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The NITI Aayog Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) attempts to measure the true state of poverty in India. We often hear of measures such as the ‘poverty line’ which basically rely on a single monetary value to determine whether a person is impoverished or not. The UN believes this number to be $1.90/day. While income is certainly a major indicator of one’s poverty status, there are a number of other factors which are of significant consequence as well. This is where the MPI comes in.

The aim is to present a holistic view of poverty in the country. Broadly, the index measures the levels of health and education along with the standard of living. Under these three categories, there are twelve indicators – nutrition, child and adolescent mortality, antenatal care, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing, assets and bank accounts. Putting together all this information enables researchers to understand not only how prevalent poverty really is, but to also figure out what the solutions ought to be.

NITI Aayog has concluded that 25% of people in this country still live in poverty. In real terms, that’s over 400 million people, bigger than the population of the US. It is true that India has made strides in this regard over the last two or three decades. The figure used to be closer to 50%. Given where the country is now, however, in terms of being the 5th largest economy in the world, 25% seems too high.

One of the standout observations in the report has to do with the glaring differences between the north and the south. Bihar, which is by far the poorest state in the country, has more than 50% of its people living in poverty. In fact, the states with the highest percentages are Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Meghalaya, to round up the top 5. The poorest south Indian state is Telangana, where a little more than 13% are impoverished. Kerala and Goa are at the very bottom of the list.

The economic disparities between the north and the south have been evident for some time now. Economists Samuel Paul and Kala Seetharam Sridhar published a book in 2015 about this very topic. They attributed the differences to educational and health factors. The south has better institutions and therefore a highly-skilled workforce. When liberalisation occurred in 1991, South Indians were ready to grasp the opportunity and have gone on to make the most of it. Today, a south Indian earns nearly 250% more than his north Indian counterpart on average.

When it comes to health, hospitals are better run and have a better stock of equipment and medicine. The urban slums in the south also have more toilets and better access to clean drinking water. In fact, there are also better roads and more reliable electricity supply. All these differences add up to make for a more prosperous population. A better and healthier workforce goes on to then utilise the infrastructure on offer to become increasingly productive.

The interesting thing is that back in the 1960’s, the north was actually doing better than the south. Rural poverty was higher in the south and it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the situation began to change. Another book written in the 1960’s by an Australian named Walter Crocker remarked on the cultural differences between the two regions. He saw that the people of the south were not as enthusiastic of the concept of a ‘Hindu’ identity which has gone on to fuel decades of violence and conflict in many of the northern states. No doubt, the partition played an enormous role in shaping these attitudes, but the south has been relatively devoid of such issues. 

Thinkers and social reformers like Periyar and EVR Manniammai worked to dismantle certain caste and gender structures which were inherently backward. This has led to better outcomes for women in the south, who are more likely to finish school, find work, get married later, have fewer children, and own property.

If we look at northern states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the opposite is true. Women have 3 children on average and are unlikely to complete their education which then means that they are less likely to achieve financial independence. Such differences are rooted in culture and it takes social change to do away with these issues. What the MPI illustrates is not only the numerical differences between the north and the south but also the cultural differences. This is not to say that south India does not have to grapple with problems of caste, gender, and so on. It has, however, made more progress on these matters which is something that the north should try to replicate.

Punjab is one of the states which is also low on the list along with the southern states and this serves to highlight that poverty also revolves around the plight of the farmers. Farmers in Punjab are generally better off than those from other states and considering how agriculture continues to employ a significant portion of the workforce, this could be another area that the northern states could look to improve on.

What is certain is that the country still has some way to go with respect to poverty eradication. When the most populous region consists of such high proportions of impoverished people, the problem is only bound to get worse if left unattended. India already has a very large population and it isn’t able to serve everyone’s needs. At a time when the economy is not in the best of shape, it becomes all the more important to help those at the lowest end of the spectrum.

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