Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Policy, Social Welfare and Social Development
‘But I do strongly hold ... that, as far as is possible, our beliefs should accord with facts; that unexamined ideas should be dragged into the open and made to defend themselves; and that such ideas that cannot defend themselves deserve historical interest only-which is, indeed, a serious kind of interest, but that to pretend that they are alive is either dishonesty or, worse, sloth.’
‘The deplorable evil result of the present, “administration and management of expenditure”, in violation of solemn pledges, is so subtle, so artistic, so unobservably “bleeding”, ... so plausibly masked with the face of beneficence, and being unaccompanied with any open compulsion or violence to person or property which the world can see and be horrified with, that, as the poet says:
“Those lofty souls have telescopic eyes,
That see the smallest speck of distant pain,
While at their feet a world of agony,
Unseen, unheard, unheeded, withers in vain”
‘Time is out of joint for the social scientist’- thus spoke a social scientist friend who is also a social actionist (by conviction only).* The present time certainly seems to be most conducive for historians, philosophers, and even social work educators. A social work educator of three decades vintage, I have a weakness for history and possess a philosophical bent of mind. A combination of the time and temper could be irresistible for producing a paper like this.
The poor have always been a “happy hunting ground” for the politicians, the reformers and the academicians. This is not surprising. Poverty is good business for some people. Described as the salt of the earth nineteen centuries ago, the poor today are known as the ‘wretched of the earth’ and as the Fourth World.1 And that in a nutshell is the historical progress. A survey of history of India reveals to us that the poor and the lowly have always been the first group to flock in large numbers to any new religious leader, or Messiah. It was so at the time of Buddha, the Compassionate; at the time of saint-philosophers of the Bhakti Panth during the 15th-16th Century A.D.; during the long period of Muslim rule; and after the arrival of the Christian missionaries who came to preach in India, when the British formed their first empire at the beginning of the last century.
In the ancient time when the religion had a great hold on the minds of men, the ruler and the ruling class (the predecessors of the modern politicians and the elites) learnt to consolidate their position of power with the aid of the ideologue, the Brahmins.2 The theory of divine origin of the king, and the theory of Karma were inventions of the Brahmins. Poverty and suffering, according to the Karma theory, was explained on the basis of individual responsibility - the action of the individual and the ‘accident’ of birth based on his actions in a previous birth. This was around the 6th century B.C., at the time of Buddha. Very recently, during 1976, two statesmen* who are described by the press as high dignitaries,** on the same day spoke at two different places on the same theme. I quote from the press reports:***
The first (a very high dignitary) “deprecated the tendency among Muslims to look to the Government to provide them with jobs. It was foolish to think that all Muslims could be given government jobs. Ignorance was the main malady among Muslims and they had developed a fatalistic attitude.” He quoted from the Koran to say that “God helps those who help themselves.”
The other high dignitary stressed “that the scheduled castes should not depend on the government alone for their economic uplift. They should have confidence in themselves and work with determination towards a better future.” He said that “the Constitution gave equal rights to Harijans in all matters and there was no reason why they should not assert themselves as equals in society.” He asked them to shed their inferiority complex and he was sure that they would be able to overcome all obstacles on their road to progress.
The two dignitaries were referring to the two different segments of the Indian population which are known to be mostly poor. If you read carefully the two quotations from the speeches, I am sure you cannot miss the underlying perceptions of the poor and the causes of the poverty. There is a remarkable similarity between these ideas and the explanation given by the Karma theory. The poor are held responsible for their poverty and, their psychological make up or deficiencies in their personality are seen to be the major blocks in bringing about improvement in their material conditions.
Psychologism? Psychological determinism? Should you say that, then you would be accused of being a structuralist or worse still, a historical materialist. How does a structuralist view the problem of poverty and its causes? But then which kind of structuralist do we mean? Because, there are so many varieties in this group.
First of all, there are the social anthropologists whose focus is on primitive social structures. Then, there are the Marxist structuralists who see the origin of all human problems in the social structure and especially in the economic basis of it. We have a third kind known as the structural functionalists, who are the followers of the sociological grand theorist, Talcott Parsons. According to him, the major factors are to be found in the normative system. We also have structuralists who call themselves general systems theorists and in their conception the social structure is similar to that found in engineering. This is a mechanistic conception of social structure and cybernetics is the magic word. I need not have to remind you, I am sure, of the oldest of them all, the organismic structuralists. It is a tradition dating back to the times of Comte, Spencer and Durkheim. Here I shall limit myself to a few types only.
Structural functionalists view poverty as performing an essential function in society. In other words, some amount of poverty in one form or other is essential for the maintenance of the social structure.3 The poor and their poverty contribute to stability in the social system. There is some force in this argument. Because, we have empirical evidence to support this view.4
Anthropologists and Poverty
The social anthropologists who, according to Edmund Leach, are sometimes relabelled as sociologists are traditionally interested in the micro-social structure of the primitive societies. In India, the social anthropologists have by and large confined their studies to the social structure of the village communities. In their conception of social structure generally, there is no place for the economic and the political institutions.5 Even when they come very near to it as in the case of the concept of dominant caste, they skillfully skirt around it, and keep their attention firmly focused on such institutions like family, kinship, marriage, caste etc. In fact, in their conception, the social structure is limited to these four institutions. It is very rarely that an Indian social anthropologist or a sociologist in his study has concerned himself with economic institutions and that too with the problem of poverty.
The excessive and obsessive preoccupation with caste on the part of social anthropologists in India has been commented upon by Myrdal:
“They [the anthropologists] are still labouring with finding out how people live and survive, and they are regularly, different from us economists, dealing with only segments of the national society, and also mostly focusing their work on certain problems that have traditionally been at the centre of their attention, like, for instance, caste in India. They have seldom attempted systematically to lay bare the circular causation between all conditions in a society they are studying.”6
So Myrdal found himself compelled to be his own social anthropologist, transgressing the disciplinary boundaries of economics into social anthropology, in order to comprehensively understand the problem of poverty in Asia.
Following the study by Oscar Lewis in Mexico, a highly popular, if somewhat loosely formulated concept is the concept of culture of poverty. To quote:
“As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines. This view directs attention to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganisation or of the absence of something. It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on ....”
The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, high individuated, capitalistic society. It represents an effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair which develop from the realization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society. Indeed, many of the traits of the culture of poverty can be viewed as attempts at local solutions for problems not met by existing institutions and agencies because the people are not eligible for them, cannot afford them, or are ignorant or suspicious of them. For example, unable to obtain credit from banks, they are thrown upon their own resources and organize informal credit devices without interests.7
A number of studies have been carried out in developing countries based on the theoretical framework of culture of poverty.8 Some of the writers are of the opinion that this deterministic and pessimistic concept of culture of poverty is not tenable, both theoretically and empirically.9 I am in agreement with this view.
Economists and Poverty
A social anthropologist (Srinivas) has unfavourably commented upon the Indian economists’ reluctance to study poverty first hand on the basis of participant observation.10 Their only contact with the poor and poverty, if at all, is through their domestic servants, he alleges. To some extent, this criticism is valid. The Indian economists have been the first group among social scientists to take interest in the problem of poverty by trying to assess the existence of poverty and its parameters. However, in order to do that they have relied on secondary data made available by the governmental sources like the Planning Commission, the census data, the reports of the various committees and the National Sample Surveys. With the use of such devices like inflators, deflators, and multipliers, and also by using the various cost of living and wholesale price indices, with adjustments made to take into account the variation over a period of time and regional differences, the economists have made varying estimates of poverty in quantitative terms. They have also stated what segments of the population and what proportion of these segments are poor.
The main problem for the economists, the doyen of social scientists, has been to find the cut off point below which could be found the poor. This is called the poverty line.11 Being purists, in science and scientific matters, and also generally inclined to be neat and tidy in their calculations they have formulated a universal definition of poverty which is not contaminated by problems of relativity or cultural diversity. The result is the concept of absolute poverty which enables them to compare the problem of poverty interregionally and internationally. This is making the concept as value-free and culture-free as possible.
In their attempts to define poverty in absolute transcultural terms they have been supported by the contribution of the nutritionists. The absolute poverty is based on the hypothesis that a person needs a certain minimum number of calories in order to merely survive. And according to some nutritionists in India, this requires an intake of 2250 calories per day per adult. The economists, and for that matter the nutritionists have not bothered as to what should be the nutritional composition of these 2250 calories. Because, it will complicate their task and introduce the cultural problems such as food habits.
One may note here that the formulation of the concept of absolute poverty has an implicit ideology. It means the goal of human existence is merely to survive. In other words, a vegetative existence of human beings is the basis of this concept. Occasional illness which any human being can suffer from, certain minimum human social obligations which the anthropologists call as life cycle ceremonies such as birth, marriage and death, celebrations of certain minimum major festivals, a minimum exchange of gifts etc are considered as unnecessary and complicating factors. They will only make the concept less and less scientific, and thus make quantification more difficult.
As the image of science is built on mathematics, a concept of poverty which cannot be accurately quantified and calculated will have little relevance for the economists. Economics and economists have a very high prestige in this country and elsewhere. To a great extent, it is based on their capacity to mathematicise economic concepts. As I said before, they are concerned with purity about which, incidentally, the anthropologists have concentrated upon in their study of Indian caste system. Once in a while we hear a discordant voice from amongst them. I quote from A. K. Sen:
“....it is worth emphasizing that while “pure” systems of collective choice tend to be more appealing for theoretical studies of social decisions, they are often not the most useful systems to study ....Both from the point of view of institutions as well as that of frame-works of thought, the impure systems would appear to be relevant. While purity is an uncomplicated virtue for, olive oil, sea air, and heroines of folk tales, it is not so for systems of collective choice.” 12
There seems to be something really grotesque in dehumanising the poor, by reducing them to an absolute common denominator and then convert them into mathematical figures.13 It is not that I overlook the necessity of estimating the magnitude of poverty. What I am objecting to is the excessive overemphasis on this factor, irrespective of its implications and consequences.
The economists, particularly the mathematical species among them, are the model builders and the planners. In a way their task is similar to that of engineers. Like them, the economists make a prototype, then prepare a cast and after that fabricate the structure, and that is the model. In more senses than one, the engineering analogy is appropriate. Their plan models are very finely built and into which all data about human beings and other physical resources are poured which are called as ‘inputs’ and their mathematical calculations will produce the ‘outputs’ stated usually in aggregates as GDP or per capita national income. For the purpose of these calculations and also in building the models, they treat the political institutions and political decision-making process as given.14 When they find that their models have not worked out properly in practice as plans are executed, they are likely to throw up their hands in exasperation and blame “lack of political will” for upsetting their models. In a sense, they are star gazers. Perhaps, this is an occupational hazard arising out of their tendency to view all economic problems mostly in macro terms. Myrdal has aptly stated:
“....in one respect the economists have a characteristic which has given them superiority and made them the cavalry of the social sciences in this regard. In the tradition of more than 200 years they have, in their different sects, all been political economists, even those whose policy conclusions were non-interference in the market. They have never been scared of constructing macro models and producing economic plans for a nation and for the whole world. To illustrate this peculiarity of my profession, I used to point out that if you place an economist in the capital of an underdeveloped country and give him a few assistants, he will on demand produce a plan for development of that country. No anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist, or what have you, would ever think of behaving in this way.”15
I have devoted much attention to the economists and their concepts and estimates of poverty. In the process, I have been frequently critical of this major group of social scientists. But, my purpose was not to minimise the lead given by the economists in the country in understanding and studying poverty, in making it a national issue (with ample support from interested politicians) and for suggesting certain policy measures for combating poverty. This is no mean achievement and the economists deserve full praise for their contributions. One of the reasons why the economists as a group were singled out for much critical attention is due to the fact that no other group of social scientists has shown any interest, academically or otherwise, in the problem of poverty.
Sociologists and Poverty
I have already made reference to the omission of the problem of poverty by this group in the various anthropological studies which number more than six or seven hundred. Whether we have in India sociologists of the type we come across in U.K. and in some European countries, and also in U.S.A. is a matter for debate. There are those who argue that we have mostly social anthropologists and hardly any sociologists. We need not get involved in a theological controversy on this matter, which is really a waste of time. Srinivas may be right when he observes that there are vested interests which are responsible in trying to keep the distinction between sociology and social anthropology.16 If there are sociologists who are concerned with major social problems whose vision is so wide as to include the nation-society or any major aspect of it, they are not easily visible. This is certainly true as far as the sociological study of the problem of poverty is concerned.
One reason may be that the few sociologists of this type that are there mostly belong to the structural functional school of sociology of Talcott Parsons. A recent reviewer in an American journal has commented that most of American sociology in the post-war years is in the nature of foot-notes to Parsons. If this observation is correct, much of Indian sociology then is in the nature of additional foot-notes to Parsons. Marx and subjects on which Marx has written, though very valuable for understanding many social problems, are considered taboo by Parsonian sociologists. Thus poverty, inequality, social classes and class structure, the problem of power, and the study of science are either neglected or ignored completely from the purview of the sociological studies. One or two sociologists who have hastened to add their bit to the debate on poverty in India when it became a prominent national issue a few years ago, have been too superficial to merit notice.17
The establishment sociology in the west has generally ignored the problem of poverty until about fifteen years ago. Even now, it is stated that sociology of poverty is an undeveloped field within sociology proper.18 It may be more appropriate to speak of the poverty of sociology rather than the sociology of poverty.
There is another kind of sociology which is definitely not part of establishment sociology. It is known variously as Marxist Sociology, the New Sociology (in U.S.A.), Radical Sociology, and Sociology of the New Left (in U.K.). Among some of the prominent names belonging to these non-establishment sociological groups, I may mention the names of C.Wright Mills, Irwing Horrowitz, Alvin Gouldner, Norman Birnbaum, Herbert Marcuse in U.S.A.; and T.E. Bottommore, John Rex, Anthony Giddens, J.E. Goldthorpe in U.K. Unfortunately, there is hardly any sociologist of this variety in India, with the possible exception of A.R. Desai and Ramakrishna Mukherjee. Among the founding fathers of sociology in India, there were such giants like D.P. Mukherjee, Radha Kamal Mukherjee, and G.S. Ghurye, who were broadly speaking structuralists and who did not ignore the concept of social class in their theoretical writings.19 It is a tragedy of great proportion that this grand tradition of sociology in India seems to have come to an abrupt end, so much so that the discussion of social class, inequality and poverty have ceased to interest the sociologists of the present generation.
The non-traditional and non-establishment sociologists have given considerable attention to the concepts of social class and inequality as part of which the problem of poverty could be perceived fruitfully. The main problem in modern capitalistic society, whether of the classical or the mixed economy type, is the inequality in the social structure. If the limited resources which are desired by all or most of the people in that society are usurped through the exercise of power by a few, then it is inevitable that there will be social inequality and poverty. The extent of poverty and the enormity of inequality will depend upon a variety of factors. It is futile to believe that through economic growth or development per se, the problem of poverty or inequality could be taken care of by adopting such measures like redistribution of income and provision of social security etc. Because, we are here faced with a situation which is explained theoretically as a zero-sum game. In the words of Rex, “in all markets, including labour market, the following formal circumstances occur: 1) There are two groups of participants; and individuals from each group confront individuals from the other with opposed interests; the more other gets, the less available for oneself. In the trendy language of modern sociology, what we have is a “Zero-Sum” situation.”20 It is my view, that sociologically speaking, we can understand the problem of poverty better in this perspective.
Psychologists and Poverty
Generally, the approach of the psychologists to poverty has been to view it essentially as a problem of individuals who lack motivation either to improve their circumstances or to utilise the opportunities that are made available for their benefit. In essence, the psychologist’s approach is greatly similar to the earlier moralist view of paupers, and poverty as seen during the early period of industrial revolution in U.K. As is well known, it was believed then that pauperism was due to moral defect and what was needed was to improve the character of the paupers. When social work, in its extreme psychological phase uncritically borrowed the Freudian psychological theory, poverty was seen essentially as a personality problem, arising out of the intra- psychic conflict of the individual, as a result of early childhood experience. It was really the theory of moral causation in a new pseudo-scientific garb. It is not surprising that the change-over from the moralist era in social work to psychiatric era was so smooth.
It must be mentioned here that Freud himself had not said anything directly pertaining to poverty and its causes. It was really, the Neo- Freudians and the social work theorists highly influenced by Neo-Freudian theories, who are responsible for attributing certain personality defects as causative factors in poverty. In fact, a point of view has been put forth by one of the radical sociologists that Freudian theory possessed revolutionary potentialities for transforming social structure.21
A very well known and popular theory which developed as part of an attempt to explain economic development in advanced countries and consequently, the reasons for underdevelopment in the backward countries is the theory of achievement motivation as propounded by MacLelIand. To quote:
“What impulse produces economic growth and modernization? What is it like, and where has it come from? ..... Psychologists have made an unexpected contribution to this ancient mystery unexpected in the sense that they were not working directly on this problem when they made the discovery that ultimately shed some light on the process of economic growth……. In short, the impulse to modernization in ideal psychological terms seems to consist in part of a personal virtue n Ach and in part of a social virtue interest in the welfare of the generalized other fellow. Thus, the two psychological elements essential to economic success are these: the desire to prove oneself better than others and the need to promote -the common good at least of their minority group, which is often somewhat persecuted.”22
I find it unconvincing to accept that these two psychological elements are together responsible for development or underdevelopment, and hence for poverty. This is not to deny the influential role in economic development of a group of individuals known as the innovators or entrepreneurs. But to account for the entire social development or the existence of mass poverty on the basis of this factor alone seems to be a highly reductionist approach. This may suit conservative political forces, but will not be adequate as a theoretical perspective to understand poverty.23
The Politics of Poverty
As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, poverty has been a good business for many including politicians. The political theorists as a group, particularly in this country have not given much attention to the problem of poverty and its solution. But, practising politicians have found it convenient to focus a major part of their attention and energy on the problem of poverty since time immemorial. If it was necessary in ancient times for the king or the ruling class to legitimize the monarchy and the dynastic rule by resorting to the theory of divine origin of monarchy, politicians since 19th the century have found it expedient to legitimise their claim to hold power by an appeal to the poor. Where representative democracy prevails in one form or the other, with free elections as a means of acquiring power, politicians coin slogans and appeals with the largest portion of the population in mind, who in developing countries are invariably poor. A number of promises are made on the eve of elections, meant for the benefit of the poor which are soon forgotten, once they have acquired power. Even in other societies, where democracy of the type just mentioned is not operating as a political institution, the rulers consider it both prudent and advantageous to legitimise their hold of power in the name of the poor masses.
In our own country, we are told, that poverty of the Indian people played a very major part in both unifying the native population as a community in their struggle against the colonial power and in developing the sense of nationalism among the elite.24 The raging controversy between eminent national leaders led by people like Nauroji, Ranade, Tilak and others on the one hand, and the ruling viceroys and their high officials on the other, on the problem of poverty in India and their causes is a historical illustration of this phenomenon.
Medical-Nutritional View of Poverty
The medical scientists and nutritionists have also contributed to the debate on poverty and its elimination, especially in this country. The medical scientists, generally, trained to view human problems in a pathological perspective and that too, in terms of individual anatomy in the course of their work both as practicing doctors and as research workers have identified a number of morbidity conditions and diseases among a large portion of our population. Anaemia, malnutrition and under nutrition are some of the conditions noticed among children and expectant mothers, particularly belonging to certain socio-economic class. They have also highlighted the fact that the greater portion of blindness among children in India is due to nutritional deficiencies which is preventable. They have contributed, undeliberately perhaps, to the distortion of the concept of poverty as essentially a problem of nutrition and its inadequate supply. As medical scientists, they may be justified to stop midway in their analysis of deceases affecting mass of the people without bothering to ask the basic question as to why these sections of the population should suffer from malnutrition, under nutrition, anaemia, and blindness etc. But, this has only helped to confuse the debate on poverty in India and also in evolving the strategies to tackle it. On the one hand, the Planning Commission has taken a calorie intake of 2250 per day per person as the basis for deciding the concept of absolute poverty, though the basis of this figure has never been made clear. On the other hand, it has resulted in suggesting remedies of the kind as was reported recently, that a spoonful of liquid nutritional supply to children will prevent blindness.
Poverty and Social Development
- The International Game
Ever since the United Nations Organization declared the decade of 1960’s as the First Development Decade, the terms ‘development’ and ‘social development’ have become internationally popular themes in academic and political circles. As pointed out by Myrdal, the language of diplomacy dictated a description which was inoffensive to all member nations, irrespective of the kind of politico-economic systems, and a definition of social development which is delightfully vague i.e. economic growth plus social change. At the most there may be mention of mass poverty as a problem to be tackled and the need for “institutional changes”, without stating clearly what these changes are. But one positive consequence of these initiatives by the U.N.O. has been, to focus attention on poverty as a major problem which has to be tackled for achieving the goal of social development. To the extent this has contributed in widening the narrow view of economic growth into a broader concept of social development and in highlighting the problem of mass poverty in major parts of the world, this is a laudable achievement. At the same time, it has also led to the initiation of international research programmes and, seminars and workshops on poverty which have made poverty a good business for officials and academicians in many countries. Sometime this has led to highly ironical situations, when seminars on poverty or food shortage are held in luxurious hotels with lavish display of choicest of items on the menu.25
The Poor as Outsiders
The poor have always been treated as outsiders by the society. In our own country the poorest of the society were called ‘Panchamas’ or ‘Antyajas’, literally meaning the fifth caste or the last born, and they were kept out of the pale of the caste society. As the Indian civilization developed into a settled and flourishing rural society, these out-castes who were also the poorest were physically kept outside the limits of the village. In modern times, the poorest among the urban population tend to congregate into areas which are called as slums or squatter localities. They are banished to the outskirts of the city, when the beautification of the cities becomes a major objective of the elite. This process is called relocation or resettlement of the slum dwellers. It is not significantly different than the way the untouchables were treated by the traditional rural society. The poor are labelled as the dirty, ugly people whose very presence seems to be an irritant to the eyes of the elite who would like to look upon “beautiful” scenery, like the skyscrapers in the Backbay Reclamation in Bombay. What could not be accomplished by the urban community development projects earlier through the process of persuasion and social education, and such catchy slogans and campaigns like ‘keep your city clean’, etc. is accomplished in a matter of moments by the new votaries of beautification of the cities, under certain circumstances.* To these modern connoisseurs of beauty I may quote from Gandhiji, who in a similar context replying to the poet Tagore said:
“He [Tagore] presents to our admiring gaze the beautiful picture of the birds early in the morning, singing hymns of praise as they soar into the sky. These birds had their day’s food and soared with rested wings. Into their veins new blood had flowed during the previous night. But, I have had the pain of watching birds who, for want of strength, could not be coaxed even into a flutter of their wings. The human bird under the Indian sky gets up weaker than when he pretended to retire. For millions it is an eternal vigil or an eternal trance. It is an undesirably painful state which has to be experienced to be realized.”26
An interesting thing we may note in the relationship of the poor with the rest of the population is the one which is based on the concept of metropolitan-satellite relationship as propounded by A.G. Frank.27 The elites and the well to do are the metropolitans of the society, whether this society is the urban city society or the affluent developed countries of the world. The poor tend to be the outsiders (even physically) and they are found in the untouchable quarters of the villages, the relocated or resettled slum communities outside the metropolitan cities, and in the underdeveloped countries and not so much in the centre of modern cities or in the ecologically conscious, pollution-free, affluent, industrial countries of the world.28 This relationship of metropolitan and satellite centres as explained by Frank is essentially a relationship of inequality based on exploitation and dependence.
Figuring Out Poverty-The Numbers Game
Using the absolute concept of poverty as outlined above, and based on each person’s estimate of the cost of the minimum number of calories for survival in monetary terms, and also based on the methodology adopted, a variety of quantitative estimates of poverty have been made. These estimates of poverty range from 38 p.c. of the population in rural areas and 40 p.c. in urban areas (Dandekar and Rath) to 2/3rds (Minhas) to 70 p.c. (Bardhan),29 of the population in the rural areas. There has been a long and endless controversy among economists regarding what percentage of the total population is poor and what proportion of them are found in rural and urban areas. It is futile to waste our time further on these matters. As Minhas has pointed out, beyond a point this is a game of numbers.30 What is most important is to bear in mind that a large proportion of India’s population, which may be anywhere between half to two-thirds of the population, at present live in conditions of appalling poverty. This is the most inhuman and intolerable situation, and should receive top-most priority as part of our planned efforts to improve the conditions of life of the people.
I may make a brief observation on this differential estimates of the incidence of poverty in rural and urban areas. I do not agree with Dandekar and Rath, who consider the incidence of poverty to be lower in rural areas than in the urban areas. In my opinion, the reverse is true. What is over-looked by these economists is that the rural population as a whole, and among the rural population, the marginal farmers and landless labourers in particular are deprived of access to a variety of services which are available freely or on subsidised basis to the urban population. For example, health facility, particularly at the advanced diagnosis and treatment centres, which includes hospitalisation; educational facilities, especially for higher and technical education; subsidised public distribution system for certain essential commodities like food grains, sugar and oil etc are benefits which are almost exclusively made available to the urban population. I believe that a proper concept for calculating poverty is the one which Titmuss has defined in relation to income as ‘command over resources’.32 I shall define poverty as failure of a segment of the population to command essential resources for life.
Social Work Tradition
Poverty, as mentioned earlier, was a major theme for our national leaders during the period of 1870 to 1920. This was also the period during which there were many famines. Some of these were so severe that the poor people died like flies in large numbers for want of a bare meal. And yet, the leaders of the social reform movement, among whom were such legendary names like Ram Mohun Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, K.T. Telang and M.G. Ranade failed to devote any attention to the miserable conditions of the poor, in their writings or as part of their social reform activities of the day. A few of them like Ranade and Nauroji were intellectually aware of the problem of poverty and its consequences to the large mass of the population. But, this they tended to view as essentially a problem of political economy, and of politics rather than as a matter of concern for social reform. This heritage seems to be the source of inspiration for modern professional social workers, who unlike these early leaders have not bothered to take even an intellectual interest in the problem of poverty until today, let alone make poverty and poor the main focus of their professional activities. I might twist Redefild’s concept and call this as the “Great Tradition” of professional social work in India.
Historically, social reform and social work in the industrially advanced countries of the west originated around the problem of mass poverty, following industrial revolution. Thus, social work and social workers retained some kind of an attachment or link with poverty as part of their heritage. As is well known, social reform movement in India had a different beginning. Certainly, the circumstances were not similar. As a result, the social workers in India have not felt it necessary even to maintain a tenuous link with the problem of poverty. As I wrote elsewhere if they are concerned with the poor as part of their work, it is because they have no choice about it.33
It is worth taking note of social work theorist’s perception of poverty in India and their own role in relation to it. To quote:
“Apart from the particular combination of academic circumstances, the fact is that most of the problems to be tackled in India have been problems of large masses of people and not a few individuals. This had led to emphasis on the need to modify the environment rather than the individual. This is natural and not necessarily to be regretted, but to the extent that this approach is adopted it becomes difficult to identify or emphasize the professional function of social work as it has so far been conceived. The problem tends to be defined in terms of the paucity of material resources and the solution seems to lie in the development or procurement of these resources.”34
So it can be seen that for social work theorists, the problem of poverty is really one of the paucity of resources. It is of course, recognised as a problem affecting the masses. But, there is a reluctance to speak of it bluntly as a structural problem of inequality. Poverty is seen also as unmet basic human needs for survival.35 The social work theorists have not tried to pursue seriously their analysis of the paucity of resources and why the mass of people are being deprived of their basic needs. One reason may be due to their general feeling of uneasiness about economic topics. The other reason could be a reluctance to get into this problem area which is both tricky and dangerous, politically speaking.
The Indian social workers, like their counterparts in the west, have been greatly concerned to enhance the status of their profession by trying to make it look very scientific, both in knowledge and in practice. The dominant trend in social sciences, including sociology is to view science as value-free. Social workers take the political and economic systems as given, and so also the underlying basic values of the social structure, such as inequality.36 They find it more comfortable to operate in a situation where a la Parsons, there is a value consensus and their role is to function within that given value system. Until recently, it was not considered even appropriate by many social workers to participate in movements of social reform.
With social development and social change becoming internationally fashionable themes, the social workers have been trying hard to adapt their sails to suit the new winds of change. In the process, there is much confusion, mentally and in field practice. Even in matters of fashion, as in many other matters, the Indian social workers seem to be behind times by five to ten years. Poverty was a national issue some five years ago, but it has crossed its peak of popularity. One rarely hears about poverty and the need for abolition of poverty these days. Now, the accent is on economic growth, on increase in production, on self discipline, and on making the nation strong.37 Poverty and poor are only secondary to these new national priorities. Social workers seem to be either slow-witted or slow-footed or both. If there is any advantage to be gained by debating on poverty, the time is long past. If it is a reflection of their serious concern, about which there is little evidence in sight, then they are not equal to the task. These are harsh words, especially when spoken by one who belongs to the group.
Mass Problem: Theoretical Implications
I may devote some time to consider the theoretical implications of that much talked about, ambiguous term ‘Mass problems’. What do we actually mean by these two words? Is it merely a matter of size and number? In that case, it would be the reverse side of the same problem posed by Srinivas.38 Society and people are both social facts. Constituent structural parts may be taken out piecemeal for analytical treatment; but they cannot be reassembled as a structural whole later.39 In other words, social structure is not an assembly line product to be conceptually dealt with in pieces first and then brought together as summation of parts. So the concept of mass problem, if at all it is to be considered as a concept, is very misleading and vague. It is not even helpful for analytical purpose, and beyond a point, it is of no use to continue to harp upon the mass problem with which social work in India is supposed to be concerned. We have to see the mass problem in its structural relationship. We have also to see the origin of these mass problems in the way in which the social structure is organized and functioning. Unfortunately, such a view is frequently missing in the discussions of mass problems generally and of the specific problem of poverty. What we need to do then is to see poverty as a social problem.40
A Social Perspective of Poverty
Poverty as a social problem needs to be studied in a broad perspective. A multi-dimensional view of poverty is the need of the hour. Such a view is not possible if it is studied only from the vantage point of a single discipline which will reveal a fragment of the totality.
It is for this reason that eminent social scientists like Myrdal and Du Mont, who were studying Indian society from the approach of their particular discipline, found it constricting their view.41 Both of them have strongly criticised the narrow academic specialisms in social sciences. Myrdal has spoken persuasively for the unity of the social sciences and the need for a holistic view of the social system. Much earlier, in a major critique of American sociology, Mills pleaded eloquently and with feeling, for a perspective which he called as ‘sociological imagination’.42 He recognized that the word “sociological” did not adequately express what he was trying to convey. I like to call it a ‘social perspective’ in order to emphasize the breadth of vision and the unity of social sciences.
What constitutes this social perspective? First of all, it is a holistic view of society and its arrangement. No part of this whole social structure will be deliberately excluded in the analysis of a problem like poverty. The political and the economic systems will not be accepted as ‘given’ and thus left out of consideration. They will be ‘taken’ as essential central elements of the social structure, and then examined both theoretically and empirically. The normative system will not be viewed as independent of and exogeneous to the social structure. Value consensus is not to be considered a theoretical imperative, and a multiplicity of norms, often conflicting head on, will be treated as part of the social reality. Poverty, when viewed in such a manner, will be seen as intimately and causally related to inequality in the social structure, Poverty appears as a result of the failure on the part of some people to command resources necessary for life. This failure is due to their lack of power or the way in which power is distributed in the society and used by those who possess it.43
I feel that we need to adopt this social perspective in understanding the problem of poverty in India. Such a perspective will suggest as a solution to the problem of poverty, the introduction of economic equality and not only political and social equality; not merely the equality of opportunity, but also the equality of outcome. This is what I believe Gandhiji had in mind when he wrote:
[equality implies] “levelling down of the few rich in whose hands is concentrated the bulk of the nation’s wealth on the one hand and the levelling up of the semi-starved naked millions on the other. A non-violent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists. The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor labouring class nearby cannot persist one day in free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land.”44
Gandhi’s prophecy was proved wrong. The wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists even today. And the poor do not enjoy the same power as the richest in the land, even after sixty six years of independence and more than six decades of planned development.
Notes and References
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