“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity but an act of justice.” As we celebrate 75 years of independence, Nelson Mandela’s words carry more heft than ever before.
Since 1947, India has made great strides in health, industry, scientific achievements, and poverty alleviation. But even though we pulled 140 million out of poverty between 2004 and 2011, we are still not close to fulfilling our tryst with destiny.
The recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic pushed 75 million more people in India into poverty last year.
The continuing poverty can be attributed to four factors: the deceleration in India’s GDP between 2017 and 20201; the spike in joblessness during 2017-18, when unemployment touched a 45-year high; a depression in consumer expenditure with stagnating or declining wages; and the pandemic, which destroyed non-farm employment and sent millions back to villages, seeking MGNREGA work at minimum wages.
The 2020 UNDP Human Development Report added little cheer; India was down two places at 131.
Read in conjunction with the data from the first phase of the Fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5), which reflects a decline in nutritional status of children under 5 years, it seems that the slow economic growth rate has not allowed India’s poor families enough income to afford nutritious food for children.
India’s war on poverty needs more than just policy support.
India experienced one of the largest Covid-19 outbreaks in the world and a devastating second wave, but economic growth has been regaining momentum over the past few months, as seen through the pick-up in important macroeconomic indicators such as employment and consumer sentiment.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, the month of September 2021 alone saw as many as 85 lakh new jobs.5
Increasing globalization and the liberal economic policies introduced by the government over the years have created jobs and livelihood opportunities, resulting in upward mobility for more than 300 million Indians, who crossed over from poverty into the middle class.
However, a closer examination of data on extreme poverty indicators shows that, by and large, globalization and government policies have benefited only those communities that have at least the basic level of health, education and essential facilities necessary for participating in economic activities.
There are millions other Indians who are currently bereft of such services and have no means of rising above poverty. This is an area where non-profits and civil society organizations can become agents of change.
Large-scale developmental programmes can succeed best through collaboration and partnerships
We have seen how, over the years, the integrated, community-based initiatives of many of India’s leading philanthropic institutions like Tata Trusts and Azim Premji Foundation have succeeded in increasing the income of agrarian communities through improved farming practices and market linkages.
There are skill development programmes underway across the country, wherein government programs and the social sector are combining their capabilities to build industry-relevant skills among India’s underprivileged youth.
For instance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with Central Square Foundation, which works to improve the quality of education for low-income students by supporting State governments in improving foundational literacy and numeracy outcomes, amplified through technology.
Philanthropic efforts towards skill-building, entrepreneurship and livelihoods can build vibrancy and industry-readiness amongst the youth and bring the poor into the fold of economic development.
It is unreasonable to expect that any one of the government or the industry or civil society could, by themselves, provide the capital and the human resources required to achieve inclusive socioeconomic development for the nation. Development goals as daunting as the ones facing India are best achieved through concerted efforts between multiple stakeholders.
Philanthropy can be the catalyst for innovation and action, while markets and governments can bring the much-needed scale to these on-ground efforts. We have seen, on at least two occasions since India’s independence, that such models can be successful.
We can draw inspiration from the past as we plan for the future
First, we had the White Revolution, which successfully transformed India from a milk-deficient nation to a world leader in milk production.
The foundation for the White Revolution was laid with the government’s Intensive Cattle Development Program, which offered a package of improved animal husbandry to cattle owners.
But its success can also equally be attributed to the efforts of social entrepreneur Verghese Kurien, whose “billion litre idea” made dairy farming India's largest self-sustaining industry and the largest rural employment sector, ensuring livelihoods for 100 million dairy farmers.
Of these, 70 per cent were women and 69 per cent belonged to socioeconomically backward sections of society. Today, India’s dairy farmers are well-informed about efficient milk production technologies and their economics.
The other success story we can look up to is the eradication of polio.
India accounted for over 60 percent of global polio cases as recently as 2009. India was long considered one of the most difficult regions, geographically, to eradicate the disease.
However, the joint efforts of the Indian Government, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, and UNICEF did what none of them could have done alone.
The success of this programme has shown that anything is possible when relevant stakeholders come together and commit adequate resources and time to a common cause.
These are examples of population-scale socioeconomic transformations in a very short period of time—sometimes even in a decade or so.
We can learn from these large scale systemic changes and replicate their success in alleviating poverty through meaningful collaboration with all stakeholders.
Poverty alleviation needs to be approached from multiple fronts: improving the employability of India’s youth by training them in life skills, English language and essential workplace skills; enabling visibility, financing, and access to resources for nonprofits engaged in on-ground developmental work; incentivizing innovation at scale; building or rebuilding livelihoods for the poor and the underserved both in rural and urban contexts; and catalyzing partnerships with and within the government, the private sector, and non-profits for evidence-based programmes.
Making India poverty-free in our lifetime is not an impossible task. Lets’ commit our collective efforts and resources to making this a reality.
Sudha Srinivasan is the CEO of The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation. Views are personal