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Living on less than half a dollar per day in India

India boasts the world’s fifth largest economy, but also has the largest number of hungry people in the world – more than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Over 700 million Indians are food insecure, despite levels of growth in the economy of almost 9 per cent and bumper harvests. But even when warehouses are full, the food fails to filter down to the poorest. Earlier this year, India’s Supreme Court chided the authorities that India’s hungry were still not being fed.

Now many in India have reacted to a statement from the country’s Planning Commission that half a dollar each day should be “adequate” for a villager to live on. This statement comes as the government looks into how the number of poor in India should be calculated. Currently, up to 500 million Indians (37 per cent of India’s more than 1.225 billion people) are officially said to be living ‘below the poverty line’. But where should the poverty line be set?

The Planning Commission told India’s Supreme Court that an individual income of 52 cents per day (25 rupees) should be enough for “private expenditure on food, education and health” in rural villages. In the cities, the figure was put at 66 cents (32 rupees) per day. These figures came in response to the Supreme Court’s directive that India needed to raise its poverty line because of rising food prices. Many social experts believe income definitions for the poor are too low when inflation is running close to 10 per cent.

India has four ministries which oversee 22 programmes to alleviate hunger and poverty across the country. One of these programmes is the public distribution scheme of subsidised food for the poor. This scheme provides low-cost food to those living below the poverty line and earlier this year, the government approved a draft law to extend the scheme to more poor families. Regional officials have been tasked with ensuring improvements are made in the distribution of food and corruption is reduced. In the past, much of the grain meant for the poorest has been siphoned off and in May, a World Bank report concluded India’s programmes to feed the poor were simply not working.

In response to latest statement from the Planning Commission, activists in India, including prominent campaigners such as Aruna Roy, are challenging the head of the planning body to put his claim to the test. They want him and his committee members to live on 25 or 32 rupees each day and prove it is possible to survive ‘adequately’ on such an amount. If the committee members are unwilling to do so or unable to substantiate it is indeed possible, the activists say they should resign. 

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