Power, Authority and Influence

My apologies for a recap of Anthropology 101, but it is necessary to understand what I mean by the title of this post.  Anthropologists define political organization as the way in which a society handles the distribution of power, to maintain order which will enable the peaceful social and economic functioning of society.  When this power is legitimized on the basis of culture/mores, it becomes traditional authority (as in a Council of Elders); and when it is legitimized through a modern legal-institutional framework, it is termed rational authority. In other words, if I have the power I can make you act in a particular way, whether you want to do so or not, and if I exercise authority over you then you must act in the way outlined, or face social and legal sanctions.  The third element in this triad is influence – a far more subtle ability to make others think and act in a particular way, of their own volition.

I was reminded of these lessons of long ago by the constant harping in the Indian media about the Trump Twitter forays and the ‘War of Thrones’ in State elections in key North Indian States – with a liberal use of words like ‘power’, ‘defeat’, ‘victory’ and ‘demolition’ ad nauseam. The two self-proclaimed greatest democracies on Earth, reducing the hopes and aspirations of over a billion and a half souls  to a tawdry reality show on commercial TV. And this is how it works – in theory:

But how much of this much vaunted ‘power’ is real? Given the quirky electoral systems in both countries, the US Presidential race was won with just 46% of the popular vote; and India’s General Elections of 2014 gave the present government a great number of seats with just 31% of the electoral vote. Since then, Indian State Government elections have become vital to strengthen the government’s hands in the Upper House. This is seen as very important, because the sitting government wishes to tweak the legal-institutional framework to enhance its authority in a way that will enable it to achieve its agenda before the next General Election, in 2019 – just as POTUS can affect the legal process there, by select appointments to the judiciary.

Whenever there is an attempt to put the cart before the horse (assuming authority before legitimizing power) it falls flat – like the Trump travel ban and the hasty amendments to India’s Land Laws. I doubt whether both countries will allow their basic systems of legitimacy to be tweaked quite as easily as the incumbents seem to imagine – there are far too many checks and balances in both Constitutions, too many dissenting voices, too much inbuilt inertia, and rampant multiculturalism – the only safeguard for democracy in a globalised, multipolar world.

However, there is a clear and present danger that until this much coveted legitimate authority materializes, there will be extra-legal efforts to intimidate and coerce, through the rewriting of history, the marginalization of immigrants and minorities, and the quelling of all dissent by questioning the integrity of all those who disagree – like the campus unrest in India and the media war in the US. It is again the bottom 20% in both countries who will bear the brunt of these ambitions.

What is surprising is the convergence of vision between two such disparate leaders – one wants to make America great again, the other wants Development for all – but through the common route of infrastructure! This sector is globally acknowledged as the greatest source of corruption, and has been used in both countries to win elections – taking clientelism and crony capitalism to a new high : support today, profit tomorrow.

In fact the American Society of Civil Engineers has already submitted a wish list by outlining the horrendous costs to the country of deteriorating infrastructure, and the aspiring classes in India too dream of totally unviable and expensive bullet train networks criss-crossing their vast country.

Infrastructure development provides both a carrot and a stick in times of elections: on the one hand, investment in physical infrastructure benefits large companies in the heavy engineering, construction and mining sectors, whose shareholders are among the richest and have the deepest pockets; and on the other hand, it keeps the recalcitrant and minorities in line through coercion – the highly centralized governance in India gives an immense advantage to the party in power at the Centre, and States that choose to go with other parties pay a very heavy price in terms of systematic deprivation of development funds.

The price paid by West Bengal for voting in the Communists for a quarter century was huge – and Kolkata as the consumptive dowager metropolis of India is living proof of this, while Delhi was lavished with beautifying additions at the cost of other cities. Further, it is not only the cities but the rural areas which are impacted adversely if the Central and State Government are political adversaries. The Ministry of Rural Development gets the bulk of Government subsidies and aid, and antagonizing the powers-that-be at the Centre can dry up a river, create a famine, isolate a village, target a community, unleash a deadly epidemic, or devastate an eco-system.

So as they forge new means to maximize the private profits from public investment in infrastructure, both countries will forget their shortcomings – like the world’s largest incarcerated population, child poverty, growing homelessness, deteriorating public schools, crippling student debts and unaffordable healthcare in the US; and the highest incidence of modern slavery, growing malnutrition, child labour, non-existent social security and rampant informalisation of the economy, in India.

And the poorest will continue to fall off the grid…


WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism

It was one of those cold misty mornings that you only get in North India in January, and I was being dropped to the airport at 5 a.m. by the hotel cabbie, and we were  lamenting the state of the world (ALL Indians always lament the state of the world when passing the time with total strangers…). Anyway, it emerged that despite working for a luxury hotel run by what is considered India’s most ethical business group, the driver is paid such a paltry salary that his family just makes it above the poverty line. And this despite being at the hotel’s beck and call 24/7. I am sure his father would have blamed his poverty on bad karma from an earlier life, and as a younger man, this gentleman would have ranted about discrimination (in arguably the world’s most discriminatory and unequal society), but in Modi’s India he blamed it on one single thing – corruption.

There is of course, a growing school of thought which believes that neo-conservative regimes like the current Indian government come to power by promising development, and blaming the preceding governments for holding the country back because of widespread corruption. Come elections, they promise to eradicate corruption through ‘good governance’. Their concept of governance (based on the classic World Bank model) is however, more like corporate governance with all emphasis on efficiency, grand announcements and fast but centralized decision-making, with the citizen-centric governance promoted by UNDP, totally forgotten along with effectiveness, participation, responsiveness, and accountability. Naturally, in this context, the entirely business-centric scales like Transparency International’s to measure corruption, or WEF’s ease of business are given far too much importance, and the UN reports on social indicators generally neglected. Consequently, wealth qua wealth is worshipped and accumulated, enterprise rewarded, bad debts incurred, and the informality and inequality in the country keep rising.

This is how the very core neocon agenda undermines itself, because as the social analyst Jong-Sung You argues in his latest book, inequality produces several causal mechanisms that serve to embed corruption within democratic structures and make them difficult to eradicate. Linking economic to political power, he explains how the ruling elite in an attempt to safeguard its own interests, buys political influence through both legal and illegal channels in order to ensure their interests are over-represented in the corridors of power. High rates of inequality thus compound the problem of state capture by powerful figures in politics, business and the media, with the result that democratic processes of accountability are undermined by corrupt practices.

Further, Dr You points out that an unequal state with enfeebled democratic infrastructure is ripe for persistent and prevalent clientelism, forcing the poor to become dependent on corrupt chains of patronage for the provision of particular benefits like medicine, education and nourishment, which would otherwise be considered entitlements in a functioning democracy. These chains of patronage on which the poor rely, are then mobilized during elections to buy votes and, in the bureaucracy, to buy favours. Importantly, this illustrates that the role elections should play as a mechanism for accountability ceases to function under high conditions of inequality; elections meant to fight corruption, become a means to legitimize a corrupt regime. And so we have come full circle.

Maybe it is the work of thinkers like Dr Jong-sung You which has begun to influence that bastion of free enterprise, the World Bank. Their latest World Development Report is a refreshing recant on their earlier version of governance and now considers governance as “… the process through which state and non-state actors interact to design and implement policies within a given set of formal and informal rules that shape and are shaped by power. This Report defines power as the ability of groups and individuals to make others act in the interest of those groups and individuals and to bring about specific outcomes.”

So there you have it: in the end, the institutions of governance do eventually subserve the demands of the most powerful in society. The WDR 2017 acknowledges that the power asymmetries in society can greatly undermine development and policy making and implementation because they lead to exclusion, capture, and clientelism. This in turn leads to the power of elite bargaining in a modern democracy, and its impact on policy-making and eventually, development.

As part of the World Development Report 2017, the World Bank, in collaboration with the V-Dem Institute, has conducted expert surveys to generate cross-national indicators that enable comparison of who holds bargaining power and how they wield this influence. The surveys cover more than 100 years of data in 12 countries across six regions and their findings are very interesting, as this graph shows:

WDR 2017 Elites.png

Some observations:

  • Power in Russia, Turkey (and Rwanda!) is apparently centralized totally to the exclusion of all other actors. So what happens when the mighty One is no more?
  • Do Brazilians really feel that the media there are such powerful players? Perhaps, especially after the media hounding of a democratically elected President…
  • Are foreign governments and international donor agencies really so powerful in Sri Lanka, or is there a defence angle India should worry about?
  • Local Governments, Organized Labour Unions and Civil Society Organizations seem to wield power only in Bolivia making it some sort of last refuge for the socialist idealist, and
  • Finally, India is true to the South Asian archetype, where power is centralized in the National Executive, National legislature, the Judiciary, national political parties and the All-India Civil Services – a permanent bureaucracy bequeathed by our erstwhile rulers to the entire sub-continent. Noticeable too is the absence of influence at the local or municipal level, despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment on decentralization, dating back to 1992, and that goes a long way in explaining the pathetic state of India’s burgeoning cities…

Cities of Asia and the Pacific

UN Habitat and UN-ESCAP together released the report The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, and its key finding is that the speed and scope of urbanisation in the region is unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2010, cities here grew by around one billion people, and another one billion will be added by 2040. The urban population at mid-year per region as defined in World Urbanisation Prospects (2014) illustrates this most dramatically:

Urban Population mid-year Region-wise

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5%) or Europe (73.4%), by 2018 half of the Asia and Pacific population will be living in the region’s towns and cities. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people. By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to 17 megacities (which are starting to give way to huge mega-urban regions that encompass cities, towns, villages and rural areas), they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers and 7% of its total population. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium-size cities, “… where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organisational resources.”

The Report is subtitled Urban Transformations: Shifting from quantity to quality and therein lies the rub.

If cities in Asia and the Pacific are to continue as the engines of growth for their national economies, they have to reinvent urban planning to make cities more sustainable and inclusive – and the fact that the world’s most polluted and disparate cities are all to be found in this region, underlines the urgency for a new planning model.

First of all, there is a need for new paradigms of urban governance, especially in the growing megaregions, which are extremely difficult to manage holistically. Perhaps the experiment in Tamil Nadu under the previous State Government of decentralising urban governance while centralising urban infrastructure may provide both greater efficiency in the delivery of services, and economies of scale in upgrading infrastructure.

Secondly, as advocated on this site time and again, perhaps the small and medium towns of countries like India (where the bulk of the urban population lives) could be reinvented as agricultural hubs, bringing both sustainability and prosperity to the agricultural sector, and creating new avenues of employment in the towns and cities by tertiarising the rural economy.

Finally, the biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains the growing urban poverty and vulnerability, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. The Report estimates that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation while the urban informal sector continues to grow rapidly. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

Next time round we could perhaps take a look at the emerging challenges for cities around the world.



Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

UN Habitat estimates that 1.6 billion people today live in inadequate shelter around the world, and 1 billion of those live in informal settlements or slums. An additional 100 million people worldwide are homeless. It goes on to state that by 2030, an additional 3 billion people or 40% of the world’s population, will need access to housing. This translates into a demand for 96,150 new affordable units every day and 4,000 every hour. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is projected to be living in urban areas, causing slums and unplanned settlements to swell. About one in four people on this planet, live in conditions that harm their health, safety, prosperity and opportunities. Estimates of homelessness in the richest country on earth, the United States, vary from 1.6 million to 3 million people. Most studies conclude that about one-third of the homeless are children.

In one of the most popular posts on this blog – Dimensions of Urban Poverty – it was pointed out that urban poverty had many dimensions such as income, education, health, housing and security and alleviation of urban poverty can only happen if all these dimensions are addressed synchronously. That has not happened. While globalization may have put more money in the pockets of the urban poor  (especially in the burgeoning and untaxed informal sector), the access of the urban poor to education and health remains questionable in both developed and developing economies, and of course, housing remains a major problem from Santiago to Shanghai.

It is now acknowledged by all development agencies, that housing poverty (especially in the world’s metros) has little to do with a lack of income, and everything to do with lack of access to land. In former colonies like India, urban land remains inaccessible to the poor for a variety of reasons:

  1. Retrograde laws and practices inherited from the former colonial rulers
  2. A preference for low form urbanization (again, an inherited western bourgeois aesthetic)
  3. Extremely stringent and outdated development control rules which militate against traditional forms of construction
  4. Absence of a reliable land record system rooted in the local ethos
  5. An inherent disconnect between western educated urban planners and ground realities
  6. Failure to reign in the avarice of private developers
  7. Rampant corruption in the housing sector, from the grant of building permissions, to undervaluation, to issuance of completion certificates, to housing loans and subsidies, to transactions under the table to avoid high registration fees and stamp duty.

And this denial of access to urban land continues to divide Indian cities into the haves and have-nots, even when the differences in income, services and assets between the ‘slum-dweller’ and the average urbanite are dwindling away, as these statistics from Census India 2011 clearly indicate:

Slum assets Census India 2011

Clearly, inadequate housing is the problem. Not inadequate income.

Activists across the world have taken a ‘rights’ approach to housing, but unfortunately, such ‘leftist claptrap’ doesn’t sit well with the Government in Delhi… Perhaps housing in urban areas will get more attention from the present government if its economic benefits are pointed out, as UN-Habitat does:

  • Adequate shelter is a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty
  • Adequate housing is vitally important to the health of the world’s economies, communities and populations.
  • Home ownership is a form of wealth accumulation through equity and forced savings from mortgage repayment.
  • Good housing attracts economic investment and development.

Not to mention that in an India increasingly riven by social unrest, insecurity and increasing violence against women, decent shelter makes for safe homes and neighborhoods that help to build social stability and security.


Social Security Nets as guarantors of Human Development

Whenever one talks of sustainable livelihoods, we look not only at the 5 types of assets of a community or individual, but also at their coping strategies. Thus vocational diversity in a farming family will cushion it against a bad crop or a natural disaster, or the sudden death of the principal breadwinner. At the national level, the coping mechanism is provided by the state in the form of social security nets like unemployment benefits, health care, free education, pensions or child benefits.

The second edition of The State of Social Nets which attempts to compile, analyze, and disseminate data and developments as part of the World Bank’s 2012–22 Social Protection and Labor Strategy, makes for interesting reading, and its key findings are summarized below:

  • The portfolio of social safety net programmes is large and diverse. A developing country runs about 20 different safety net programmes, on average.
  • Cash transfers and school feeding programmes are present in almost all countries. Cash transfers are becoming more popular and increasingly complex. Conditional cash transfer programmes are now present in 64 countries, a dramatic increase from 2 countries in 1997 and 27 countries in 2008.
  • Worldwide, 1.9 billion people are enrolled in social safety net programmes.
  • The world’s five largest social safety net programmes are all in middle-income countries and reach over 526 million people.

It was also noted that the social security programmes and composition of social spending varied greatly across regions, as seen below:

Social Security Nets

However, the Report  found that despite remarkable progress over the past 5 years, most of the poor remain outside the social safety net system, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries, which have the lowest coverage levels of poor people in their societies, and the least ability to direct resources to those most in need. The coverage gap is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where most of the global poor live. In these regions, only one-tenth and one-fifth of the poorest 20 percent have access to social safety nets, respectively. Urban areas have serious gaps in coverage, at all income levels. While 285 million poor people live in cities in developing countries, reaching them presents special challenges, including identifying, targeting, communicating with, and enrolling perspective beneficiaries.

In this writer’s own experience, the National Social Assistance Programme (which consisted of a nominal pension to the poor above the age of 65) showed very good results in rural areas, but was absent from the big metros, chiefly because the pension was disbursed through money orders, and the urban poor being homeless, simply did not have a postal address! Such procedural lapses are the chief cause that the social security coverage of the poorest in developing countries remains inadequate. Take the latest case of cheap loans for farmers, which have been cleverly diverted to non-farming uses. Firstly, as these loans use land as collateral, the poorest landless tenant farmers are not covered; and as the scrutiny before granting loans is cursory at best, a lot of these loans end up in Fixed Deposits earning the borrower anything from 8-9% interest, while he pays no more that 4% on his loan.

To plug such loopholes, many countries are increasingly looking to Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCT) and Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). This strategy has several additional benefits, as the Report points out: “Newer studies confirm the positive and significant impacts of cash transfers on school enrollment and attendance; increased live births in safer facilities; improved prenatal and postnatal care; regular growth monitoring of children during critically important early ages; and enhanced food security.”

The studies also delve deeper into the productive impacts of cash transfers, demonstrating how predictable cash transfers enhance households’ investment in activities to generate agricultural and nonagricultural income. In the urban context, a secure and predictable monthly income can mean the difference between shelter and homelessness, between education and illiteracy, between health and illness. Cash transfers also have major positive spillover effects on the local economy of target communities, especially in urban areas.

Sadly, India is now ignoring all these benefits and the new government has ruthlessly slashed social expenditure in its last budget. What is frightening is that the eternal chase for higher growth rates (with a matching aversion to any form of subsidies and direct cash transfers, which are now being replaced by contributory insurance schemes), may rapidly undo all the gains in the areas of social security, social welfare and food security made by India as part of its commitment to the global social agenda, and the Millennium Development Goals.

Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

In developing countries, 2015 is a year of particular interest because it is the deadline for achieving the various targets under the Millennium Development Goals. To recap, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) saw a new hope for global action in the dawn of a new millennium, and this took the shape of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, which have shaped the development policies of many a nation for the last decade and a half.

The original Millennium Development Goals, and their targets, were:


Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day

Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people

Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger


Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling


Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015


Reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate


Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio

Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health


Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS

Achieve, by 2010, universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who need it

Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases


Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources

Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss

Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation

Achieve, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers


Develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system

Address the special needs of least developed countries

Address the special needs of landlocked developing countries and small island developing States

Deal comprehensively with the debt problems of developing countries

In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications

As almost all the MDGs deal with different dimensions of poverty, the question to be asked here is how well (or badly) have the two demographic giants on the planet fared? Because the MDG targets basically dealt with halving this or that indicator, the expectation never was that poverty would indeed be eradicated in 15 years. It has been tackled with vigour in both India and China, and yet they have a long, long way to go:

Poverty pie chart MDG post

While China has largely secluded its poor in the countryside, India’s poor are everywhere – on street corners in the big metros; among the ill-educated and underemployed of the small towns, living lives of quiet desperation; amidst the small and marginal farmers with an anxious eye on the next monsoon which could spell the difference between choosing to live and choosing to die; and the poorest of the poor in the tribal districts of the country, with no private land to till, and all community resources lost to the greedy contractor.

Many, like this blogger, have been trying to get the present government to look at the state of the nation’s poor, rather than posturing abroad to gain foreign direct investment – but to no avail. Well, if they don’t listen to us, they may perhaps listen to the 7.3 million people worldwide who are saying precisely the same thing. This was the number polled by UNDP in setting the goals for the next 15 years for all the countries in the world.

Given the global concerns with issues like growing carbon footprints, climate change, and unsustainable development, the new goals targeted for 2030 are known as the Sustainable Development Goals, and are more than twice as many as the original MDGs. They are:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

Lest we forget…

The Indian electorate does have a proclivity for throwing out governments which contemptuously ignore the poor – at the State level, and the Centre. Smart cities and busy expressways just don’t cut it with the village mother whose child has to trudge 10 kilometers to school – through rain and shine…


Sustainable Livelihoods

It is estimated that to break out of the present poverty-pollution-population trap, India needs to create some one hundred million sustainable livelihoods in the next ten years, to cover the backlog, plus a similar number for the new entrants into the job market. With this many jobs created, each family in the country can hope to have at least one member with a reasonably paid job.

Given the present direction in both the public and corporate sectors, it is expected that not even 10% of this target will be met. With the new Government’s Make in India emphasis on further industrialisation, any jobs created will be in the formal sector and for non-poor households. True, there will be some trickle down through outsourcing, but as this sub-contracting will only be in India’s urban informal sector, it is not likely to provide long-term, sustainable livelihoods, nor build up the coping mechanisms of the poor.

What do we mean by Sustainable Livelihoods?

As we have seen in an earlier post, urban poverty is a complex multi-dimensional phenomenon, and therefore the approaches to poverty reduction must also be multi-dimensional. Current thinking in development studies has seen a paradigm shift from top-down planning to participatory micro planning, with the focus on local people and their livelihood strategies. There is also a concerted effort to make people aware of their rights and entitlements, so that priorities are fixed by the people rather than by a faceless bureaucracy.

One such approach, developed initially for rural areas and now successfully adapted to urban areas is the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF).

The SL framework revolves around three assessment criteria:

Foremost of them is the ASSETS or CAPITAL of the individual or community. Assets may be financial, natural, human, social or physical as detailed later.

The second criterion is the RIGHTS and ENTITLEMENTS available to the community or individual. These may be traditional, social, moral, legal, or political. Entitlements are things that people may rely upon because of legal or customary rights – like access to common-property resources, employment benefits, right of usufruct on land etc. Entitlements could also include the mutual support structures that are often present in localized communities.

And the final criterion is how far ACTIVITIES dovetail with assets and entitlements. Activities are things that people do to gain a living, and these will usually be based on available assets. A personal asset, such as artistic ability, may form the basis of activities that generate income. Land may be used to earn income. Activities may be based on acquired knowledge and skills; thus education and training has a prominent position in a sustainable livelihoods framework. Knowledge and skills may also be acquired through traditional, cultural processes.

Sometimes, a fourth criterion is added to assess how successfully the individual or group can deal with the vulnerabilities and risks of their situation, and how well they can come up with a COPING STRATEGY.

The SL Framework defines five types of Capital Assets. These are:

Financial Capital which denotes financial resources like: wages, salaries, pension, savings, access to credit, rent, remittances and so on.

Physical Capital or basic infrastructure facilities like roads, transport, electricity, water supply, energy, communication, tools and technology for production

Natural Capital like food security, adequate water supply, minimum air and noise pollution

Human Capital through skills, knowledge, good health, ability to work

Social Capital which includes the formal and informal social relationships such as kinship ties, client-patron relationships, networks and organisations that exist in a community

Under the sustainable livelihood framework it is possible to draw a livelihood polygon for an individual, a group or a community, as illustrated below:


The relative length of each of the arrows connecting to the corners of the polygon, is an indicator of the adequacy/ inadequacy of a particular type of capital in a particular community. In the above case, if all assets or capitals are adequately developed, we see a larger polygon, thereby providing greater livelihood opportunities, and stronger coping abilities to individuals/communities.

However, most government programmes tend to focus on just one type of capital/asset, thereby greatly shrinking the options available to the poor. For example, slum upgradation programmes in India concentrate on providing only physical infrastructure like internal roads, storm drains, public water and sanitation, and neglect the growth of human capital through better health and education services. This results in a skewed livelihood polygon with a much smaller area of opportunity  for the individual and community, as shown below:


The SL Framework in Urban Areas

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF) can be used in the urban context to assess the current state of assets/capital in a community, and then plan new poverty reduction strategies based on this assessment. In fact, it is the ideal framework for undertaking a City Poverty Profile. Practical solutions can then be worked out within the available resources to maximise each of the five ASSETS or CAPITALS in the community, so that the livelihood polygon of the community can be suitably expanded. It must be remembered that every decision may affect more than one type of capital, sometimes adversely. The emphasis is therefore on thinking holistically and getting the balance right.

Thus, FINANCIAL CAPITAL can be greatly augmented through: Providing a place for a cooperative store / fair price shop to be run by the community; starting kitchen gardens; installing metered electricity connections in each household; forming women’s Self Help Groups; setting up labour cooperatives; and providing vocational training geared to local handicrafts / industry.

NATURAL CAPITAL can be enhanced by easy ‘doables’ like providing a playground for children near their homes, initiating participatory activities for improving community environment and sanitation, and providing the means for rainwater harvesting.

The growth of HUMAN CAPITAL in a community is a combination of sound health, education, skill development and capacity to work. All countries have numerous human development programmes either initiated by donor agencies, through NGOs, or undertaken by Governments themselves. Some of these which have impacted positively on HD across the world include: regular antenatal and post natal check-ups by community health workers; regular check-ups for HIV/AIDS, STD; Gender budgeting; immunization camps; mobile clinic schemes; improved housing and sanitation; night classes for school dropouts / child labourers; women’s Self Help Groups; nutrition checks on under-5 children on a monthly basis, awareness campaigns against drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence; increasing the number of group connections for water supply, adult literacy classes; school attendance / drop outs to be monitored by the community itself; constructing / upgrading community toilets for washing, bathing facilities for women… and many more

PHYSICAL CAPITAL is already the only focus of slum improvement programmes in India, but remains very narrow in its ambit. It should also look to augment infrastructure that will help enhance other assets like income, health and education by, for example, transforming muddy approach roads to all-weather roads, building / upgrading community health and family planning centres, improving the housing facilities, removing encroachments, providing covered drains and sanitary facilities, etc.

It is often said that SOCIAL CAPITAL is the only wealth of the poor Indian, given the vast array of caste, clan, ethnic, linguistic, tribal and kinship networks in rural India. These ties, however, are the first casualty, when the rural poor migrate to the cities. However, it is possible through development interventions to build new networks and support systems – the most obvious examples being Self Help Groups, Thrift Societies, and Workers’ Cooperatives. Group activities like literacy drives, mass immunization campaigns, and nutritional assessment camps are also instrumental in cementing community bonds, besides helping with human capital growth.

So where do we go from here? Experts believe that the answer lies in small scale, decentralised industries of a new kind. The key factor is the application of new technologies to the traditional skill and resource base of the community. For instance, the traditional knowledge of certain tribal communities can be successfully utilised in wildlife tourism, and its conservation and preservation. Similarly, with urban heritage suddenly becoming a priority in India, there is a lot of scope for traditional artisans in restoration and preservation of heritage buildings.

If the traditional knowledge handed down from generation to generation is not correctly utilised, it will be lost forever, and will have to be rediscovered and relearnt in Universities (as in Europe), thereby becoming an asset not of the poor – its original owners – but the better off.

Should we sleepwalk through yet another cycle of deprivation, or hear the wake-up call?

Perhaps, the Kudumbashree Programme of the Kerala Government could point the way to sustainable livelihoods for the entire country. They deserve an entire post to themselves, which I shall hope to put up soon. Meanwhile, time for a diversion don’t you think?

Quality of Life in Cities

When the urban population of the planet crossed 50% in 2007, our world was forever changed. Those who believed in cities as the hallmark of human civilization let off a silent cheer. Others were filled with fear, as they contemplated yet more crowding of already crowded cities; a greater concentration of the world’s poor in these cities; deteriorating urban infrastructure; and a growing threat to the global environment.

Two sets of figures clearly encapsulate this dichotomy.

Top 10 Megacities (Population > 10 million) in 2014: Tokyo, Delhi, Seoul, Shanghai, Mumbai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Lagos, Osaka

Top 10 on Mercer Quality of Life (QOL) Index 2014: Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Munich, Vancouver, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, Copenhagen, Sydney

Comparing the two lists we find that:

  • Not ONE city in the first list is represented in the second.
  • EVERY city in the Mercer list is in the ‘developed’ world and are beneficiaries of the colonial era – either through trade (North and Western Europe); or as settlers where the native population was too weak to defend their land and resources (Canada and Australasia). Furthermore, the developed countries are free from population pressure on their facilities and infrastructure, because fertility rates have been steadily declining, and immigration is strictly regulated.
  • NEARLY 70% of megacities are in the so-called ‘developing world’, with a history of being the victims of colonial rule. Moreover the countries with the most megacities are also the most populous in the world, putting tremendous pressure on services and infrastructure.

Therefore one may safely conclude that as a city or town grows in size the first casualty is always the Quality of Life enjoyed by its citizens.

The map of population density brings this point vividly to life:


The second largest land mass, Canada, has a total population of 35 million, less than the total population of just one urban agglomeration – Tokyo-Yokohama. Similarly, the population of Australia (which has a much bigger area than India) is almost exactly equal to just one Indian city- the National Capital Region Delhi.

So with such immense resources at the disposal of such few, is it any wonder that Canadian and Australian cities figure so high in any QOL Index?!

The inexorable growth of megacities is often due to the migration of the rural poor to towns and cities, leading to the urbanisation of poverty. The increasing heterogeneity of urban populations, brings its own pressures in terms of ethnic and class schisms and has a negative effect on the quality of life and makes the city difficult to govern.

By inference from the indicators of quality of life, one may go a step further to conclude that as a city grows beyond its natural carrying capacity, it suffers from deteriorating infrastructure and services, leading to disease and deprivation.

The urbanisation of poverty and the informalisation of the local economy often lead to a spurt in encroachments; slums; and squatter settlements. The political aftermath of this informalisation is a subsidy culture, impractically low user charges, and further impoverishment of local governments.

… and so are the best planned cities, unplanned.

As things now stand, it is highly unlikely that any of the 10-million plus population cities will see things improve. The drought-risk map below, issued by the World Resources Institute is a further reminder of the tough times ahead:

drought-risk World Resources Inst

What quality of life can we offer to the unborn millions of these parched cities?

Quality of Life is essentially a subjective measure about how cost effective, convenient, healthy, satisfying and secure life can be in a city. Several organisations publish such lists as a guide for foreign investors and expatriate workers, and the Mercer Index is one of the best known scales in this business. The Mercer study is based on detailed assessments and evaluations of 39 key ‘quality of life’ determinants which include everything from political stability, banking services, law and order; to the availability of health, education, transport and cultural activities.

We have already seen that cities offering the best quality of life tend to be in the developed half of the world – most usually in Europe and Australasia. So why is this so? We need to look for answers in the history of colonization, urbanisation and industrialization to understand…

The post-World War II years may have been an era of growth in North America and Western Europe; but this development came at a great cost to the rest of the world. The self-serving trade regime of the rich countries stunted the growth of the poor, and plunged them into a debt trap from which few emerged unscathed. The deterioration of the subsistence rural economies of developing countries brought a further influx of distress migrants to the cities – and so the saga continues: be it Lagos in Nigeria, Kolkata in India, or Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Meanwhile, heavy manufacturing industry continued to grow, and as the western powers moved their most labour-intensive sectors to the developing world, they created a series of highly polluted, congested and over-industrialised cities from Bangkok to Santiago. Even where MNCs were not welcome in the 60s and 70s (as in India and China), it became impossible to put the industrial genie back in the bottle, and cities like Mumbai, Shanghai, Chennai and Ahmadabad were the result.

It is no wonder then, that megacities today are witness to growing disparity among the rich and poor; increasing disempowerment of vast swathes of society; and a slow drain of their wealthiest and best educated to friendlier cities abroad.

… And the global inequity continues.

While High QOL countries are also high consumers of energy the ill effects of their large ‘Carbon Footprints’ put the entire world at risk through global warming and climate change.

Sadly, the western world has raised the energy stakes so high by centuries of reckless use that countries like China and India have to fuel their own development at great cost to their own people and the global environment. The major challenge before these two countries is how to balance industry (necessary for job creation) and cleaner environments to enhance the Quality of Life of future generations.

In its haste to atract foreign and domestic investment in industry, the present Indian Government has shown a total lack of understanding of the environmental issues, despite the havoc wrought on the environment in Gujarat.

The much touted ‘cleanliness drive’ launched across Indian cities will remain a superficial cosmetic exercise, unless a serious effort is made to balance human well-being with human greed…

In my next post, I hope to disuss the Sustainable Livelihood Framework in the context of urban poverty.

Dimensions of Urban Poverty

For the new government in India, poverty is the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Poverty in the tribal areas and the resulting unrest is brushed off as a law and order problem; rural poverty is hidden well away from the public consciousness by the pliant and adoring media… But what cannot be hidden from visiting dignitaries and potential foreign investors, is the urban poverty, so blatantly on display in all of India’s metros. It is argued that if these slum-dwellers can afford TV sets and mobile phones, they aren’t actually poor. Problem solved. Q.E.D.

This myopic view stems from the 1960s mindset that the poor are poor because they have no income, but development theory has since moved on…

It is now widely accepted that poverty everywhere, but especially urban poverty, is no longer a question of lack of income or insufficient calorie intake. It has broadened to include several areas of deprivation such as inadequate and unsafe housing, insecure workplaces, debilitating environments, insufficient social services, lack of opportunity for education and formal employment, increased vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, and consequent disempowerment, and even disenfranchisement, of vast swathes of urban society.

Unlike rural areas, where lack of assets and incomes is still a reasonably good measure of poverty, the complexities of providing adequate shelter and workplaces has added several dimensions to urban poverty – chiefly, deprivations of income, health, education, security and empowerment. The urbanisation of poverty, which has unpredictable, irreversible and long-term social, cultural, psychological, behavioural and political effects, has also brought to the forefront its multidimensional nature. Let us look at these dimensions in some detail…

Income Dimension: Poverty of income may have its genesis in a macro-economic crisis, which in a developing country could be triggered by a couple of failed monsoons, a border conflict, internal unrest, weak governments, communal strife, poor fiscal policies, or global events like a sharp rise in the price of petroleum goods. In such a crisis, real incomes fall at every level, and naturally, those at the bottom of the income pyramid are worst affected.

Secondly, a country may have very stringent planning and zoning laws prohibiting small enterprises in certain areas. In India, most Municipal bodies also regulate a number of private activities like trades, professions, house building, land use, markets, entertainment and transport. These additional controls involve lengthy bureaucratic procedures, which the poor simply cannot cope with, and they get pushed further into the informal sector, as a result.

Finally, in most developing countries – like India – the local government depends entirely on taxes generated from the wealthy (property owners and traders) and therefore they are under great pressure to set their development priorities according to the needs of their ‘paying customers’. Consequently, in budget after budget, road expansion and maintenance get priority over public transport; large hospitals over primary health care; and because the wealthy have other options for educating their children, municipal schools remain understaffed and ill-equipped. This has an immediate and long term impact on the life chances of the poor, and their income generating abilities.

Income poverty is characterised by dependence on cash for purchase of goods and services; employment insecurity; casual work/ labour/ unskilled wage labour; lack of skills to get well-paid jobs; and trade-off between distances to jobs and cost of housing.

Health Dimension: The biggest factor that makes health a dimension of urban poverty is inadequate, congested and unsanitary housing, and unsafe places of work. Land and housing regulations can make proper housing unaffordable, and the poor often end up living in dangerous places like near the roads or railway tracks, or on disaster-prone riverbanks or hillsides, or near polluted areas like garbage tips or toxic waste dumps, where they salvage and scavenge to eke out a living. This is as true of Manila or Bangkok, as of Mumbai. The hazards are further aggravated by the inadequate physical and social infrastructure and services provided in poor neighbourhoods, whether it is water and sewerage, solid waste disposal, drainage, or vector control.

Poverty itself is debilitating in several ways – in fact its effects begin in the womb. A poor, malnourished and anaemic mother is more likely to give birth to an underweight child, who may suffer from birth defects and chronic disorders which greatly reduce its chances of survival beyond infancy. Such a child is also more vulnerable to preventable diseases like polio because it may fall outside the formal immunisation efforts of Government. If the child survives, an inadequate supply of food and water will haunt its growing years and undermine its natural resistance to the health hazards that the urban environment will throw at him or her.

Lastly, the poorest countries have the most polluted cities in the world, posing an ever increasing danger to the health of its citizenry. Increased respiratory mortality, decreased lung function, aggravated asthmatic problems, higher blood pressures, increased cardiac risks and cancers, cough, drowsiness, and eye irritation, have been identified as some of the health hazards emanating from polluting vehicles. It is estimated that more than 250,000 deaths are already attributable in Indian cities to such pollution.

Education Dimension: Lack of adequate education translates into lack of opportunity, making it that much more difficult for the urban poor to break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next. The inadequacy of schools in poor neighbourhoods is just one aspect. Most poor families need to put their children to work to augment family income – this is especially the case if the family breadwinner is incapacitated for some reason. Child Labour is a curse that’s unlikely to vanish from Indian workplaces any time soon. Even those parents desiring to educate their children and with access to neighbourhood schools, may be unable to afford additional school expenses like transport costs and extra coaching, especially in larger cities.

Security Dimension of Poverty: The strongest feelings of insecurity engendered in the urban poor arise because in most cases they have no security of tenure on the already inadequate places they live and work in. In most countries, insecurity of tenure arises from retrograde land laws and planning practices – usually a colonial legacy, whether in India or Africa, or Latin America.

Even if one does not go far enough to impute an anti-poor bias, the fact remains that Indian planners have simply not been trained to plan for the poor. When such attempts have been made in the past, they made no impact because planning is a holistic process, and area-based initiatives like slum improvement do not tackle poverty in its multiple dimensions. Thus, we have building laws and criteria that make safe housing too expensive and unaffordable for the poor; our zoning laws prohibit hawking, small businesses and small shopping in most areas; our development control rules (which prevent the densification of Indian cities) have made urban land unrealistically expensive and unaffordable, and any poor settlement coming into existence, immediately violates half a dozen rules and regulations.

So if a family has no rights of tenure and may not even know where it will rest the night, how are the children going to register in schools and get an education? How will the parents earn a livelihood? How will the family draw the rations to feed itself? And where will the sick find succour?

Empowerment Dimension: As immortalised by Dostoevsky, Dickens and Hugo, poverty is above all, synonymous with helplessness, reduced options, and loss of control over one’s life and decisions. This is disempowerment at its most basic. The deliberate disempowerment of the urban poor allows them to cast their vote in every election, but curtails their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The poor get the short end of the stick, and this is especially the case in a hierarchically rigid society like India. As a result, the urban poor often live in isolation from the social and economic activity of the city, and are denied the vital information they need to survive – such as their legal rights to services, and availability of jobs etc.

Since independence, India has witnessed several development initiatives to address rural poverty, and despite their sluggish pace, they have succeeded to a large extent in at least providing food security to the poor. However, by failing to see the multi-dimensional nature of urban poverty, we have been stuck with sporadic slum redevelopment programmes with a few basic amenities provided here and there.

Poverty is a historical, social, economic and political problem. Therefore there can be no simple engineering solutions to poverty.

Perhaps, there are other ways in which the elephant can get moving. The new Government should seriously consider:

  • Ending the rural-urban bifurcation
  • Tertiarising the rural economy to stem distress migration to cities
  • Assuring food security for all: rural and urban
  • Providing a place of business that is legitimate, affordable and secure
  • Moving towards urban housing that is formal, affordable and secure
  • Putting in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories
  • Augmenting access to institutional finance for all, not just rich industrialists
  • Vigorously enforcing the Right to Education
  • Giving easy and universal access to immunisation and health care
  • Guaranteeing public goods and services on the basis of equity and inclusion
  • Putting in place a social security net to cope with the unexpected

This way, we may eventually succeed in providing sustainable livelihoods for all citizens – a concept I hope to look at in detail in a future post…

Understanding Poverty

The world now understands poverty basically as a lack, or inadequacy, of:

  • Food security
  • Secure Shelter/ Address
  • Access to basic services
  • Sound Health
  • Education
  • Choice and Voice
  • Personal security

Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is termed as absolute poverty; and a paucity of basic necessities like shelter is known as relative poverty.

Globally, there has been an evolution of approaches to dealing with poverty, down the years:

1960s: Governments looked at macroeconomic criteria like GNP. In those halcyon days of optimism, it was believed that with redistributive justice, global poverty could be eradicated

1970s: With the quadrupling of oil prices after the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Vietnam war fiasco of 1975, all optimism went out the window, and governments were happy just to broaden the concept of income-poverty to a wider set of ‘basic needs’ and the lack of access to health, education and other services

1980s: Also called the lost decade of development, saw the emergence of ideas like sustainable development and the feminisation of poverty, and policy makers waxed poetic, adding powerlessness, isolation, and vulnerability to the poverty matrix

1990s: Saw the emergence of the capability approach, and the UNDP Human Development Reports focused not on what people do or do not have, but on what they can or cannot do .

The Human Development Index measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions:

  • A long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth
  • Knowledge and education, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio
  • A decent standard of living, as measured by the natural logarithm of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) in US$.

2000s: Through the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations set specific targets for countries to achieve, and have brought about noticeable reductions in poverty in many countries. These goals are:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Global partnership for developmentThe global scenario for poverty makes very depressing reading:

2010s: In the second decade of the new millennium, the chickens of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are coming home to roost. Poverty did not reduce as much as expected, because countries were chasing economic growth and international trade at the cost of their obligations to the poor. In fact, during this decade, social divisions became more marked, compounded by the digital and knowledge divide, so evident in a country like India.

As a result, the current scenario looks rather depressing:

  • Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day
  • More than 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening
  • The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for 5% of global income. The richest 20% accounts for three-quarters of world income
  • A conservative estimate for 2010 finds that at least a third of all private financial wealth, and nearly half of all offshore wealth, is now owned by world’s richest 91,000 people – just 0.001% of the world’s population. The next 51% of all wealth is owned by the next 8.4 million — just 0.14% of the world’s population.
  • For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment.

The situation in a developing country like India, is no better:

  • India is estimated to have one third or 33% of the world’s poor. It is estimated that 8 Indian states have more poor people than 26 poorest African nations combined, which totals to more than 410 million poor in the poorest African countries.
  • The latest UNICEF data shows that one in three malnourished children worldwide, are found in India, whilst 42% of the nation’s children under five years of age, are underweight. It also shows that a total of 58% of children under five surveyed, were stunted.
  • The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report places India amongst the three countries where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 went up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, succeeded in improving hunger conditions.
  • An estimated 421 million of the poor are concentrated in eight North Indian and East Indian states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

There are many reasons for the endemic poverty in India, such as: pre-colonial and post-colonial exploitation; caste and gender discrimination; failure to develop secondary and tertiary sectors of the rural economy; lack of redistributive justice for the landless; poor physical infrastructure; low quality social infrastructure; a sluggish, low-capacity bureaucracy that tends to be reactive rather than proactive; and poor design and implementation of anti-poverty programmes like IRDP, JRY, NRY, SGSY, SJSRY, which are top-down, based on the axiom of ‘one-size-fits-all’ and fail because they do not take local socio-cultural variations into account.

Where local variations have been encouraged, they have achieved tremendous success – like the women’s self-help groups of Kudumbashree in Kerala. But then, women in Kerala have always wielded more economic and social power than anywhere else in India. Perhaps men’s workers’ collectives and thrift societies will be equally successful in the traditionally patriarchal northern States.

In my next post, I hope to look specifically at urban poverty and its many dimensions…