have been addressed varies between regions. In the southern state of Kerala (which has a communist administration) is one of the most egalitarian, with high rates of literacy among both men and women. In contrast, the north-eastern state of Orissa lags far behind, partly a legacy of the Bengali zaminadari system perpetuated by the British. Nationwide, despite the radical programs of land reforms and preferential treatment of the Scheduled castes, those in power have proved unwilling to transfer wealth or opportunity at their own expense. Major priorities for the future include: reforms of money-lending, especially in rural areas, to break the cycle of poverty and debt continuing breakdown of the worst excesses of the caste system continuing to ensure security of tenure, and improving the education and opportunities for women.


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