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What living below the poverty line taught an investment banker and an MIT grad

Two young men decided to live a month of their lives on the income of an average poor Indian.

Tushar, the son of a police officer in Haryana, studied at University of Pennsylvania and worked for three years as an investment banker in the United States and Singapore. Matt migrated as a teenager to the United States with his parents, and studied in MIT.

At different points, both of them decided to return to India and joined the UID Project in Bangalore. They came to share a flat, and became close friends.

The idea suddenly struck them one day. They had returned to India in the vague hope that they could be of use to their country. But they knew the people of this land so little.

Tushar suggested one evening, “Let us try to understand an ‘average Indian’, by living on an ‘average income’.”

Matt was immediately captured by the idea. They began a journey which would change them forever.

To begin with, what was the average income of an Indian? They calculated that India’s Mean National Income was Rs 4,500 a month, or Rs 150 a day. Globally, people spend about a third of their incomes on rent. Excluding rent, they decided to spend Rs 100 each a day. They realised that this did not make them poor, only average. Seventy per cent Indians live on less than this average.

The young men moved into the tiny apartment of their domestic help, much to her bemusement.

Many things changed for them.

They spent a large part of their day planning and organising their food. Eating out was out of the question; even dhabas were too expensive. Milk and yoghurt were expensive and therefore used sparingly; meat was out of bounds, as was processed food, like bread. No ghee or butter, only a little refined oil. Both are passionate cooks with healthy appetites. They found soy nuggets a wonder food – affordable and high on proteins, and worked with many recipes. Parle G biscuits again were cheap: twenty-five paise for twenty-seven calories! They innovated a dessert of fried banana on biscuits. It was their treat each day.

Living on Rs 100 made the circle of their life much smaller. They found that they could not afford to travel more than five kilometres in a day, by bus. If they needed to go further, they could only walk.

They could afford electricity only five to six hours a day, therefore sparingly used lights and fans. They needed also to charge their mobiles and computers.

They used one Lifebuoy soap cut into two. They passed by shops gazing at things they could not buy. They could not afford the movies, and hoped they would not fall ill.

However, the bigger challenge remained. Could they live on Rs 32, the official poverty line?

The figure had become controversial after India’s Planning Commission informed the Supreme Court that this was the poverty line for cities. For villages, it was even lower, at Rs 26 per person per day.

They decided to go to Matt’s ancestral village Karucachal in Kerala, and live on Rs 26. They ate parboiled rice, a tuber and banana and drank black tea: a balanced diet was impossible on the Rs 18 a day which their briefly adopted “poverty” permitted.

They found themselves thinking of food the whole day. They walked long distances, and saved money even on soap to wash their clothes. They could not afford communication, by mobiles and internet. It would have been a disaster if they fell ill. For the two twenty-six-year-olds, the experience of “official poverty” was harrowing.

Yet when their experiment ended, they wrote to their friends:

“Wish we could tell you that we are happy to have our ‘normal’ lives back. Wish we could say that our sumptuous celebratory feast two nights ago was as satisfying as we had been hoping for throughout our experiment. It probably was one of the best meals we’ve ever had, packed with massive amounts of love from our hosts. However, each bite was a sad reminder of the harsh reality that there are 400 million people in our country for whom such a meal will remain a dream for quite some time. That we can move on to our comfortable life, but they remain in the battlefield of survival – a life of tough choices and tall constraints. A life where freedom means little and hunger is plenty...

“It disturbs us to spend money on most of the things that we now consider excesses. Do we really need that hair product or that branded cologne? Is dining out at expensive restaurants necessary for a happy weekend? At a larger level, do we deserve all the riches we have around us? Is it just plain luck that we were born into circumstances that allowed us to build a life of comfort? What makes the other half any less deserving of many of these material possessions (which many of us consider essential) or, more importantly, tools for self-development (education) or self-preservation (healthcare)?

“We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we do know the feeling of guilt that is with us now. Guilt that is compounded by the love and generosity we got from people who live on the other side, despite their tough lives. We may have treated them as strangers all our lives, but they surely didn’t treat us that way…”

So what did these two friends learn from their brief encounter with poverty? That hunger can make you angry. That a food law which guarantees adequate nutrition to all is essential. That poverty does not allow you to realise even modest dreams. And above all – in Matt’s words – that empathy is essential for democracy.

Excerpted with permission from Invisible People: Stories of Courage and Hope, Harsh Mander, Duckbill Books.

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