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A coconut seller and a day laborer reflect on life in astoundingly unequal India

Panchavarnam rents a pushcart to sell coconuts. "During the lockdown, we suffered a lot," she says. "It struck me then how little we had saved. For the first time, I was terrified of the future."
Kamala Thiagarajan for NPR
Panchavarnam rents a pushcart to sell coconuts. "During the lockdown, we suffered a lot," she says. "It struck me then how little we had saved. For the first time, I was terrified of the future."

Panchavarnam and her husband earn about $2.50 a day selling coconuts from a rented cart on the streets of Madurai, a city in Southern India. That's barely enough to support their family of four. And when the pandemic struck, their income plummeted. They couldn't sell their wares during lockdowns. What's more, storms struck in November, destroying the thatched roof of the family hut. They had to borrow heavily to pay for repairs.

But it was a very good year for wealthy Indians. A soaring stock market propelled the combined wealth of members of the 2021 Forbes list of India's 100 Richest to a record $775 billion, after adding $257 billion — a 50% rise — in the past 12 months.

The World Inequality report 2022 issued this month, which tracks global trends in inequality, marks this dichotomy. India is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with rising poverty and yet an affluent elite, the report states.

It's almost as if there are two countries in India: a very small, very rich country (the country of prosperous Indian urban centers) and a very large, poor country, says Lucas Chancel, lead author of the report and co-director of the World Inequality Lab. "For a long time, it has been said that the richer the rich part of the country, the better for the rest," he says.

The coconut seller Pachavarnam hasn't felt that, though. And experts like Chancel acknowledge that this is an outlook that's left many families vulnerable.

A coconut vendor says she's 'terrified of the future'

Panchavarnam, who goes by one name, has sold tender coconuts on the streets of Madurai for the last 40 years and remembers a time when the bustling residential neighborhood where she now sells her wares used to be a forest. Today, it's filled with signs of development. There's a highway close by. Busy streets brim over with traffic. In the last decade, apartment complexes, department stores and schools have sprung up around her.

For the 50-year-old, however, little has changed.

She still works 12 hours a day. It's a job she's been doing since the age of 9 helping her dad. That's when she first learned how to hold a sickle to slice into the thick, fibrous coconut. She and her husband begin their workday at 5 a.m., when she buys the coconuts from a wholesale market to fill their rented cart.

She may sell her coconuts at a higher price than she did ten years ago, but her family's daily living expenses and rental for her cart have increased too. Inflation has skyrocketed. But even though her profit may be wafer thin, she's grateful she can at least work.

"During the lockdown, we suffered a lot," she says. "It struck me then how little we had saved. For the first time, I was terrified of the future. What would happen to me and my family if we could no longer work?"

Panchavarnam is one of India's many informal workers, an estimated 485 million people — which according to a 2014 survey by the government of India's Labour Bureau is roughly 50% of the national workforce. Some reports estimate that their numbers are far higher — almost 80% of the workforce. While Panchavarnam is self-employed, other informal workers are hired by companies. But their situation isn't necessarily any easier.

A female construction worker's dusty burden

Selvi, 37, is a construction worker in Chennai, a city in Southern India, who earns Rs 350 ($4.60) a day, carrying heavy loads of cement, bricks and gravel. She winds a thick cloth turban style over her head and places her loads directly on it.

Selvi, who also goes by one name, dropped out of school and married at age 17. At first, she was a housewife, caring for her children, a boy and a girl, now 15 and 17. Five years ago, that changed. When her husband lost his job, she became the sole earner. A job as a construction worker pays more than other jobs and helped her earn money quickly, she says.

She doesn't work for one company. Rather, she goes where there's work. And that means she has no health insurance, no sick leave – and no safety equipment (not even a mask during the pandemic). She's heard from male colleagues that they do the same work for more pay, but there's little she can do about it.

"India sadly remains one of the most unequal countries on earth when it comes to economic gender inequalities," says Chancel. "This gap is due to two things: women are underrepresented in the formal labor market, and they are also underpaid when they are on the market."

As in Selvi's case, many women take on work because of pressing financial needs.

"My bones ache at night after carrying heavy loads through the day, my eyes sting from the dust and I cough often, but if I didn't do this, my kids and I would starve." she says. "It makes me sad sometimes that while I help build homes for others, some of them so beautiful, I can never afford to have one of my own," she says.

India's inequities were further exacerbated during the pandemic, as even skilled workers lost income. After agriculture, the second biggest industry in rural India is the work of artisans.

Last year, when art galleries and exhibitions shut down, Pratima Bharti, 43, an artist who lived and worked in Delhi, and who depended on exhibitions to sell her paintings, could no longer afford to put food on the table and pay rent and school fees for her family of five. Bharti came from a generation of artists specializing in a style of folk art called Madhubani, which originated in the North Indian state of Bihar. "We received no government support," she says. And so, the family was forced to rely on their savings and to move back to their native village in Bihar. She's now teaching art online. "Life is a struggle and we need to constantly overcome challenges," she says.

Why poverty persists

India has struggled to eliminate poverty. This is because key political decisions led to economic moves that have had a negative impact on the poor while making the rich even richer, says P. Sainath, author of the book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, which researches poverty in rural India. Sainath is also the founder of the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), an online platform that focuses on rural India — documenting its livelihood, arts, culture, social and economic disparities.

He blames the country's neo-liberal policies of the 1990s for this situation. "Everything was privatized, and the withdrawal of the state from areas that matter — health care, banking, credit and education, which became driven by profits, were key to creating this inequality," he says.

In an India that is obsessed with growth and profit, he says, there is very little sensitivity to the needs of the weak and vulnerable. "In many ways, the inequity we see today is being ruthlessly engineered."

Growth in India has been particularly unequal since the 1990s, agrees Chancel. "We can observe this on the ground. For instance, parts of Delhi radically changed, while rural areas of the country today are almost as they were 30 years ago." And we can also see it in the data, he says: "Between 2000 and 2015, average annual per-adult income growth neared 5%. But not everybody is average. The poorest half of the population grew at just 2% per year and the middle 40% at around 2.5%, while the top 10% grew at 7% per year!"

India's sweeping economic reforms of the nineties have been credited for the country's higher GDP (gross domestic product), for ushering in private investments and growth, and for raising many Indians out of poverty. But some economists point out that a better GDP growth doesn't necessarily translate into social well-being required for a more equal society.

If growth had been distributed more equally since the 1990s, there would be less poverty today and more middle-class families, says Chancel. In order to generate prosperity for the bottom 50% of the population, public investments are key — equal access to basic services such as quality education, transport and health, says Chancel. "This is still lacking in India."

Instead, many Indians still struggle with basic needs not being met. Hunger is rife.

According to the World Food Program, a quarter of the world's undernourished people live in India. And despite steady economic growth and per capita income having tripled in recent years, the WFP notes that minimum dietary intake fell.

During the pandemic, the government tried to address the hunger problem. In March 26, 2020, the government of India announced the PM-GKAY, a food security welfare scheme, to supply free food grains to migrants and the very poor, to see them through the pandemic. Under the scheme, 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of rice or wheat have since been provided every month for 800 million people under the National Food Security Act. A total of 98.4 million tons of grain has been distributed, as per media reports.

But activists have pointed out that millions of poor people, mostly migrant workers, are not covered under the system because they lack proof of address and relevant documents.

Wealthy Indians on the other hand, were largely unaffected by lockdowns that shattered India's labor force. According to a study that analyzed how Indian households were coping during the COVID lockdown, researchers found a negative impact on 84% of households across the country, with a sharp decline in income, but wealthier households could weather these financial stresses better.

Facing the lifestyles of the rich and famous

And some of the wealthiest live lavish lifestyles. The December 9 wedding of two of Bollywood's biggest celebrities, Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal, has dominated the headlines. News reports have been full of the glamorous ceremony which took place at a 14th-century fort in Rajasthan. The fairy-tale wedding reportedly cost the couple over half a million dollars.

In this country of dramatic contrasts, Panchavarnam says she doesn't begrudge people their rich lifestyles, even if her own is so harsh. Her son, who has graduated from nursing school, and her daughter, still in high school and who plans to someday start a business of her own, are her only hope, she says.

"All I want is for my kids to never experience the poverty I have."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t

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