Living on Rs 32 a day in India
Many visitors find the cost of living in India inexpensive -- whether they are shopping, dining or putting up in a guesthouse. But for millions of Indians, getting by on a pittance is a daily reality.
Recently the Indian Planning Commission recommended resetting the country's poverty line at Rs 32 a day -- about US$0.60 -- in cities, and Rs 26 in rural areas.
If this does not already strike you as outrageous, think for a minute of all the things we flippantly spend that amount on. A short rickshaw ride, a 6 p.m. street food snack ...
Stumped? So are many.
"The official poverty lines do not measure poverty any more; they measure destitution," writes Utsa Patnaik, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
"The outcry against calling these destitution lines ‘poverty lines,' is justified; for true poverty lines are much higher than these, and show 75 percent of all persons in India to be poor."
It is hard to come up with a list of what you can do with such an insubstantial amount.
Now imagine Rs 32 as your daily budget for food, transport, medicine, education, communication, rent, utilities, cooking fuel, clothing, footwear and entertainment.
Yet 450 million Indians subsist below this level.
Living on Rs 100, or less, a day
Two 26-year-old, upper class Indians decide to test this budget by living for one week on a daily allowance of Rs 32, tracking their day-to-day experiences on a blog called Rs100aday.com and Facebook group page.
Tushar Vashisht and Matthew Cherian, both graduates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology lived in a tiny room lent to them by a friend in Karukachal, a small town in Kerala.
With this daily allowance they had to drink well water and travel mostly on foot because even public transport was too expensive.
After subtracting the estimated amount set aside for rent, transport and utilities they were left with Rs 17 a day for food, which afforded them carbohydrates, more carbohydrates and the occasional vegetable.
Proteins were unaffordable at that budget.
Before Vashisht and Cherian spent a week on Rs 32 a day in Kerala they had spent three weeks living in Bangalore on India's average monthly income of Rs 4,500.
After deducting Rs 1,500, the average amount spent on rent, they were left with Rs 3,000 for everything else, which works out to Rs 100 a day.
Living on incomes several times that of the average Indians', Rs 100 a day was already a serious challenge. Rs 32 a day was practically impossible.
Their exercise not only exposes what life is like for India's poorest two-fifths but also how unrealistic current definitions of poverty are.
How much better is life for someone earning Rs 35 a day (above the proposed poverty line) as opposed to someone earning Rs 31?
How poor is poor?
Breaking out of the bubble
Vashisht and Cherian tell us they wanted to break out of the bubble they lived in and understand the hard conditions faced by the majority Indians.
"Working for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) I traveled a lot around the country meeting people from various income levels," says Vashisht.
"I have always lived at a high-income level and I wanted to know what it means to live like the average Indian. So we spent three weeks on Rs 100 a day in Bangalore."
The bloggers spent two weeks in their own apartment and one week in a maid's apartment.
"When we heard of the Planning Commissions recommendation we also decided to spend a week living on Rs 32," says Vashisht.
Both are aware that they do not face many of the problems -- and therefore expenses -- a person living on those incomes would. For example, medical expenses and education costs for dependents. And despite this, they still found life at those incomes extraordinarily challenging, if not, unfeasible.
Both boys say they feel humbled by this experience and grateful for the privileges they have.
Immediately after this exercise Vashisht said he felt guilty about eating an ice-cream, or at a restaurant.
"But with time I started to normalize," he says.
Lessons in humility and empathy
Today, they live pretty much the same way they did before their month at different economic realities.
While they never lived exuberant lifestyles to begin with they definitely take less for granted now.
"You feel more confident about your ability to survive and you become less dependent on some of your material possessions. You can cut out a lot of things you think you would die without and still survive," says Vashisht.
"Living on Rs 100 you learn not to take things for granted," adds Cherian.
"You realize that some things I would have considered necessities are impossible. Like commuting to meet someone or traveling or talking on the phone," he says.
But the greatest lesson they learned from their experimental stint was the importance of empathy.
"We can empathize better with the average Indian and poor Indians," says Vashisht.
"Empathy plays a pretty big role in democracy," adds Cherian.
Over and above the policy recommendations they have chalked out, both feel that individuals in society can and should educate themselves better on how Indians at other income levels live.
"You can numb out poverty easily but for the other half it is not easy to numb out luxury. It's everywhere: cars, better housing, better standards of life ... everywhere you can see what you don't have," says Vashisht.
As any traveler new to India will remark: poverty makes a huge impression.
It is ubiquitous. But to residents it is so omnipresent that it becomes almost invisible.
Middle class Indians and travelers might tend to view abjection in abstractions -- as an idea rather than an experienced reality.
But Vashisht and Cherian's exercise of living at the poverty line proposed by the Planning Commissions certainly quantifies the experience.