A report from the World Bank, released this week, has confirmed what had intuitively been known all along: the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown have pushed millions of Indians into poverty. According to a telephonic survey across 10 States, poor households said they expected to lose around 60 per cent of their average monthly income following the imposition of the nationwide lockdown. Given that these households were living an already tenuous hand-to-mouth existence before the pandemic, this would have pushed them over the edge, the World Bank report noted.
The fear is that this grim development, the consequence of a ‘black swan’ event of epic global proportions, may have effectively reversed the gains made in the war on poverty over two whole decades. That progress was indeed striking, which the World Bank’s data — as reflected relative to an internationally-defined poverty line — established. The good work on that front, however, had already begun to fray at the edges somewhat, given the stresses in the economy in the past couple of years leading up to the pandemic. There were abundant warning signals of this — the agrarian crisis, and the sharp rise in unemployment levels — although, paradoxically, policymakers were somewhat loath to admit it.
Escaping from poverty is in many ways like running up a downward-moving escalator: it takes all the running just to stay in the same place. And when a life-shaping event, such as the pandemic, comes along, it has the capacity to drag the poorest communities deeper into the slough of despond. Of short-term palliative measures to ease the immediate impact, the government has offered several. However, the bigger challenge is to implement the life-transformative policy initiatives that will lift millions back out of poverty. The first step towards that, though, is an honest acknowledgement of the gravity of the problem and of the underlying reasons that keep millions of Indians are on a slippery slope from escaping the clutches of poverty.