On the Real Poverty in South Asia

By Anjum Altaf

Reflecting on the official pronouncements of poverty in South Asia reminds me of the Marx Brothers saying: ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’

There are two kinds of poverty: monetary poverty and intellectual poverty. Together, I will argue, they make for a lethal combination.

The monetary and physical poverty in South Asia is undeniable; the controversies relate only to the few percentage points it might be above or below what is clearly an unacceptably high base level. The intellectual poverty is a more subtle phenomenon that, in my view, comes in the way of appropriately addressing the physical poverty.

Let me illustrate the existence of intellectual poverty in South Asia via an analogy that might help set up the discussion. People rush into places that have something rich to offer; if they can, people rush out of places that are impoverished. What do outsiders come to savor and learn in South Asia? Among other things, its aesthetics (music and dance), its spiritualism (yoga and sufism), and its cuisine. No one comes to South Asia to learn the theory or the methodology of any of the social sciences.

Why is that the case? It is because South Asian aesthetics, spiritualism and cuisine are unbroken indigenous traditions that remain alive today. In the social sciences, all that is left are great names, unfamiliar to most, from a history that is dead; the traditions that existed were swept aside or under by the interregnum of colonization.

The theories and methodologies of social science that are alive today were developed and are refined outside South Asia. Smart South Asians, and there are many, either leave South Asia to learn them abroad or learn them second-hand in India.

Consider just one example: the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, is justly famous for his theory of justice and although he speaks of niti and nyaya, he places himself squarely in the line of thinkers that stretches from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Sen. His theory challenges an alternative formulation that derives from Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls. Surely there are indigenous South Asian theories of justice but they are not part of a tradition that is alive in academia.

Is that a problem? Yes, in my view, because thinking is different from producing. All the high-tech things are designed in the West and manufactured in the South but that works because most products are shipped back to be consumed in the West as well. But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little incentive producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.

Theories emerge from the experience of the West; most of those we work with are products of the European Enlightenment and their subsequent modifications. These theories are then universalized and applied in other places. But a theory determines what data we look for in the application; it is not the raw data from the locale of the application that yields the theory.

Take Marxism and feudalism as examples. How much effort has been devoted to identifying kulaks, middle-peasants, and feudals in the South Asian countryside and with what results?

This brings us back to poverty. The prevalent approach to poverty alleviation – identifying the poor with a poverty line, targeting them through means-testing, and distributing welfare support through agents of the state, is relevant in places where the poor are a small proportion of the total population, where most transactions are negotiated through the market, where the agents of the state are not themselves poor, and where the institutions of the state are credible and robust.

This approach is ill-suited for places where the conditions are quite the opposite: the majority of the population is poor, there are many non-market transactions, state agents themselves are poor, and the institutions of the state are weak. Identifying the poor, means-testing them, and getting public support to them results in about Rs. 15 reaching the poor out of every Rs. 100 intended for them.

Asides from the vast corruption engendered by this approach, it creates social tensions by dividing the poor and the almost-poor, sets up perverse incentives for households and groups to be identified as poor, and is financially untenable. Seriously addressing poverty on this scale via welfare payments would surely bankrupt the economy.

Once again, an analogy might help. The treatment for an incipient cancer is not the same as that for one that has spread throughout the body. It has to be radically different. This is obvious to all. Why is not so in the case of poverty alleviation? The one answer I can think of is because we have been blinded by borrowed remedies, have not thought of them ourselves, and have marginalized those who do have indigenous wisdom to offer.

When Montek Singh Ahluwalia defends the Indian poverty lines of Rs. 26 and Rs. 32 per capita per day, he is technically correct. The universally employed poverty line is $1.50 per capita per day; converted at purchasing power parity it would yield the figures offered by the Indian Planning Commission. But these lines are good only to track, if one so desires, the number of individuals or the percentage of the population below them. They have no bearing on the appropriateness of a poverty alleviation strategy. For the latter, the percentage of the population that is poor, much like the spread of cancerous cells in a body, is of much more relevance.

If one thinks about it, even the simple counting could be problematic. If the number of individuals below these poverty lines are decreasing over time what is the assurance that they have been lifted out of poverty? Many might simply be dying early at this level of bare sustenance. Unless someone can provide data for income-specific life expectancies and rates of mortality, I would be justified in remaining skeptical of the official claims.

How have we arrived at the point where a man of Mr. Singh’s qualifications and credentials is seriously suggesting a survival proposition that any illiterate child would tell him cannot be true? Is it because the illiterate child is looking at India through his own eyes while Mr. Singh is looking at it through the eyes of others?

Therein might lie the real story of South Asian poverty.


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16 Responses to “On the Real Poverty in South Asia”

  1. Vijay Vikram Says:


    A compelling argument and one that I endorse.

    What I would like to say is that the road to intellectual self-emancipation for the colonised Subcontinental soul passes through the West. It is just a pity that most humans who travel on that road end up swallowing wholesale the reigning delusions of the West and don’t quite complete the journey.

    It would be foolish of us to think that we can transcend the West. The West is world-historical and the intellectual history of the West now forms part of the intellectual heritage of human collectivities everywhere. Thus, the process of ideational decolonisation is a creative one. It requires us to pick and choose.

    Perhaps we can take some politically-incorrect inspiration from Sayyid Qutb and the Conservative Revolutionaries of Weimar Germany. Both argued (I simplify) that Anglo-Saxon Modernity is composed of two strands: Physical and Philosophical. Whilst the former is to be embraced, the latter must be rejected decisively.

    This is an admittedly stark dichotomy and there are strands of Western European philosophical modernity that I would not be hostile to. Still, there is something to be said for the above approach.

    As I have mentioned on this blog previously, the most exciting practical manifestation of this intellectual syncretism is taking place in China with its model of Market Authoritarianism. As Slavoj Zizek argues, “Capitalism with Asian values” might well turn out to be more dynamic than its Western counterpart (http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2011/10/2011102813360731764.html?utm_content=automateplus&utm_campaign=Trial6&utm_source=SocialFlow&utm_medium=MasterAccount&utm_term=tweets).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vijay: I agree. It is not an issue of transcending the West or being hostile to it. Rather, it is to stress that all knowledge, models and worldviews are contextual. To assume uncritically that the models are universal is at the bottom of many of our problems. An illustrative example pertains to democracy. One hears all the time learned people lamenting that political parties in Pakistan are personal dynastic fiefdoms. This is labeled as an unfortunate problem to be fixed in accordance with a normative model that refers to Westminster. This, in my view, is an upside-down approach. What is needed is an analysis of the socioeconomic context that gives rise repeatedly to personal dynastic fiefdoms and to arrive at modes of governance that are compatible with that reality.

      I am not a fan of the market authoritarianism but I do agree that there is a lot less derivative thinking in China compared to South Asia. I see a constant search for the best global ideas and practices which are then adapted to the local conditions, carefully tested through pilot experiments (a big change since the 1980s), and then implemented after the kinks are worked out.

  2. Vikram Says:

    The diagnosis of the problem seems correct and there isnt much to disagree with you there.

    However, I am skeptical about attributing the current scenario solely to colonial rule. For example, you say,
    “But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little *incentive* producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.”

    I think the issue here might be more environment than incentive. Not producing theories that are rooted in South Asian traditions might have happened because the institutional arrangements that enable scholars to produce such theories are either absent or in a poor state. As an example, consider higher technical education in India. There was no indigenous tradition of such education that I am aware of, but the state invested heavily in creating institutions (modeled of course on institutions in the West, but with indigenous elements as well, think for example of the JEE) and the standard of technical education in India today is in general better than it was in 1950.

    I dont think one can explain the intellectual poverty that you have so correctly identified without taking into account institutional poverty of higher education in India.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Could it be that the institutional poverty of higher education itself results from an uncritical attitude towards higher education. The best institutions are supposed to be carbon copies of Harvard and MIT and everything else is second best for those who don’t make it to the former. The institutions are not really geared to understanding, let alone addressing, the overwhelming needs of the Indian majority. The needs that are considered salient are themselves derived from a borrowed model of modernization.

      • Vikram Says:

        “Could it be that the institutional poverty of higher education itself results from an uncritical attitude towards higher education.”

        I think to answer that question we need to consult folks who have considerable experience in Indian academia. The reasons might be very complex. Among the factors I can remember, caste politics within institutions, the lack of appropriate mechanisms to enable academicians affect policy and generally sub-par leadership in the administration stand out.

        Let me also point out that in the case of India, it is only the MIT-Caltech model that has been borrowed and not the Harvard or the American public universities one. This distinction is very important. If there was indeed a Harvard or even a UC Berkeley in India, chances are that Amartya Sen would have stayed in India and even worked on more native intellectual traditions.

        Also since we are talking about higher education, can you point me to an alternate (and successful) model of higher education other than the Western one ? I am not saying that would make the Western one the automatic choice, just want to see what successful alternatives actually exist out there.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: Politics, lack of appropriate mechanisms, and sub-par leadership are common features of institutions in South Asia, whether the latter are borrowed or indigenous. So we can ignore them in the discussion and focus exclusively on the orientation of the institutions. It is true that in structural and organizational terms institutions would look similar to one another across regions. What one has to see is whether and how they are organic to the societies in which they are located. MIT is very organic to the US but if one were to locate its clone in India and orient it outwards, it would be much less organic to India. The issue we have to debate from the ground up is what kind of education system does India need. I don’t think we have debated that sufficiently keeping in view the interests of the majority of Indian citizens.

          The Western system of education looks uniform but in actual fact the structures are quite different in the US and Europe and even within individual countries in Europe. Each of them reflects some continuities with their specific traditions. Another system we might look at (I don’t have enough knowledge of it at this time) is the one in China. There is a very long tradition of bureaucrats in China being produced by this system. This is to be contrasted with South Asia where the bureaucrats with the highest cachet are the products of Oxbridge. Does this make a difference in how the elites relate to the rest of society?

          • Vikram Says:

            I think we can give this discussion more focus by sticking to the question of what kind of higher education systems might be appropriate for India. Perhaps a separate post on that matter might help the debate, I could try and write one if thats ok.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: That would be a very worthwhile post and should generate a much needed discussion. Thanks for the initiative.

  3. Vijay Vikram Says:

    On the topic of reviving/engaging with non-Western, native traditions, allow me to mention Rajiv Malhotra’s new book, “Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism” (http://www.harpercollins.co.in/BookDetail.asp?Book_Code=2845)

    Malhotra is an education activist in the US who works towards increasing the study of Indic-Dharmic intellectual traditions in American higher education institutions.

    I have yet to develop any real intellectual curiosity for Indic traditions. But I will soon begin work on a project to theorise non-Western political modernity. So, I will try to read his book.

    Malhotra is on a lecture tour in India at the moment, so if any of the readers happen to be in those neck of the woods, they should consider attending one of his lectures (http://centreright.in/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/rajiv-malhotra.pdf)

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vijay: We don’t really have to go looking for “native-native” intellectual traditions although that too should be an academic activity. There were many intellectual streams that were marginalized because they were considered out-of-tune with the modernizing sentiment or the modernizing persona. Gandhi’s ideas about history, development, governance and secularism were a lot more indigenous but were swept away so easily as being absurd and quirky. For Gandhi’s ideas on secularism, see Akeel Blgrami’s essay archived in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog – it is #79 or 80. A fascinating book to read is on Maulana Madani by Barbara Metcalfe. It has a much more indigenous (and sophisticated, in my view) argument for secularism in undivided India from inside the Islamic tradition – something still considered an impossibility. It never got a serious intellectual hearing compared to the completely borrowed understandings of the modernizers like Nehru and Jinnah who were the representatives of Macaulay’s native elite.

  4. Narmeen Hamid Says:

    I endorse what you have written and have a personal account to illustrate it. Obviously what you write for economics or poverty lines holds equally true for other disciplines as well. I have been trying now for the past two years to carry out a research study on higher education of women in Pakistan with a view to develop an alternate, indigenous model of women empowerment for our part of the world, but the obstacles I have come across in getting funding find answers in your article. The ‘funders’ are simply not interested in issues that have relevance only for us. And unless we pursue these issues, we keep aping the west or recycling their theories. I applied to many foreign donors, universities and foundations. All said ‘wonderful idea, but sorry no funds’. Local NGOs do exist but their research funding is also foreign and therefore driven by what is considered relevant by the latter.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Narmeen: There is a dilemma here. Foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers are private, for-profit firms. It is understandable if they don’t invest in drugs consumed by people who are unable to pay. Foreign aid agencies are public, not-for-profit organizations that are ostensibly concerned with the development of the recipient societies. There is less of an excuse if they shy away from issues that are relevant for the latter. Still, the organization that provides the funds is within its rights to specify what the money is used for. It is really the responsibility of the recipient states to realize the importance of investment in understanding the dynamics of their own societies and not to leave it to the charity of external donors. Alternatively, the research proposals should be such that they couch their objectives in the frameworks that are favored by the donors. It is a second-best option but one can piggyback an incremental module on a more conventional product.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    A new report from the OECD says that income inequality has doubled in India in 20 years and 42% of its population lives below $1.25 a day.

    “Inequality in earnings has doubled in India over the past two decades, a new report says, making it one of the worst performers among emerging economies.”


  6. { Brown Pundits } » The Changing World of Urdu Says:

    […] Also from the same weblog “On the Real Poverty in South Asia“. […]

  7. SouthAsian Says:

    In India, It is back to measurement issues. There is still no consensus on how to get a credible poverty line:


  8. SouthAsian Says:

    Amartya Sen talks about his new book: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.


    “Your book speaks of the deep deprivations India still has. Does it surprise you then that many economists are currently questioning whether we should be spending on basic entitlements?

    “No, I am not surprised. In defence of a position with which I am not in agreement, those who are against entitlements or what is called redistribution, their main argument is that the process of growth would be much faster if we didn’t do it now, and then once we have grown, we can do it very quickly. I can understand what the thinking is at an analytical level. The fact that there isn’t a single example of any country in the world which has developed education and healthcare way after they became rich makes me think that the empirical presumptions behind that theory may not be very strong… The fact that there are lots of examples — Europe, America, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan — of the opposite, namely that they do education and healthcare and their growth rate goes up and they can do very well, makes me think that the connection we are focussing on is empirically more solidly grounded. I don’t think there’s anything evil or nasty about taking the other view. I do happen to think that it’s mistaken.”

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