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War Against Poverty

War Against Poverty

While delivering the keynote address at the inaugural session of the 33rd general body meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) that on February 2 at the St John’s Medical College auditorium in Bengaluru, Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon in Myanmar, said that ‘poverty is the mortal sin of modern times’. He also added that Poverty is the biggest terrorism and evil that needs to be fought by the Church. It is not known what action plan that the bishops India have adopted at the end of their conference to fight against poverty.

Poverty elimination has been a great concern of the countries of the world and of the international and multi-lateral organizations. One of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations is “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. According to the UN document on Sustainable Development Goals, poverty is more than the lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Economic growth must be inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality. In spite of the reduction of extreme poverty why millions of people remain poor?

There could be various reasons for the poor people remaining poor from generation to generation. One of the major factors that keep the poor always poor is growing inequalities. According to the latest report released by OXFAM, an international confederation of charitable organizations, on January 22, 82% of the wealth generated in the year 2017 went to the richest 1% of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. The report reveals how the global economy enables wealthy elite to accumulate vast fortunes while hundreds of millions of people are struggling to survive on poor pay. The following are some of the highlights of the report.

  • Billionaire wealth has risen  by an annual average of 13% since 2010 – six times faster than the wages of ordinary workers, which have risen by a yearly average of just 2%. The number of billionaires rose at an unprecedented rate of one every two days between March 2016 and March 2017.

  • It takes just four days  for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. In the US, it takes slightly over one working day for a CEO to earn what an ordinary worker makes in a year.

  • It would cost $2.2 billion a year  to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers to a living wage. This is about a third of the amount paid out to wealthy shareholders by the top 5 companies in the garment sector in 2016.

  • ( https://www.oxfamindia.org/pressrelease/2093 )

Regarding India the report has stated that 73% of the wealth generated 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 67 crore Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw 1% increase in their wealth. India added 17 new billionaires last year, raising the number to 101. Indian billionaires’ wealth increased by INR 4891 billion —from INR 15,778 billion to over INR 20,676 billion. According to the report the benefits of economic growth in India continue to concentrate in a few hands. “We should be ashamed of the phenomenon of the increasing number of billionaires” said Srimati Anuaradha Shankar, IPS, ADGP of Madhya Pradesh, while addressing the participants of the fourth National Peace Convention in Kochi on January 30. She holds the view that the system that creates billionaires widens the gap between the rich and the poor. A country like India need not blindly follow a system that increases the number of billionaires every year while the poorest of the poor remain where they are. “Religion is being used to keep the poor embroiled in a web of poverty”, she said while analysing the causes for the poor remaining poor.

Economic inequality coupled with social and educational inequalities keep the poor always at the bottom of socio-economic pyramid. Dr. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book, “ An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions ” have analyzed the unique nature of the inequalities in India. “India has a unique cocktail of lethal divisions and disparities’. Mutual reinforcement of multiple inequalities creates an extremely oppressive social system leading to disempowerment of those at lowest rug”. “It can be seen that the same people, often enough, are poor in income and wealth, suffer from illiteracy and bad schooling, works hard for little remuneration, have little influence on the administration of the country, lack social and economic opportunities that would allow them to move forward, and are treated with brutal callousness by the class conscious police,” (An Uncertain Glory of India by John Dreze and Dr. Amartya Sen P. 242)

In the context of India Dalits, tribals and large segment of Muslims are the victims of multiple inequalities. Large majority of them are economically poor; literacy and education are lowest among them and they are often socially discriminated. Large number of people in India lacks the basic requirement of dignified living: a usable school, an accessible hospital, a toilet at home, two square meals a day. These people belong generally to dailits, tribals, daily wage workers, marginal farmers and large section of Muslims.

The poorest of the poor are deprived of resources. According to the 2016 Indian Exclusion Report released by the Centre for Equity Studies (CES) the rate of landlessness was highest among Dalits, at 57.3%. Among Muslims, it was 52.6% and 56.8% of woman-headed household were landless. Around 40% of all those displaced by ‘development activity’ were Adivasis. The quality of the land owned by Dalits was very poor, with 58% of it having no irrigation. Although majority of the tribals have land, productivity of the land is progressively decreasing due to large scale deforestation, resulting in soil erosion and drying up of the water sources like rivers and rivulets. As a result large number of tribals and dalits are forced to go for seasonal migration to the cities. As they do not have any specialized skill they become unskilled daily wage workers, subjected to different types of exploitation. The wages they get is hardly enough for the livelihood of their families. They are neither able to save anything nor capable of spending on the education of their children.

The political parties of India never gave priority to education of the poor. They have maintained a dual system of education: good quality education to the rich who can pay for it and poor quality education to the poor through the government schools. The Annual Status Education Report (ASER) published every year reveals the pathetic situation of education imparted through the government schools in India. ASER 2017 has focused on the age group between 14 and 18. As per the report 40% of the students between the age of 14 and 18 surveyed in rural schools across 24 states could not tell the time from the image of a clock and 46% couldn’t read and understand three out of four instructions. Many (57%) couldn’t do basic math, even read fluently in their own language (25%).

Good quality education to the poor is the key to wage a war against poverty. Anand Kumar who has initiated the highly innovative scheme of “Super 30” for coaching 30 poor students every year for the IIT entrance exam says, “A man without money has only one way to escape his misfortune –education. You educate one boy, you elevate an entire village.”

The various anti-poverty programmes of the government help the poor to survive, but they are not enough to bring about a radical change in their lives and bring them out of the cycle of poverty; but good quality education can do it. What is required is a common school system to which all children of India will have access, as it is practiced in most of the European countries. The root cause of inequality lies in the dual system of education in India. If the Church in India is serious about waging a war against poverty it may take the following steps.

  1. Provide 25% reservation to the disadvantaged children in the unaided English Medium Schools. It is not necessary to give totally free education to these children. Fee can be collected in proportion to the paying capacity of the parents. The school has to arrange additional coaching to these children at the expense of the school so that they will be able to catch up with other students.

  2. The infrastructure facilities of the schools shall be used to provide skill training to the poor youth of the neighbourhood. The schools can have tie up with the government department for skill training in this regard. The computer lab could be used for giving computer education for the poor youth of the neighbourhood. Fee could be charged from the candidates in proportion to their paying capacity.

  3. Hostels shall be started attached to the English Medium Schools for providing quality education for the underprivileged children from distant villages. The purpose of the hostel should be providing excellent education along with developing the students as enlightened leaders with character and competence.

  4. Building an inclusive society with equal rights and opportunities is an important aspect of the mission of the Church. Along with the empowerment of the poor transformation in the attitude and mindset of the rich and the middle class in the society is also required to achieve this goal. Inculcating in the students the values of sensitivity and compassion to the poor and the needy, being responsible to the society and readiness to share one’s resources with the less privileged is essential for bringing about transformation in the rich and the middle class who are often guided by the values of individualism, competition and consumerism.

  5. The focus of catechism of the children and the youth shall be inculcating in the students the core values of Jesus, particularly sharing one’s resources with the underprivileged and accepting and respecting other persons, especially the poor as equals.

The official Church has a responsibility to question and challenge the policies of the government that may further widen the already existing inequalities. Pope Francis is fulfilling this responsibility through his teachings and statements. The Church in India cannot be a partner in the dual policy of providing good quality education to the rich who can pay for it and poor quality education to the poor. Enhancing the quality of the educational institutions that cater to the poor is a great challenge to the Church in India.

(Published on 12th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 07)