Poverty in India is extremely visible, even in the relatively sheltered environment of the study abroad program I have been in since I arrived here in August.
While we interact mostly with Indian college students and well-off host families, half-clothed children still follow me down the street, tapping my leg and asking for money. I walk home through neighborhoods where I can see into the one-room houses, lit by a lone light bulb at night.
I began to wonder what constitutes poverty in this country of extremes. In 2011, India lowered the poverty line to 28 rupees, or 56 cents, per day. I decided to find out what it means to spend only 28 rupees in a day.
First, it means a lot of walking. The walk from where I live to school is about 3 kilometers, and most mornings that distance is covered by rickshaw in about 10 minutes, costing only 13 rupees or 26 cents. But 26 rupees a day on rickshaws were a luxury I could not afford. I arrived at school out of breath from the walk, which I had not left quite enough time for, and breakfast was waiting. However, with 9 rupees to spend on each meal, all I could afford was a hard boiled egg and two miniature bananas (my only fruit of the day).
Through morning classes I felt no different than normal and was no more hungry than usual when I ate my chapatti and tomato for lunch. However, after lunch, I started to fade. I usually walk home but, having consumed only 636 calories, the walk home was much more tiring than usual. I ate my snack, a small package of Parle-G brand cookies, and crashed as soon as I got home. I slept for an hour and a half. When my roommate woke me up at 6:30 p.m., I was anxious for dinner, which would not be served until 8 p.m.
At this point, I contemplated discontinuing the project and breaking into the stash of candy my parents had sent from the U.S., but having promised to write this article, I held off until dinner. At dinner, what was set out, although no different from an ordinary dinner, looked like a feast — vegetables, chapatti, salad and rice and dal, which would be my meal. I wolfed down my 1.5 cups of rice and one ladle-full of dal. Although it filled me up for a while and I was able to get some work done, I went to bed two hours later hungry and dreaming of all the food I would eat the next day when I was no longer limiting myself to 28 rupees.
I learned several things — most predominantly that what they tell you in biology or health class about food being energy is true.
Without enough food, I didn’t have enough energy to accomplish my daily work, which is far less labor-intensive than the lifestyles of most people living below the poverty line. While I sat in class and wrote papers, people living on less than 28 rupees a day worked construction jobs, chased children, cooked, carried water from the community tap and many other tasks.
Living on the poverty line doesn’t necessarily mean less food, but less nutritious food. While it is possible to get 2,000 calories with 28 rupees by only eating rice and dal, I chose to eat a variety of foods, which only added up to 826 calories. It also contained only 6 percent of the recommended daily amount of iron, 3 percent of calcium, 32 percent vitamin A, 44 percent vitamin C and 24.7 grams of protein.
“This won’t be too difficult,” I thought when I started this project. “It’s not like I’m not eating at all.” I was most definitely wrong. I could barely make it through one day living on 28 rupees/day, and yet over 300 million Indians do every day. My experiment barely brushed the surface; I did not take into account any living expenses apart from food and transportation. I did not include in my 28 rupees the fact that I live in a nice house, live within walking distance of everywhere I need to go, have a bed and clothes and soap and did not have to save for medical expenses.
Is the solution to raise the poverty line? Not necessarily. While raising the poverty line would give those at the current poverty line access to more subsidies, it would also spread the country’s limited resources even more thinly as more people would qualify for government aid. International aid is not a sustainable solution either and industrial development is not guaranteed to reach the poorest section of the population.
The truth is that there is no easy solution to the problem of poverty in India. And there is no easy way for those of us with more than enough to eat to reconcile this with the poverty that surrounds us.