For too long have Indians believed this is a poor country where, if you were to use a true poverty line of the sort used by the late Arjun Sengupta, you would find over two-thirds of the population faces some form or the other of deprivation. Indeed, this is the rationale behind the Food Security Bill which seeks to provide subsidised food to two-thirds of the population, never mind that they can’t possibly be deprived if that many of them have enough money to own mobile phones.
A lot clearly depends on the index you use. Economist Surjit Bhalla argues, over and over again, that the NSS survey on which poverty estimates are based actually capture less and less of India’s true consumption—the current figure is 44%—so estimates based on this are dramatically overstated. There is then the PPP Index, or a version of this in The Economist’s Big Mac Index and now, even an iPhone Index—how many days do you need to buy an iPhone. Add to this pantheon of indices, the FCI Index, or the wages the Food Corporation of India (FCI) pays its loaders, those labourers who painstakingly lift bags of rice or wheat from trucks to godowns or vice versa. India is not a rich country, so FCI’s wages aren’t uniformly high across each state, but even so, they are encouraging. FCI’s 18,000 employees have a monthly average of R35,000 per month but about a sixth of them, in some north-eastern states where the use of contract labour is banned, get paid between R1-2.2 lakh a month. That’s pretty decent for a coolie, even by US standards. India, as US President Obama said, is not arriving, it has arrived.