Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Earn Rs. 32 a day? You ain't poor - Sincerely, Govt. of India

I think it is possible to spend just Rs 32 a day and not starve," said the man wearing the floral shirt, rather loudly.

"Not in Mumbai or Bangalore...maybe in Sangli or Satara," said his partner, even as he shuffled a pack of cards and spread them across a suitcase resting on the legs of his partner. The two other card players and this correspondent listened quietly.

"I can live for less than Rs 32 a day," replied floral shirt as he picked up his cards. "Can you?" he mocked his partner.

It's an unusually hot Wednesday afternoon in Mumbai and the conversation in this 'first-class' compartment of a suburban train is the usual mix of whispered stock tips, and angst about the money Dhoni and his men are making. Chitchat about poverty is out of character in a train which cuts through some of the most appalling slums in the whole world.

But then again, the wise men and women of the Planning Commission had told the Supreme Court that that anybody who spends Rs 33 or more a day in cities is not poor and hence not eligible for a below poverty line (BPL) card, which lets the poor avail services like medical care for free.

The conversation got me thinking: can I live on just Rs 32 a day? My first response was: no.

So, on Thursday morning, I woke up to the aroma of ginger tea being made in the kitchen by my household help (who makes Rs 200 a day but stays in a chawl) and nobly declined the brew. My wife scowled.

Instead, I legged it to the neibhourhood tea stall and ordered a cutting chai and a boiled egg. The tab: Rs 8. I can pull this off, I told myself. An hour later, I was hungry again. But life around the poverty line does not include multiple breakfasts with eggs and muesli. Virtue and the resolve to write good copy triumphed.

After a bath (in which I shunned soap) and a refusal to spray myself with my Rs 200 deodorant, I pocketed by Rs 9,000 Blackberry and my Hidesign wallet and was ready to face the world.

As soon as I stepped out of the gate of my apartment complex, it hit me. The railway station was two kilometers away and I paid Rs 20 everyday for an auto ride.

As I undertook my personal Dandi under a blazing sun, I felt more Gandhian than Anna Hazare. My satyagraha was just beginning.

At the station, ticket prices triggered a mild cardiac arrest. Ten rupees, one way, for a second-class ride. The total damage now: Rs 18. The train came and 'cattle class' was redefined. I was elbowed out in my first attempt to board the second-class compartment.

Twenty minutes and three attempts later, I was sandwiched (a food analogy, I wonder why) between half-a-dozen men. The crowd was crushing. But nothing unusual. This is how it is always. Forty breathless minutes later, I was disgorged out of the compartment - sweaty, sticky and crumpled-shirted.

I spent the rest of the day wondering if my colleagues could smell me from a few feet away. By noon, my stomach was starting to sound like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were engaged in battle inside, to the background score of a hundred xylophones.

Even as the rest of my colleagues went for a four-course meal (with dessert), it was time to hunt for a stall that sold the staple food of all indigents in the city of dreams: the mighty but extremely affordable vada pav. Turns out that vada pav is a dish sold in the latter part of the day, so I have to settle for puri bhaji.

For Rs 15, I am served four over-fried puris and an undercooked potato bhaji. I wait in a line for 15 minutes to be handed my plate but it's the most delicious lunch I have ever had. Hunger gives you brand new taste buds. My damage so far: Rs 33.

Back in office, my stomach is cramping. The thought of another train journey on small budget is not appealing.

I leave office early. The train rolls in. The first-class compartment is empty. I want to cheat. Badly.

Mercifully, the second class is not packed. Ten more rupees gone, my budget is Rs 43. I stand for five stations before I get a seat. When I get off, I realise that Dandi II is left. I walk back home, slowly. The walk that took me 12 minutes in the morning takes me nearly half an hour in evening.

As I reach home, I realise that dinner is still a few hours away. My wife opens the door, looking worried. "Don't be have proved your point," she says testily. I show her the two plantains I have bought for Rs 6. My budget: Rs 49. I can barely stand.

Dinner time. I peel the banana. "Is there some instant noodles at home?" I ask. I wolf down two packs. There might be no nobility in poverty but it takes guts to survive a life of want.

My little message for all Oxford-Cambridge-Harvard-Yale etc, etc educated, lal batti-on-their-car folks who came up with the "Rs 32-per-day" figure: please wake up and smell the cutting chai.

- Read this piece over at the Economic Times and loved it. I remembered something I posted about this on my Google+ profile.
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