Some time ago I studied some households living in multi-dimensional poverty conditions in various Indian states. I spent a considerable amount of time with all the members of the families, and accompanied working members to their places of work. I tried to understand their desperate livelihood strategies, their external environment, their needs for financial services, and their access to social protection. I am sharing some selected stories here. The names mentioned here have been changed to protect their anonymity despite their express consent for using their names.
First blog in this series tells the story of the household of Narayanidevi Kamal, 42 and her husband, Ramlal, 45. They have have two daughters and two sons. The elder daughter is married and lives with her husband in another village. Narayani lives with her husband, one daughter, 12 and two sons, 13 and 15 years. They belong to Kamal, one of the Scheduled Castes.
Narayani and her husband are illiterate. The elder son left his studies after studying till class five, while the younger one studied till class eight. Narayani says that poor people cannot educate their children, as it is a choice between hunger and education. The younger daughter is however studying in class seven. Her elder married daughter is illiterate, so is her husband. Her next generation is thus also deprived of even basic education and is becoming part of the ever increasing unskilled labour force. Worse still, they are not getting sufficient food and therefore their capability to perform unskilled, physical work will also remain limited.
Dwelling and assets
Narayani’s family lives in a mud house. The household has two wooden cots and a few aluminium utensils. It does not have any other consumer items, not even a bicycle. Narayani cooks on a clay chulha (stove) with firewood collected by the children during the day. The house has no toilet or electricity connection.
Ramlal has one brother, and between the two, they have one bigha of land. It is wasteland and nothing grows there. His brother has a pair of bullocks which he also uses to plough the land taken on sharecropping. The household is raising two goats on half-share basis.
They have been traditionally sharecropping on the land of others and that is why his brother keeps a pair of bullocks. Narayani mentions that nowadays, there is no land available in the village on half share; it is only on one-third and one-fourth share. They are also required to share on the investment, so not much is left with the sharecroppers. ‘We have to do all the hard work without getting much in return. But we are helpless before our stomachs.’ They have been sharecropping two bighas of land on one-third share for last two years, which supports their family for two to three months in terms of their food requirements. They want to have more land on sharecropping as both of them along with their sons can manage up to ten bighas of land, but no landowner is willing to share land on one-third share with them. At the time of my last interview, Ramlal was in the process of negotiation for sharecropping one more bigha of land on one-fourth share.
Ramlal and the sons seek wage labour in and around their village to meet the household needs. They cannot keep away from the village for the whole day, as the agricultural fields need their continued presence in the village. They get work when there is a construction activity or some landowner needs extra hands on his fields. Narayani also wants to work as a casual labourer, but as there is so little work for men, how and where would women get the work, wonders her elder son. She, however, gets work during the season of sowing, transplanting and harvesting the crops, and along with her sons and the husband she earns food grains that meet the food grain requirements of household for two to three months.
The situation had however become worse towards the end of my stay in the village, as Ramlal fell down from a tree he had climbed up to chop tender branches as fodder for the goats. He probably broke his ribs and was in immense pain. He was not in a position to work for more than a month at the time of my last visit to the household. He had got absolutely no treatment for want of money.
Food security and vulnerability
The livelihood strategies adopted by the household imply that there would be times of food deficiency, and that is what it faces for about two to three months ever year at different points in time despite the PDS support. On certain occasions, they get to eat only once in a day. Chapattis are normally eaten with potatoes as other vegetables are very rarely purchased and lentils are luxury for them. Potatoes are also not available for three to four months in a year and then it is salt that is consumed with chapattis and rice. At the time of my last visit (25 March 2009), the household had wheat flour to meet the requirements of only two days, and had no rice, potatoes or vegetables. With no work available and no incomes forthcoming, Ramlal had gone to his sister’s place to borrow some money for food and explore if she can get him the treatment. Narayani was not expecting him to be back for next four-five days and did not know where she would be getting the food for her household from. On probing a little deeper, she said that she would first try to borrow from the neighbours but was not very hopeful as they are also on the same boat. She was also planning to request for some food grains from her landowners on loan. She always attempts to repay such borrowings as fast as possible, especially with the PDS subsidised food, and the cycle goes on. It gets broken only when her husband and sons get employment for some prolonged periods. On being asked what she would do if she does not get food from her neighbours etc., she says that it can only be answered by God. He will make some arrangement.
Other consumptions and expenditures
It is very difficult to spare money for the needs other than food and serious medical emergencies. Her daughter and the younger son have two sets of clothes that were made using their scholarship amounts. She has only one saree which was given to her by her married daughter as it was old and useless for the daughter.
Significant events and income shocks
The household did not have any money and hence married off their elder daughter without any celebration and dowry, whatsoever. Because of this she had to be married to a person, who is illiterate, does not have any assets, and seeks work of casual nature requiring no skill.
As the household does not have money or access to suitable credit services for agricultural investments, Ramlal borrows it from his landowner and repays one and a half times of it at the time of harvesting. Thus, effectively they pay an interest at the rate of 150% per annum on such borrowings.
Narayani did not have money for Ramlal’s treatment after he got injured. She did not borrow any amount as she was not sure if she would ever be able to repay it with an interest rate of more than 120% per annum. After he fell down, he did not eat anything for first fifteen days. He started eating a bit afterwards that but cannot sit at all. He could not be taken to the government hospital that is located about six kilometres away, as the money could not be arranged for the transport. Even otherwise they were not very keen on the government hospital as she says they only prescribe some medicinal tablets to be purchased from the market. They also call the patients to the hospital very frequently, thus further increasing the burden of expenses on the patients’ household.
The accident has rendered him unable to perform any kind of work for more than one month. It is quite likely that he may be permanently disabled and the household loses out on one working member. Thus the eventual cost of unavailability of credit may be enormous not only in economic terms but also in terms of Ramlal’s wellbeing. The household therefore desperately needs an access to reasonably priced credit to sustain itself. It also needs insurance cover in terms of health, life and accidents, as that would have ensured Ramlal getting good and timely treatment. The household also requires a savings mechanism that is not only reliable but also has provisions for smaller but frequent transactions so that a part of Ramlal’s wages can be saved whenever he gets work and receives wages.
Access to financial services and microfinance
She has not been a member of any SHG, as there is no SHG in her locality and no woman from her locality has ever been an SHG member. She feels intimidated with the thought of attending an SHG meeting with so many ‘big’ people. She is also not sure if she would always have the mandatory amount to save on the day of the meeting every month.
Social protection programmes available to the household
Narayani has an Antyodaya card that entitles her 15 kg of wheat (@ INR 2 per kg), 20 kg of rice (@ INR 3 per kg), 2 kg of sugar (@INR 14 a kg), and kerosene (@ INR 11.50 per litre) per month. Although she economises on kerosene and very seldom buys sugar, she tries to buy entire amount of wheat and rice every month that meets her fifteen days requirement at least. If she does not have money, she tries to borrow it from the neighbours. Though sometimes she does not have money to buy her entire quota and buys whatever she can.
Ninety-one cards for subsidised ration were issued in her village, Pratappur, consisting of 62 BPL cards and 29 Antyodaya cards. Village Development Officer (VDO), a local level government official, visited the village and announced that he had been instructed to renew the cards and convert nine BPL cards into Antyodaya cards. Interestingly, this was not based on any assessment of the people’s conditions in the village. Amarsingh, a panchayat member, enquired from him about the criteria to be followed for the purpose and was informed that the cards to be downgraded should belong to either very poor or widow-headed households. When he asked the VDO to hold a general meeting of the villagers and decide the issue in the meeting, the VDO told him that his higher ups had instructed him to only consult the Gram Pradhan. The situation was allegedly exploited by the Gram Pradhan, and the panchayat secretary- a village level government functionary. In addition to the nine BPL cards converted into Antyodaya cards, they fraudulently issued four BPL cards and six Antyodaya cards to different households in exchange of an amount of INR 300. This resulted in an increase in the total number of cards. There are now 57 BPL and 44 Antyodaya cardholders in the village.
The subsidised food is however being received for only 91 cards (53 BPL and 38 Antyodaya), the same being the official figures. The PDS shopkeeper, therefore, could not meet the demand of food from the new (forged) cardholders. Amarsingh and his friends then persuaded the shopkeeper to reduce the delivery of food to the regular cardholders by 5 kg and distribute thus spared food to the new cardholders as ‘after all they are also poor; so what if their cards are forged.’ This has however reduced the food entitlement of households like that of Narayani, further worsening her situation.
Narayani’s household has also been provided with the financial support under IAY for the year 2008-09. According to her, total subsidy paid to them is INR 25,000. They were aware of their entitlement of INR 35,000 for the purpose but believed that out of the sanctioned amount, 4,000 to 5,000 INR had to be spent on paperwork and other formalities, and the remaining amount of INR 5,000 to 6,000 was taken away by the panchayat secretary and Gram Pradhan. In fact, no amount should be spent on any formality and they should receive the entire sanctioned amount. Moreover, construction of a single room without a toilet costs more than INR 40,000 according to the villagers’ estimates. Her house is therefore incomplete as she does not have any means to arrange for the remaining amount to complete the house.
NREGA job cards have been issued in the names of her husband, her son and herself. However, none of them has got any work under the programme so far, while they were among the people who had been issued job cards at the very first instance. Only two items of works have been taken up under the programme in the village- earthwork to fill and level a land depression, and brick-laying on one of the inner streets in the village. A portion of both works was reportedly got done by hiring tractors. As there is no provision of employing machines for work under the programme, the people were reportedly shown to have worked on paper. Since it is cheaper to accomplish works through machines rather than through human beings, the difference in cost was allegedly pocketed by the Gram Pradhan and government functionaries. The Gram Pradhan, on the other hand, alleged that the Junior Engineer in charge for approving the works under NREGA was demanding for 10% commission on the total expenditure to be incurred for the works under the programme. Consequence of all this was that out of the ninety people having NREGA job cards only twenty-one had ever got any employment under NREGA. As against a hundred days of guaranteed employment every year, only two persons could get a maximum of thirty days of work during last three years. No woman in the village was given any work under NREGA.
Narayani and her family members have not opened their accounts in the bank to receive their NREGP wages, as they do not have minimum money required to open such accounts. She plans to open the accounts only when she gets the work and receives her wages.
Additional financial needs generated by social protection programmes
The subsidized food through the PDS requires her household to arrange for more than INR 100 on the day of its distribution. Sometimes when they neither have that amount nor can arrange for it, they have to forego their entitlement of the subsidized food. Narayani feels that she would be much better off if she has an access to smaller loans for shorter durations. Such loans would enable her to utilize the subsidies available to her without burdening her much, as the loans would be small and for shorter durations.
Subsidized housing programme also creates a need for cheaper and easily accessible credit services. The housing subsidy is of no use until the house is totally constructed and worth inhabiting. This subsidy can have an impact if and only if the recipients are able to arrange for additional financial resources, for which the poor recipients like Narayani need an access to reasonably priced credit products. For want of such access, she has not been able to complete the construction of even one room and use it.
Leveraging on their social capital to meet financial needs
Realizing the impossibility of his treatment at his home, Ramlal’s sister called him to show him to the doctor. According to Narayani, his sister is also in a similar economic situation but is trying to help them through her limited means. While leaving he had also planned to borrow some food grains from her. Narayani is waiting for him to come back with the food grains but is not sure if his sister would be able to help them with food grains.
Her daughter also helped Narayani by giving her an old saree, and that is the only saree Narayani has and keeps wearing. However, her son-in-law is also as poor as is Narayani and thus cannot help her much. His household does not have land or any productive asset. He seeks work in his own village and does not go out, as he is illiterate; ‘what will he do outside?’ wonders Narayani.
 There is system of ‘share-raising’ of livestock, where a household adopts an animal immediately after it stops breastfeeding on its mother at the place of its owner. It is either sold when it matures and the sale proceeds are shared equally between the owner and the raiser, or if one of the parties wants to keep it, the other party is paid the half of market share.
 The interest rates are always higher in cases of such emergencies as the creditors know that the borrowers are too desperate to be able to bargain