When two NRI young men lived on Rs 26 a day in India to experience the Poverty line

When two NRI young men lived on Rs 26 a day in India to experience the Poverty line
Tushar Vashisht and Mathew Cherian

Two guys, Tushar Vashisht and Mathew Cherian – one an Investment Banker who studied at University of Pennsylvania and other from MIT – came to India to work at the UID project. Recently, there was a big debate (see Sushma Swaraj’s speech in the Indian Parliament below) about how the Government had announced that anyone living above Rs 32 in a city was above the poverty line.  In the village it was Rs 26.

One day the two friends first decided to live like an “average Indian”.  Which to them came out to Rs 100.  This would help them understand what Indian life is about.  So, they moved into the flat of their maid servant – much to her amusement.  Some of changes to their lifestyle were:

  • No eating out, not even dhabas
  • Milk and yogurt used very little
  • No Ghee, no butter.  Only a bit of refined oil
  • No Meat and no processed food like bread
  • Couldn’t afford bus for more than 5 km per day, so they walked to most places
  • Could afford electricity for only 5-6 hours a day
  • Used one Lifebuoy soap cut into two
  • No movies of course

With this kind of living style, they innovated with recipes using Soy nuggets.  Parle G biscuits were a great source of calories as they provide 27 calories for 25 paise.  So, they treated themselves to the interesting fried banana on biscuit treat.  The fear of falling sick was the most damning!

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They soon realized that it was important to also experience how a poor Indian would live?  Not everyone lives like an “average Indian”.  In fact most don’t.  So, they set out for Matt’s ancestral village Karucachal in Kerala.

Today began with 2 sleepy heads getting up early in the morning to get blood tests done in Kottayam in Kerala. After that, we indulged ourselves with a banana and 5 Parle Gs (total Rs. 4) each before taking a rickety bus ride to Karukachal, a sub-urban town 17 km from Kottayam. To those unfamiliar with Kerala bus rides, they are one of India’s must experience great adventures: High speed competitions between private bus companies on single and double lane roads that would put most hollywood thrillers to shame. We were contemplating getting bicycles in Karukachel to travel to Kottayam or Kumarakom; but after witnessing the roads, are having second thoughts already! Burning through the last piece of our reserves from the days we were rich (aka lived at Rs. 100 a day), we finally made it to Karukachal in one piece.

Here their diet went from bad to worse: parboiled rice, a tuber and banana and black tea.

We were woken up by the sound of the warm Mathaikuttichayan (Mathai = Mathew; Kutti = little; Achayan = elder brother). He is a close friend of Matt’s family and knowledgable in all things Karukachal. He took us on a not-so-beaten path to his home, where his wife, Shantamma aunty, had prepared some food for us. We immediately took out our mental calculators and were relieved to find that lunch was only going to cost us Rs. 7.0 if we ate right (or wrong, depends on the way you look at it). See, as long as you load up on the cheap Parboiled rice (costing Rs. 23/kg), you are okay. We decided to eat 100g each of it costing only Rs. 2.3! We unwillingly said no to the omelet that was served fresh off the pan. Would all this not skew our diet to be extremely carbs heavy? At this point we couldn’t be bothered about that. The rest of the money, we spent on eating a local root (arbi) that costs only Rs. 10/kg – again carbs heavy – along with Rasam, pickle, slightly fried raw plantains, and little bit of Moru (spiced Kerala buttermilk), a small banana and water from the courtyard well. Thanks to the fact that most of the vegetables and spices come from Mathaikuttichayan’s courtyard, we can expense for them at slightly lower than market rates. Our energy came back as if we had been shot with some wonderdrug and by evening we were feeling a lot better.

On last Diwali, they decided to return to their normal life.

Happy Diwali everyone! We hope you all are having a great time at home this festive season. With all your encouragement, our experiment has ended successfully. But, we wish we could tell you that we are excited that it’s all over. 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. There was nothing wrong with the food. In fact, 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.
This realization lives with us this festive season. We know that even the poor spend time and money to celebrate festivals. We also know that however hard life might sound at that income level, it is a life filled with stories of fortitude and hope. Some maybe less fortunate than others monetarily, but they aren’t necessarily less happy. But 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)?

The experience left them with a feeling of guilt.  After having experienced the life of poverty, and knowing that they have an option of returning to the “normal” and rich life, which most Indians cannot – they weren’t the same again.

Meanwhile the bureacrats – many like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who took time out to meet them and also discuss their findings and thoughts – and the politicians will go their merry way without much change.

Reference Link: Barefoot – The other side of life

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