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Living on the Margins – India’s Most Marginalized and Excluded Communities

Understanding the Multidimensional Poverty Landscape in India

In recent years, India has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies, but a significant portion of its population still grapples with multidimensional poverty. This article delves into the complex issue of poverty in India, with a focus on marginalized communities, child undernutrition, and the country’s efforts to combat this pervasive problem.

The Face of Marginalization

India’s social landscape is diverse, but it is the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) that often find themselves at the margins of society. These groups face immense challenges across various socio-economic indicators, including education, health, food security, sanitation, and access to humanitarian aid. The statistics are sobering: 5 out of 6 individuals living in multidimensional poverty in India belong to these marginalized communities.

Stark Disparities

The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (GMPI) report reveals stark disparities in poverty rates within India. Scheduled Tribes (ST) face the most dire circumstances, with a staggering 50.6% living in poverty, followed by Scheduled Castes (SC) at 33.3% and Other Backward Classes (OBC) at 27.2%. Moreover, India holds the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest child-wasting rate, standing at 18.7%. This is a clear indicator of severe undernutrition, as highlighted in the 2023 Global Hunger Index (GHI).

Alarming Health Indicators

The 2023 Global Hunger Index paints a grim picture of India’s health indicators. The report notes a 16.6% prevalence of undernourishment and an under-five mortality rate of 3.1%. It underscores the urgent need to address the challenges faced by small-scale farmers who play a pivotal role in the nation’s food security.

Impact on Children

Child undernutrition is a pressing concern in India. Children suffering from wasting experience weakened immunity, developmental setbacks, and a higher risk of mortality. The report also highlights the alarming prevalence of anemia among Indian women aged 15 to 24 years, standing at a staggering 58.1%.

Interconnected Challenges

It is crucial to recognize the intergenerational impact of malnutrition. Low weight and height among mothers are associated with stunting and wasting in their children. UNICEF data supports the pattern that child undernutrition often occurs in the same regions as maternal undernutrition.

India’s Economic Growth Amidst Poverty

Despite these challenges, India’s economic growth remains robust. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India is poised to be the fastest-growing economy in 2023, with a growth rate of 11.5%. This is a remarkable achievement considering the multidimensional poverty the country faces.

The Fight Against Multidimensional Poverty

India’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) takes a comprehensive approach by considering health, education, and standard of living as three equally significant dimensions. These dimensions are represented by 12 key indicators, including nutrition, child and adolescent mortality, educational attainment, and access to basic amenities.

Over the past five years, India has made commendable progress in reducing multidimensional poverty. The overall poverty rate has decreased by 10%, marking a significant reduction of 9.89 percentage points in the MPI. This progress demonstrates the nation’s dedication to addressing the root causes of multidimensional poverty.

Challenges and Progress

While there has been a notable reduction in the percentage of individuals facing multidimensional poverty from 2015-16 to 2019-21, dropping from 24.85% to 14.96%, it’s important to acknowledge that the overall number of people grappling with poverty has increased during this period.

States Struggling with Poverty

The NITI Aayog’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) identifies certain states in India as the most economically disadvantaged. Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh stand out as the poorest states, with significant portions of their populations living below the poverty line. Specifically, 42.16% of people in Jharkhand, 37.79% in Uttar Pradesh, and 36.65% in Madhya Pradesh, along with 32.67% in Meghalaya, face the challenges of multidimensional poverty.

India’s story is one of contrasts – rapid economic growth alongside persisting multidimensional poverty. While progress has been made, much work remains to ensure that marginalized communities, children, and mothers no longer bear the brunt of this issue. Addressing the root causes of poverty and fostering inclusive growth are key steps in India’s journey towards a more equitable and prosperous future.

Who Are the Poor and Marginalized in India?

Marginalized woman
Marginalized woman

Exploring the Unseen Faces of Poverty and Marginalization

In a country as diverse as India, the glaring disparities among its citizens can’t be overlooked. While India is known for its booming economy and technological advancements, there exists a stark reality that is often hidden from the world’s gaze. Who are the poor and marginalized in India? This article delves deep into this crucial question, revealing the multifaceted aspects of poverty and marginalization in the country.

The Harsh Reality: Multidimensional Poverty

A Startling UN Report

A recent UN report has unearthed a disheartening truth – five out of every six multidimensionally poor individuals in India hail from the lower tribes or castes. These marginalized groups are grappling with a life plagued by poverty in its many dimensions.

The Scheduled Tribes: The Poorest of the Poor

Among these marginalized communities, the Scheduled Tribe group stands out as the poorest. They comprise a substantial 9.4 percent of the Indian population. Shockingly, 65 million out of the 129 million individuals living in multidimensional poverty are from this group.

The Many Faces of Marginalization

To understand the gravity of the issue, we must recognize the diverse groups that fall under the umbrella of the poor and marginalized. These include:

1. Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs)

  • Bondo Tribes
  • Kutia Kondhs
  • Dongoria Kondhs
  • Gonds
  • Gadaba
  • Juang Tribes
  • Mankidia Tribes
  • Sahariya Communities
  • Yerukala
  • Yanadi Communities

2. Dalits

  • Musahar Communities
  • Doms
  • Nomadic Communities

3. Other Backward Classes (OBCs)

  • Dhobi (Washermen)
  • Bariko (Barbers)

4. Vulnerable Individuals

  • People Living with HIV and AIDS
  • Transgenders
  • Stigmatized Communities like the Banchhadas and Nut Communities

5. Special Groups

  • Old People Without Caregivers
  • Single Women
  • Widows
  • People with Disabilities

6. Other Marginalized Communities

  • Kalbelias
  • Fisherfolk Communities
  • Rag Pickers
  • Homeless People
  • Other Urban Poor

The Most Vulnerable

While all these groups are vulnerable in their unique ways, certain sections within them face an even greater plight. The most vulnerable among them are:

– Women

– Children

– People with Disabilities

– The Aged

The Elusive Reach of Government Schemes

The Indian government has introduced a multitude of development schemes and programs aimed at uplifting the marginalized communities. However, the sad reality is that these initiatives often fail to reach the poorest households due to issues during implementation.

The marginalized communities and individuals find themselves on the fringes when it comes to accessing government development schemes, social security programs, entitlements, infrastructure, and benefits. This can be attributed to a lack of awareness among the masses, governance challenges, gender bias, age-related issues, and the status of disability, among other factors of exclusion.

Vulnerable Communities: Battling Nature’s Fury

Adding to their woes, these vulnerable communities often bear the brunt of natural disasters and extreme weather variabilities. They are disproportionately affected, and their struggles are amplified during times of crisis.

In conclusion, the issue of poverty and marginalization in India is far more complex and deeply rooted than what meets the eye. While the government’s intentions are noble, there is a pressing need for more effective implementation and awareness campaigns to ensure that the most marginalized members of society receive the help and support they need.

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Limited Coping Mechanisms: A Vicious Cycle of Vulnerability

For vulnerable communities, coping with the shocks of natural disasters and the impacts of climate change is a relentless struggle. Their ability to adapt and withstand these challenges is severely restricted, often leading to a recurring cycle of poverty. In their quest for survival, they resort to mass migration, relocating to towns, cities, and metropolises in search of work in the informal sector. This desperate migration, often driven by distress, has been on the rise, particularly in climate hotspots like the Sunderbans.

Challenges of Migration: An Uphill Battle

The poorest households from these vulnerable communities migrate to regions like South India in pursuit of gainful employment. However, their ordeal does not end with the journey. They encounter numerous challenges upon reaching their destination sites. Access to basic rights and entitlements such as food, drinking water, bathing facilities, healthcare, and education, especially for migrant children, remains severely limited.

To these migrant families, the destination often feels like a “foreign land,” characterized by stark differences in socio-economic conditions, culture, and language. This adds another layer of complexity to their struggle for survival.

The Role of Middlemen and Violations of Labor Laws

Many migrant households find themselves under the control of middlemen or labor contractors known as “Sardars.” These intermediaries play a significant role in the distress migration process. Unfortunately, many labor laws are violated during this process, including acts like The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, The Child Labor (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, and The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.

The Rising Tide of Migration

Interstate and intrastate migration is increasingly prevalent, particularly over the past two decades. Millions of migrants engage in seasonal and sometimes permanent migration. However, their destination sites often present them with issues of deprivation and exclusion. The income they earn from migration is barely sufficient to make ends meet and support their families back home. Despite these challenges, their contributions to the informal economy and the nation’s GDP are substantial.

Alarming Rural Poverty Statistics

Rural India is heavily reliant on manual labor for livelihood, with more than half of rural households engaged in this sector. Shockingly, 75 percent of the rural population, approximately 133.5 million families, earn less than Rs. 5,000 per month. With 833 million Indians, or 69 percent of the population, residing in rural areas, this paints a grim picture.

In 2019, the average income for a rural household was a mere Rs. 10,218. For 75 percent of rural India, daily survival is sustained on less than Rs. 33 per person per day. This income is grossly inadequate to support families throughout the year.

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The Harsh Reality of Exclusion

A staggering 51 percent of households rely on manual labor as their primary source of income. Additionally, over 28 percent, which amounts to over 50 million households, lack access to mobile phones or any form of communication. More than 70 million rural households face some form of exclusion, whether it’s related to assets or socio-economic benefits, according to data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) survey.

The Informal Sector: A Web of Insecurity

In 1993, the 15th International Conference of Labour Statisticians at the ILO (15th ICLS) defined the informal sector as a group of unincorporated enterprises owned by households. In 2003, the 17th ICLS guidelines offered a different perspective, defining informal employment as all remunerative work not protected by existing legal frameworks. Informal workers lack secure employment contracts, benefits, social protection, and workers’ representation, making their situation precarious.

A Path to Formalization: The ILO Recommendation

In a bid to address the challenges faced by informal workers, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204). This recommendation urges countries to progressively extend minimum wage protections to workers in the informal economy, both in law and in practice. In some countries, minimum wage laws do not apply to certain informal employment scenarios, creating further vulnerabilities for these workers.

In conclusion, the coping mechanisms of vulnerable communities in the face of natural disasters and migration are deeply intertwined with the challenges of poverty and exclusion. It is imperative that governments and organizations take steps to address these issues and provide support to those who are most vulnerable in our society.

Understanding the Global Informal Economy

The informal economy, a vast realm of unregulated economic activities, is a phenomenon witnessed globally. It encompasses various endeavors that, if recorded, would contribute significantly to tax revenue and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a staggering 2 billion workers, or 60 percent of the world’s employed population aged 15 and older, engage in informal sector activities. However, the size and prevalence of the informal sector vary greatly across regions and countries. Even today, in advanced economies, the informal sector constitutes about 15 percent of economic activity, while in low and middle-income countries, it accounts for a substantial one-third of economic activity.

The Dark Side of Informality

The persistence of informal labor, especially in emerging markets and developing economies, is increasingly recognized as a hindrance to sustainable development. Informal businesses do not contribute to the tax base and often remain small, characterized by low productivity and limited access to finance. This phenomenon leads to economic growth in regions with significant informal sectors falling short of its true potential. Furthermore, informal workers face a higher risk of poverty, primarily due to the absence of formal contracts and social protection, coupled with lower educational attainment.

Fueling Inequality

Informality is intrinsically linked to high inequality. Even workers with similar skills tend to earn less in the informal sector than their formal sector counterparts. This wage gap is particularly pronounced at lower skill levels. This connection is evident in the substantial reduction in informality observed in Latin America over the past two decades, which was associated with a significant decrease in inequality.

A Gendered Struggle

The burden of informal work also falls heavily on women. In two out of three low- and lower-middle-income countries, women are not only more likely to engage in informal employment but also to occupy the most precarious and lowest-paying categories within the informal sector.

Urgent Action Needed

Addressing informality is a pressing imperative to foster inclusive economic development and alleviate poverty on a global scale. The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the urgency of this issue. The pandemic’s impact on informal activities worldwide has highlighted the necessity for governments and development actors to provide support to large segments of the population not covered or not well-covered by existing social protection programs.

Crafting Effective Policies

However, designing effective policies to combat informality is a complex challenge due to its diverse causes and forms, which differ both across and within countries. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but extensive research and policy experiments have illuminated a common set of guiding principles for policy design:

  1. Improving Education: Enhancing access and the quality of education, ensuring students stay in school through secondary education, and providing technical and vocational training opportunities are pivotal steps to reduce informality.
  2. Tax System Reform: Simplifying value-added and corporate tax systems with minimal exemptions and loopholes, along with lower rates, can help diminish incentives for individuals and firms to remain in the informal sector. Progressive income taxes and protections for the poorest are also crucial.
  3. Financial Inclusion: Expanding access to formal financial services can lower informality by alleviating the constraint of limited access to finance faced by informal firms and entrepreneurs. Greater financial access often leads to faster economic growth and lower income inequality.
  4. Structural Reforms: Simplifying labor market regulations to enhance flexibility and facilitate the transition of informal workers into formal employment is essential. Removing monopolies through competition policy can also foster the entry of small firms into various sectors. Eliminating excessive regulations and bureaucratic requirements is equally important.

Collaborative Efforts for Change

Addressing informality requires a multi-pronged approach. Effective implementation of existing social schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and state livelihood programs, alongside skill-building and vocational training initiatives, can alleviate the financial hardships of the poorest families and rejuvenate rural economies. Promoting household industries and “Make in India” initiatives can serve as vital growth engines.

Enhancing access to food and nutrition schemes, including the Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid Day Meals (MDM), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), and POSHAN 2.0 (National Nutrition Mission), is crucial to ensuring food and nutritional security for the most vulnerable households.

Collaboration between government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), corporate social responsibility (CSR) foundations, and private sector actors can contribute significantly to supporting development initiatives. International donors, bilateral, multilateral, and UN agencies, as well as faith-based organizations, have a crucial role in supporting rural development initiatives in partnership with governments and NGOs.

A vibrant civil society, including voluntary organizations, NGOs, community-based organizations, farmer collectives, youth organizations, labor organizations, intellectuals, professionals, social workers, and activists, serves as a watchdog in a democratic and welfare state, advocating for change and inclusivity.

Gradual Progress: The Key to Reducing Informality

Informality significantly influences the pace of economic growth, development, and the availability of decent economic opportunities. Sustainable development necessitates a gradual reduction in informality over time. Attacking the sector based on the notion of illegality and tax evasion is not the solution. Instead, steady reforms, including investments in education and policies addressing underlying causes, offer a more effective path towards a more inclusive and equitable economy.

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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