Dietetics Of Poverty
- Three cups of tea, adding up to about 150 calories
- Two slices of bread (100 calories)
- Two pieces of kulcha with chhole (about 425 calories)
- Bread and tea hardly contain any nutrients. Milk may provide some calcium.
- Near-starvation diets, with hardly any vitamins or minerals, can lead to a breakdown of muscles and weight loss over a period of time.
It is 10 am now and the dust-haze tormenting Delhi for the last couple of days seems to have lifted to reveal a bright, sunny day. I am thinking food. I have never starved for food, but I’m trying. The extraordinary change proposed by the Planning Commission in terms of what constitutes the poverty line has prodded me into living on Rs 28.65 for a day. (Looking at it from a monthly point of view—Rs 859.60 for one individual—doesn’t really make it look any less scarier.)
How far will this take me in the urban sprawl of Delhi? Besides being hungry, I am angry. Just the day before, on March 20, the Planning Commission had startled every right-thinking person by coming up with some astounding figures on how poverty levels had actually reduced in the last five years, attributing this miracle to the economic policies of the UPA government, which has always scored high on rhetoric about concern for the aam aadmi.
I set out to fend for myself on the limits of destitution that defines the poor, according to our venerable Planning Commission. This poverty line is often a lifeline for the poor as it determines who is entitled to a house, toilet, and rice and wheat from the neighbourhood fair price shop.
I am certainly not poor. I am just trying to survive on a few rupees for one day. I live in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, in what is called the National Capital Region. My home is 31 km from my office in Safdarjung Enclave. Someone who lives on that amount would probably live on the streets close to their place of work, perhaps a begging corner.
In the throes of a real estate boom, Indirapuram is host to a huge migrant population from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. These people, labourers mostly, have made their home on the streets, in the shadow of the glitzy malls and shiny condominiums that dot the place. I discover that labourers living in makeshift homes, cooking their food out in the open, are too rich to qualify as poor. For they earn close to Rs 100 a day, more than three times over the limit.
Angry and hungry, on the morning of March 21, I set off after having a breakfast of two slices of bread (Rs 2) with pickle paste slapped on. This is a luxury, the neighbourhood chaiwala tells me. He is always grumbling about the rising prices of milk (Rs 29 a litre) and sugar (Rs 40 per kg), and charges Rs 5 for one plastic cup of tea. The day has just begun. I decide to walk 2 km to the nearest bus-stand to save on rupees.
Those earning Rs 100 per day, such as masons, plumbers, construction workers, are too rich to be counted as poor.
I discover that in the suburbs, getting the right bus is nothing short of a miracle, as everyone drives cars and there’s hardly any public transport. But before I take off on generalities, back to my predicament. Some rickshawalas try to tempt me to take a Rs 5 ride for two kilometres. They say that on a good day, they may make Rs 150. I realise that they are far too rich compared to me.
I have to take the bus, as it’s the cheapest option. I walk those kilometres to the stand. Bus No. 543 will take me close to my office. The ticket from Ghazipur to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where I disembark, costs Rs 15. I have already spent Rs 22.
My fellow traveller, Pilana, who describes himself as a nomad and who makes Rs 70 a day selling rings, is going to Gurgaon in search of new markets and superstitious people looking for a change in fortune. He has spent Rs 60 for the bus tickets of his family of four. I realise with a tinge of sadness that this guy’s rings haven’t changed his luck.
Hunger by now is gnawing, overriding thought, emotion and sentiment. What can I eat for Rs 7? The Outlook office serves free tea. The dhabas near the office provide meals for Rs 20. At 1.30 pm, I finally decide to have chhole-kulche—a plate costs Rs 15, up from Rs 12 some six months ago. My decision is made easy by the fact that it is the cheapest option. I borrow from a photographer colleague and eat my princely meal. Still quite hungry, tired and fed up, I sit down to write this story. I barely survived half a day to tell this tale. Even the poorest among the poor cannot survive on this figure. That would leave the destitute of India permanently hungry.
In all, my total calorific consumption was 677, and nutritionist Veena Shatrugna from the National Institute of Nutrition says that a 63 kg adult female like me needs a minimum of 1,285 calories provided she doesn’t work. That’s the bare minimum required to keep the body together and survive without collapsing. I could have stayed at home and cooked lunch, but the poor hardly have the luxury of not working—even to survive.
The only thought that comes to mind is that a human being can only starve on that new “poverty line” figure. If someone has children, they will be severely malnourished, with retarded mental and physical development. I also know that beggars earn more than this amount. The migrant labourers who leave their homes and families do not qualify. So who really are India’s poor? Are there some bonded labourers in some corner who are forced to work and given this amount that then entitles them to some benefits from the government? How bad does the human condition have to be before the government condescends to help you?