Interview: People Are Being Pulled Out of Poverty but Not to Prosperity

In conversation with Anirudh Krishna, whose research has focused on poor communities and individuals in developing countries.

A homeless girl asks for alms outside a coffee shop in Mumbai, India, June 24, 2016. Credit:Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/Files

A homeless girl asks for alms outside a coffee shop in Mumbai, India, June 24, 2016. Credit:Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/Files

Anirudh Krishna is professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, where his research has focused on poor communities and individuals in developing countries. He is the author of One Illness Away: Why People Become Poor and How they Escape Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Poverty, Participation and Democracy: A Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2008) among other publications.

He spoke to The Wire about his new book, The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion, published by Penguin Viking.


What makes India’s case so interesting when it comes to poverty and public services?

What is special about India is that it has some of the world’s richest people and many of the world’s poorest people. The spectrum of the world’s lifestyles is represented in India. Few countries share the same distinction.

The needs are many and varied in India. The country needs modern airports and space research stations at the same time as it needs primary schools, pukka roads, and basic latrines. Countries that became rich in the past dealt with these problems in different stages, first schools and latrines, and then space research stations. But because the circumstances of life are so varied in India, and the needs of its people are so diverse, the luxury of doing things in stages is not available to this country.

We have managed to pull people out of poverty, but not, it seems, to prosperity.

The policy record is a combination of laudable and unimpressive outcomes. Drastic poverty has been cut in half – a welcome achievement – and yet, beyond a certain threshold, there is little upward mobility in India. At the $2 PPP (purchasing power parity) level (now $3.10), which equates to roughly Rs 100 per day per person – a meagre amount when one considers rent and food and utilities and school fees and other necessities of life – two-thirds of all Indians remain poor. The children of poor people, no matter how talented and hardworking, are only too rarely able to make it to any high position.

Compared to other countries, India makes poor use of its human potential. In diverse fields, including patents registered, research papers published, and Olympic medals won, India’s per-capita achievements consistently place it toward the bottom of the world table. The national achievement has it counterpart in the experiences of individuals. The probability that a young person growing up in India will become a mazdoor (labourer) is ten times greater than the probability that she or he will have a regular job and can afford to buy a personal computer.


India’s performance compared to other countries will not improve until it is able to dig deeper into its pool of human potential. The age of assembly-line manufacturing is over. Developing individuals is necessary for developing a nation.

What policy changes are required to change things?

Two responses are necessary. First, there needs to be a greater focus on hitherto neglected areas and people – especially, the residents of beyond-5km villages and the rapidly growing number of slum dwellers. Second, it requires shedding the belief that there are, or will be, quick fixes and centralised solutions. Developing more effective remedies to long-lasting problems will require investing in processes of institutional innovation.

Anirudh Krishna. Credit: Duke University

Anirudh Krishna. Credit: Duke University

Let me elaborate on the first point about beyond-5 km villages (that is, the remoter ones, those located more than 5 km from the nearest town or city). Nearly half the population of India lives in beyond-5 km villages. But these people have the worst situation. The average farmer owned 3 hectares of land in 1950. Today, the average farmer has less than 1 hectare. There’s nothing else happening in most villages apart from seasonal smallholder agriculture, some petty retail, and some handicraft, mostly for home consumption. In order to cope, the majority of rural families send at least one member to the city on a regular basis. There’s a large floating population, estimated to number more than a 100 million, which is neither rural nor urban but in-between. Hardly among these people has the education and the connections that are required to obtain a high-paying job in this era, and as a result, the grandsons of peasant farmers have become mazdoors in the tens of millions.

There are many smart and hardworking children who live here, but only a rare few have made it high in any walk of life. In a variety of gateway institutions (engineering colleges, business schools), the percentage of people who were educated in rural areas or who grew up in slums is tiny, comprising no more than 3-5 percent of an entering cohort. Most kids in rural areas do not know about better careers. All they see around them are schoolteachers, police constables, army jawans, etc. These are the highest visible positions. There’s no one who can guide the best and brightest among them to other career tracks – airline pilot, graphic designer, engineer, business executive, or college professor. In slums, too, young people growing up have become auto-rickshaw drivers, security guards, and mobile phone repairmen. In 200 slums that I studied in three cities, only a handful of young people were studying to be doctors, chartered accountants, or engineers. Going to college is itself a leap into the unknown for people many of whom are first-generation learners.

Poor-quality education in rural areas and urban slums has to be fixed urgently. There are ways forward, demonstrated in practice by a variety of organisations. Lack of role models and absence of career guidance is a separate challenge. But here, too, there is hope, because smaller-scale organisations have arisen that have pioneered ways to deal with the challenge.

A third challenge, which might prove harder to overcome, relates to the attitudes and beliefs that constitute the core an equal-opportunity society. It is premised upon the shared belief that poor kids can be as smart and dedicated as rich ones; that women and men have equal intellectual capacities; that caste is no predictor of talent; and that people who grew up speaking little or no English can be excellent CEOs or IAS officers. Attitudinal barriers such as these, along with barriers of self-confidence, have to be overcome. The book discusses how beliefs and attitudes have played a part in holding back positive change and how they can be changed to reflect reality more than handed-down preconceptions and biases.

Having been an IAS officer yourself for a number of years, how effective do you think the bureaucracy is in dealing with these challenges?

The IAS is only about 5,000 strong. There are millions of grassroots-level service providers – schoolteachers, health workers, patwaris, constables, linemen, foresters and agriculture extension workers, etc – who do the cutting-edge work of converting the policy intent into reality. That’s the part of the bureaucracy is which is grossly under-utilised, widely demotivated, and under-provided with discretion.

For having a more effective bureaucracy, that’s where I would focus my reform efforts – at the cutting-edge, the street-level bureaucrat – the patwari, the police constable, the forest guard, the agriculture extension agent, the postman and electricity linemen – whom most people see as the face of the government. Their jobs need to have more content and meaning. It’s a strange creature that renders the people hires into automatons, rather than utilising them as sentient beings responding to the particular needs of their local areas. Needs differ significantly, even between adjoining villages or neighborhoods. Not everything can or should be centrally designed and uniformly implemented. There is need for more thoughtful practices at the grassroots. But there’s very little in the system presently that drives innovation and risk-taking. That needs to change. Good intentions need to be converted into better outcomes.

A chapter in the book looks at this situation, arguing that the design for transformation needs to be innovated. Since the task of restructuring the government is too important to leave to the government alone, the energies and commitments of diverse stakeholders must combined in this effort.

Given the very small percent of Indians living on more than Rs 10,000 a month – 3% of the population – can we honestly speak of the possibility of equal opportunities?

Yes, we can. That should be the goal. But there are challenges to overcome in the interim. Provided we make the mental shift, recognising that kids of poor people also merit an unbroken ladder leading upward, each to the limit of her capabilities; provided we abandon the elusive search for a magic wand and are willing to work diligently for better solutions; provided we proceed from the grassroots up, learning from models of demonstrated worth, rather than looking for blanket solutions, there is hope that India will more successfully nurture the bulk of its people.

Anirudh KrishnaThe Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion Penguin Viking,

Anirudh Krishna
The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion
Penguin Viking, 2017

Are old entrenched elite replicating themselves, or is there a churning? The Patel and Jat protests seem like the protests of those formerly well-off.

I see these agitations for reservation in government posts as a rush toward a dwindling number of formal-sector positions. More than 3,000 people applied, for instance, including many with advanced degrees, for an advertised position of peon in a government department. Partly it’s because an aura of status still surrounds government positions, but in larger part it’s because of the security these positions bring – lifetime employment, health care and pension benefits. That’s what draws so many people.

Why can’t some, if not all, of the same securities be made available to people in the informal sector (where 90 percent find employment)? If plumbers and mechanics and domestic servants were to get a reliable monthly income, affordable health care, and a dignified retirement that would make their lives less uncertain and risk-filled; it might also reduce the pressure on government positions and weaken the pressure behind extending reservations. Formal jobs aren’t growing fast enough to absorb everyone. In fact, they have grown at a snail’s pace over the last 20 years. For a variety of reasons, there’s need to start formalising informal workers’ working conditions.

One of the depressing job statistics is the drop in proportion of Indian women in the workplace despite economic growth, what does this mean, and what impacts do you think this will have?

I spend nearly half the year living in and visiting villages and urban slums in different parts of India. Except for the very aged or very young, I have yet to see an idle woman. I find these statistics hard to square with facts on the ground.

Given that so much of our population live on the margins, how can we make sure that they do not fall into poverty due to a health or other “shock”?

Studies show that as many as 3-5% of the population of India falls into poverty every year on account of calamitous health expenditures. These figures are likely to be exaggerations, but the fact remains that India has one of the highest rates of poverty creation. Many people fall into poverty and remain poor for extended periods. That’s an important reason why poverty reduction has been slow in India. Reducing the number in poverty requires first of all stemming the inflow by reducing the risk of impoverishment. That has been a neglected part of the poverty agenda. Fixing healthcare by making it more effective, easier to access, and more affordable is an important part of what is required to stem people’s descents into poverty. There are other, region-specific vectors of poverty that also need effective resolutions.

Do we look at India’s economic story with hope or anxiety?

I see reason for hope more than anxiety. Where we are today is our inheritance, what we do with it will be our creation. No ready solutions are on the horizon. It will require charting a new pathway in a spirit of humility and optimism. It’s a different era from when countries in the West and Far East experienced their economic and social transformations. While thinking about creating more jobs, we should also think about nurturing job creators.