IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Freedom struggle was also about combating poverty — there has been a setback  

15th August, 2020 Economy

Fighting Poverty before Independence

  • At a time when hardly any statistics were available for the Indian economy, Dadabhai Naoroji presented the first estimates of poverty in his 1877 paper ‘Poverty in India’, subsequently published in his book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India in 1899.
  • These estimates by the Grand Old Man of the freedom struggle were closely linked to the idea of freedom not just from the British rule but also from a life of poverty.
  • This idea continued as a thread in the freedom struggle as constant references to Antyodaya in Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches or later in the reports of the National Planning Committee of 1938, tasked with drawing up the plan for economic growth and progress after Independence.
  • Clearly, our freedom fighters did not look at the fight against poverty and inequality as being separate from the struggle against British colonialism.


Progress After Independence

  • The poor state of the economy in the early decades meant that growth was seen as the primary objective rather than efforts at redistribution and poverty alleviation.
  • It was only during the late Sixties and early Seventies, following the call of “Garibi Hatao” by Indira Gandhi, that poverty became an issue of political mobilisation and a priority for economic policy-making.
  • This period also saw a rise in the scholarship on the measurement of poverty, an area where India remained a pioneer.
  • The 1970s also saw the initiation of poverty alleviation programmes of the central government as well as a larger effort in different states, including the strengthening of food-related schemes in Tamil Nadu or the Employment Guarantee Scheme in Maharashtra.
  • Today, the average per capita income of Indians is 7.5 times that in 1950.
  • India has moved from the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” of 3-4 per cent to an average growth rate of 7 per cent per annum and higher in recent decades.
  • State-led dirigisme has given way to a more open and liberalised state with the dominance of the market.
  • However, the acceleration in growth after the economic reforms in 1991 has also been accompanied by increasing inequality, with the level of inequality in assets and incomes being at its highest.



  • While there has been some success in poverty reduction, our experience pales in comparison to most other countries that became independent around the same time or started at similar levels of per capita income such as China, Vietnam or Bangladesh.
  • Also concerning is that we have no official estimates of poverty and inequality after 2011-12. The last consumption survey was conducted in 2017-18 whose report was leaked, but not released.
  • It showed a decline in consumption expenditure in rural areas while it barely increased in urban areas. The net result was a rise in overall poverty.
  • This is the first time in four decades that consumption expenditure has declined and poverty rose between two quinquennial rounds.
  • The government’s decision to junk the survey does not erase the fact that this decade seems to have seen a setback in the fight against poverty.
  • Other indicators such as unemployment, wages and incomes vindicate this. With growth also slowing down, the challenge to eradicate extreme poverty is even bigger than it was during the 1990s and 2000s.