Editorial: September 2010
Poverty is multi-dimensional: people can be poor with respect to a range of criteria-for instance, with respect to income, hunger, health, education, housing, access to means of sanitary living, and so on. Poverty is the enemy of human dignity.
Around 400 million Indians go to bed hungry every day. That India has the largest number of stunted, wasted and underweight children is a heart wrenching and thought provoking wake up call. It is a national shame. 8 Indian States account for more poor people than the 26 poorest African nations combined. The country has failed to distribute its economic wealth equally among all. 63 years after independence, a vast number of people are unable to have two square meals a day, while a small number of rich people are getting richer.
"Of all God's creatures, man alone is poor," remarked Thomas Carlyle. "The greatest threat to the stability of the entire world is hunger. It is more explosive than all the atomic weaponry possessed by the big powers."
Our country is 66th among 88 countries on a UN hunger index, worse than many African countries. According to the World Bank, the number of extremely poor people in developing countries would increase by 26 million by the year 2020.
The annual per capita income of Mumbai is Rs. 89,343. People in South Mumbai earn in crores and spend even more on their homes, while over 31.7 million people in Maharashtra sleep without a roof over their heads, on an empty stomach. According to the latest estimates by a government panel, the number of urban poor, or slum population in the 5161 towns and cities, increased to 28% from 21% in 2001. The contrasts are jarring and difficult to comprehend. "The government's idea of development is creating islands of affluence among oceans of poverty," said a political commentator. The ideas for development have excluded tribals and lesser developed areas. The situation is too unequal and too unsustainable to be stable.
For millions of our countrymen, hunger is routine, malnutrition rife, employment insecure, social security non-existent, health care expensive, and livelihoods under threat. The vibrant economy of 'the Shining India' is restricted to the upper classes, while the majority of the population eke out a meagre existence on the margins.
In this grim scenario, it is gratifying to note that Microsoft founder Bill Gates (worth $53 billion) and investor Warren Buffett (worth $47 billion) have asked the 403 billionaire Americans to give away at least 50% of their wealth to charity. They generated $130 billion in 24 hours. A good example, worthy of emulation!
Among the Directive Principles of State Policy, our Constitution lays down that "the State shall strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate in-equalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals, but also amongst groups of people, residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations." It is a pity that we have so far not acted upon it seriously.
The country needs to lift itself out of poverty and create 12 million additional jobs every year to cope with the population bulge. This requires financial, human, natural resources, managerial, marketing and technological inputs.
Inflation rate now stands at 10.2%. It is way ahead of the RBI's revised target of 8.5%. Food inflation now stands at 9.53%.
The ruling party has pledged to "enact a Right to Food law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all people, particularly the most vulnerable sections of society." The President Pratibha Patil, in her first address to the joint Parliament session recently, said, "My government proposes to enact a new law-the National Food Security Act-that will provide a statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all." The National Advisory Council, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, has prevailed upon the government to ensure 35 kg of food grains for every Below Poverty Level (BPL) family per month, as against the initially proposed 25 kg.
The draft bill seems to do the absolute minimum required to redeem the electoral promise at the lowest possible cost. A wider range of interventions including mid-day meals, child care programmes, maternity entitlements, special provisions for the most vulnerable and a willingness to allocate substantial funds, are called for.
A consensus on the number of BPL families in the country is still to be arrived at. The Planning Commission estimates it at 65.2 million, whereas the Suresh Tendulkar Committee estimates it at 83.2 million. In contrast, the State governments have issued 108.68 million BPL cards.
The National Commission for Enterprises in the unorganised sector has estimated that at least 77% of our population survives on less than 20 a day. Food security must embrace nutrition security, apart from other aspects determining the quality of life. Given the reality of an unacceptably high maternal mortality and child malnutrition-at 46%-a universal public distribution system covering every resident is essential to change the situation.
Every beggar has a fundamental right to live. It is the fundamental duty of every person to show compassion to all living creatures-obviously including humans who are beggars. Diseased, mutilated and disabled beggars are a common sight around all worship places. Their eagerness to gain the sympathy of the devotees seems to override their sense of personal dignity. They plead for charity, while exposing the diseased limbs and pathetic deformities. At least for some of them, it is a lucrative profession. It is obnoxious that the State fails delinquently to enforce wholesome laws meant to ensure the well-being of society. There are a number of charitable organisations, managed by different religions, with some incentives from the State. A joint effort should make the country beggar-free. Mother Teresa exhorted, "The poor come to all of us in many forms. Let us be sure that we never turn our backs on them, wherever we may find them. For, when we turn our backs on the poor, we turn them on Jesus Christ." Public opinion must force the authorities to take stern measures promptly to make begging unlawful. The begging trade should attract prompt punishment.
"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has none; the money which you hoard in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."
We read about the Early Church that there was no one "among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need" (Acts 4:34-35). The prosperity of the church consisted in its spiritual unity and its boundless generosity. One of the outstanding characteristics of the Early Church was unity, a sense of oneness that manifested itself in the sharing of material resources. To meet the needs of poor Christians, the wealthy believers sold their lands or houses and brought the money to be used for the common welfare.
Jesus said very clearly that judgement will be on the basis of the way individuals have acted toward the needy about them (Matt.25:34-36). The righteous will be surprised to learn that they have merited commendation (vv.37-39)-a forceful example of the humility of true pity. They will learn that what they have done to the poor, the lonely and the needy, the sick and the suffering, they have in reality done to Christ Himself (v.40). The other group is not commended, but condemned to eternal punishment because they failed to minister to those in need (vv. 42-45).
Matthew 25:34-46 stands as a strong indictment of the church for its lack of social conscience. Had the church carried out these teachings of Jesus, there would have been no place for the rise of the so-called social gospel. John Wesley set a very good example as an evangelical Christian who practised what he preached. He devoted a good deal of time for ministering to the poor, while winning thousands for the kingdom of God.
When the woman broke the flask and poured the precious perfume on Jesus' head, the disciples complained of the 'waste' (Matt.26:6-13). They were shackled by a materialistic point of view, unable to appreciate the higher values of love and devotion. Jesus told them that after He was gone, the poor would always remain to be cared for. Judas was the dishonest treasurer of the twelve, who particularly resented the 'waste.' Filled with greed, he bargained with the chief priests to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. However, the woman's deed serves as an inspiration to all others; as Jesus said, it is remembered in the world-wide proclamation of the Gospel.
The Apostle James has argued against granting special treatment to the rich coming to the church. Such behaviour blasphemes the name of Jesus Christ, the worthy name by which we are called. The division is "between profession and practice, between the profession of Christian equality and the deference to rank and wealth." The poor in this world's goods, and therefore in the eyes of the world, are chosen to be rich in the realms of faith. They become rich indeed through faith. "He is rich enough who is poor with Christ."
"It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God's will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you, try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God's will for yourself."
"We must care for the poor, console them, help them, and support their cause. Christ willed to be born poor; He chose for Himself disciples who were poor. He made Himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that He would consider every deed that helps or harms the poor as done for or against Himself." "It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor."
"Unless we drastically reshape both our theology and our entire institutional church life so that the fact that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed, becomes as central to our theology and institutional programmes as it is in Scripture, we will demonstrate to the world that our verbal commitment to sola scriptura is a dishonest ideological support for an unjust, materialistic status quo."