NEW DELHI — They squat like giant frogs to mop the floors. They carry large lanterns on their heads at wedding processions. With grave faces, they iron underwear that is not theirs, and serve their masters in many other ways. But there is something else that India’s poor do for the rich, something more complicated. That is why poverty is often top news in this great republic, as it has been over the past several days. Not because of its rarity or its power to shock — that is a laughable thought — but because the poor have a relentless and extraordinary influence on the rest.
Last week, the Indian government announced that it had good news. In the span of seven years starting in 2004, nearly 138 million Indians had ceased to be extremely poor. Not because they had died, but because they had risen above the poverty line, also known as the Tendulkar Line.
But there was no celebration. The poor did not appear to know of their great escape. As for the middle class and the mainstream news media, they reacted with anger. They denounced the news as deceit by statistics, and condemned, as they have before, the Tendulkar Line, which stands for a household expenditure of about 5,000 rupees, or $83, a month for an urban family of five, and even less in rural areas.
In defense of the government, a politician who was once an actor said he could enjoy a full meal in Mumbai for 12 rupees. Another politician, an avid golfer, said it was possible to eat for just 1 rupee — if an Indian “desired.” Another said 5 rupees would fetch a meal. There was much uproar from their political rivals, social activists and journalists. Yet another politician has set out to prove that he can have a meal for 20 rupees, angering the middle class even more.
A less clownish defense from within the government was that the Tendulkar Line, if adjusted for living costs in India, is roughly equal to the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25, which several nations have adopted.
India’s leading commentator on economics, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, wrote in his column that “the world,” in which he included “poverty specialists,” praised China when it claimed to have reduced the number of its extremely poor by 220 million between 1978 and 2004 using a definition of poverty that was lower than the Tendulkar Line, but that the Indian government’s success was being regarded with suspicion by development economists, talk show guests and other forms of intellectuals, who consider the Tendulkar Line an insult to India’s poor.
The poor would be moved if they only knew how much reverence the well-fed have for their condition, a sort of sacred plight that should not be defiled by charlatan statistics. In fact, the elite in India are deeply influenced, affected and shaped by the nation’s poverty.
At a fundamental level, it provides an affluent Indian with a moral direction, if not for himself then for the nation — end poverty — and an honorable reason to hold politicians in contempt — they have not ended poverty.
It also provides him with an indisputable reason to believe that he himself is privileged, a belief he abandons only with the shock of first setting foot in a prosperous nation. Every Indian in the upper reaches of society is, inescapably, a poverty-eradication thinker. His insurmountable problem is finding a competent authority to whom to delegate this task.
Yet, he is also a great beneficiary of the nation’s poverty. It may appear that he is part of a fiercely competitive society, but the fact is that, considering the odds he would face if every Indian were empowered, if every Indian child had eaten well and gone to a decent school, he has it easy. In almost every sphere of activity, men and women with limited talents can go very far because most Indians have never had the opportunities to fully challenge them.
In return, among other things, he has to endure the relentless stares of poverty.
The simplest signs of affluence can seem obscene in public. Is it arrogant to walk down a street in most neighborhoods eating Kentucky Fried Chicken? It probably is. In a large upper-middle-class settlement of Gurgaon, which is a part of the National Capital Region, parents dropping their children off at school almost always use their smaller, more modest cars. Apart from practical reasons, like the greater convenience of parking, they are also unnerved by the steady stares of idle men sitting on the walls, standing on the sidewalks. The well-to-do prefer to be inconspicuous when they leave their children in someone else’s care for hours.
Abject poverty also, inevitably, shapes the works of India’s economists, artists, journalists and curious people who make documentaries for a living. Until recently, India’s novelists and filmmakers complained that the outside world did not take them seriously if they were not portraying exotic Indian poverty. That grouse has since subsided as the bleeding hearts of the outside world have moved to new frontiers.
Not surprisingly, poverty is at the heart of Indian economics. For most of July, India’s news media joyously played host to a battle between the economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Mr. Sen restated his long-held conviction that investment in public health and education would, along with the benefits of a market economy, take India far. Mr. Bhagwati restated his own that India must focus primarily on economic growth, to give it the means to pay for social welfare.
Mr. Sen, in an interview, chuckled when he used an expression that is popular in India: “inclusive growth.”
I asked him why he found it funny.
“I don’t find it funny,” he said. “I find it somewhat redundant. Sustained economic growth and inclusive growth are not disparate.”
But somehow India has managed to separate the two. It is as if the nation did not really want the demise of poverty. For, after all, it is India’s most enduring heritage