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The Poor And The Poverty: The Setting And Constitutional Provisions Protecting The Human Rights Of The Poor In India

The 18th 19th and early 20th centuries of India have witnessed severe poverty during colonial rule, even after the independence in 1960, the estimated poverty in India was 59%. After a long economic and social struggle India is now a developing country with better conditions than before, but poverty continues to remain a multidimensional and unceasing phenomenon. Today, estimating poverty is based on a lot of factors like social, economic and political elements.

Even with the increase in India's economic structure poverty remains a major challenge. The issue of extreme poverty has been recorded to be declining in India, but the pandemic has led to global health and economic crisis, across the globe millions of people have been pushed towards poverty and India has been no exception to this. The maker of the Indian Constitution was determined to remove poverty from the country and look into the welfare of its citizens.

To uplift the condition of the country basic rights were instilled in the constitution of India, to protect human rights. Human rights are some basic and birthrights of every human being despite their caste, sex, religion on economic condition. However, the socio-economic, cultural and political diversities take away the free functioning of human rights for the poor and the minorities. The major problem faced by a developing nation is that a large number of the human population lives below.

The Poverty Line, who is being deprived of health, education, housing, food, employment, justice and equity. It is the duty of the nation to make sure that human rights are instilled in a country for the welfare of its citizen.

This paper has been designed to portray the condition of poverty in India, slightly touching its history and looking into the condition of poverty in the country since the Covid-19 pandemic. The paper further looks into the constitutional provisions and legislative efforts made towards eradicating poverty and uplifting human rights. The conclusion has been made by discussing the issue of poverty is violating human rights. The paper revolves around the three themes of poverty and growth, human rights, and constitutional efforts for removing poverty.

Introduction, defining poverty and the history of poverty in India:

One of the biggest ironies of India's rapidly growing and developing economy is that poverty continues to prevail in a widespread way, mostly affecting the already poor and minorities of the society. The benchmark to measure poverty has been revised by the World Bank multiple times basing on various factors, the different definitions have resulted in widely varying estimates of poverty In India.

In 2019, the Indian government officially mentioned that about 6.7% of its population is below The Poverty Line[1], and also the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) programme stated that 80 million people in India, out of 1021 billion, is living below the poverty line in 2018-2019[2].

Poverty can be defined as a situation where a household or an individual lacks the minimum financial resources to afford the basic minimum standard of living, the definition of poverty is influenced by a lot of factors like income, food intake, health, literacy and education, availability of work in the market, safe drinking water and such other infrastructural facilities[3] to keep a human healthy and alive.

However, the perception regarding what is poverty and how exactly it is measured varies over time and across countries, the conventional approach of defining poverty was merely based on income and expenditure without considering other important factors and this method does not completely bring the right numbers of poverty in the country.

India's first specific official attempt to identify the condition of the poor people and measure the extent of poverty was made in July 1962, when the government of India set up an expert committee for this reason, and at that time the desirable minimum level of consumer expenditure was at Rs. 20- Rs. 20 per capital (1960-61).

Before the independence, Dadabhai Naoroji's book Poverty and Un-British rule in India, was recorded to be the first document that traced out the mass poverty and brought it in front of the public, at that time wealth from the country was being systematically drained out through unequal rate, pensions and unequal dividend salaries (1930's-40)[4].

If we look into the condition of poverty and the estimation of poverty in India after 2000, Suresh Tendulkar committee group was organized in 2005, the committee submitted its report in 2009, the estimated population below the poverty line was 354 million about 29.6% of the population (2009-2010).

Later in 2014, the Rangarajan Committee raised the daily per capital income-expenditure to Rs. 47 and Rs. 32 for urban and rural areas respectively (from Rs.32 and 26 respectively), and also said that the poverty line was 454 million, i.e., 38.2% of the population in 2009-2010[5]. After the 2019 estimation of 6.7%, the situation of poverty in the country after the Covid 19 pandemic has taken a toll and the estimated number of poverty is expected to rise roughly around 381-418 million (from 265 million people) in 2021-22[6].

To understand why poverty in India has been persisting for so long, we need to discuss the basic causes and reasons that are fuelling poverty in India. The high population growth rate is one of the biggest reasons for the persisting poverty in India. The increasing population of the country fails to match up to the available resources and the economic growth in the country creating poverty mostly for the already poor group of people. The country fails to create enough jobs to match the numbers of people in the country.

Inflation in the prices of basic commodities is another reason for the ongoing poverty in the country. The caste system and unequal distribution of wealth keep on increasing the poverty in the country where already thousands of people are living below the poverty line. Other than these, there are other reasons like gender inequality that dominates women in society depriving them of education and work.

Also, unskilled workers are paid very little than the amount of work they put in, mainly in the unorganized sector of work. The Covid-19 pandemic has further increased poverty and we shall look into why and how the pandemic has increased poverty in the country.

Covid 19, amplifying the return of mass poverty in India:

In addition to Covid-9's immediate effect on health, Coronavirus has impacted the socio and economic structure of global proportion arising from the direct and indirect effects of the illness, the preventive measures of the people and the transmission control policies of the governments all around the world. The Indian economy which was already moving in a very slowdown process was hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The continuous lockdowns for a prolonged period to prevent the virus took a toll on the economic and social structure of the country. More than 121 million people were put out of jobs and pushed toward poverty. 40 million workers including the migrant workers were cut off from their jobs and forced to go back to their hometown devoid of jobs and sometimes carrying along with the virus, many of these workers did not return to work after the lockdown period was over.

These left not only the workers jobless but also the family of these workers were pushed towards poverty. The state for over the years has failed to uplift the agriculture sectors and invest in infrastructures, like roads, irrigation etc., the government has also been paying low wages to the farmers. Now when the Covid pandemic struck the country the whole situation became much worse and the earlier negligence has ignited the current situation.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated that around 260 million people will be back in poverty at the end of 2020, most of these people belong to the already poor sector of the country[7]. This situation possesses a serious threat to the country, especially the least developed states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh etc.

India's GDP made a sharp drop after the first wave of the Coronavirus and the situation got worse when the second wave hit the already dying country. The Pew research categorised income level in India- Rs 147 and less per day income as poor and Rs. 147-378 per day as a low-income group. The study estimated that the number of poor people with Rs. 147-150 per day income increased from 6 cores to 13.4 cores and hence the numbers of poor people have increased in India by almost 7.5 cores from the previous years[8].

The participants under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREA) are harsh proof that the poor are struggling to find work to sustain themselves and their families. The middle-income groups of the country that earns roughly Rs. 700-1,500 per day shrunk from 119.7 Cr. to 116.2 Cr. per day (as per Pew study). Pew also further warned that the actual situation might be worse than the outcome of the studies[9].

Constitutional and Legislative efforts towards eradicating poverty:

Right to Equality and Dignity for the poor:

The Indian Constitution holds a very strong opinion and a binding law that clearly defines the rights of its people. The poor or the wealthy all are to be treated equally in the eye of law. Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution mentions the rights that are available to every people including all the poor people of the country.

The purpose of Article 14[10] is to treat all people similarly under similar circumstances, both in the case of privileges conferred and liabilities imposed. Article 14, clearly commands the state not to deny, to any people 'equality before the law' and also commands the state to 'provide equal protection of the law'. While interpreting Article 14, the court mentioned that the right to equality cannot be arbitrarily denied to the equals in the absence of a valid classification[11], and the status of a person being wealthy or poor is not certainly a reason for discrimination.

The Article has been also interpreted to legally empower the poor people of the country. It is through this process of systematic change and empowerment that will protect the poor and they will get the advantage to use the law to protect their rights. Under the international human rights framework, the 63/142 General Assembly resolution also gave a special highlight for the legal empowerment of the poor stating that, the law should be made for equal access of everyone, making it a basic human right[12].

The same has been embedded under Article of the Indian Constitution. Article 14 also prohibits discrimination and all discriminatory laws despite the status of any citizen of the country. For better application of the article, it has been widely interpreted by the court and is now considered that any authority non-complying with the rules of natural justice will amount to violating Article 14[13] and hence any law that will be discriminating the poor will amount to arbitrariness.

Other than Article 14, Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has evolved over the years and the court has been using Article 21 by all its best virtues and now it stands as an important article protecting the human rights of the people. Article 21 has been interpreted in a very broad way to include quality of life, right to food and shelter, right to livelihood, right to honour and dignity, etc.

The Supreme Court while dealing with Article 21 held that the right to life with human dignity encompasses within the folds of humanity and is one of the finer facets of human civilization which makes life worth living[14]. Hence the Constitutions make sure that the rights and dignity of the poor people are safeguarded under the law.

Article 21 also provides equal protection of health for the poor and the labour class, the Supreme Court held that the right to health and medical aid to protect the health and vigour of a worker while in service or post-retirement is a fundamental right covered under Article 21 read with the Directive Principles in Articles 39(1), 41, 43, 48A to make the right of the workmen meaningful with the dignity of the person.[15] [16]

Right to education, work and equal pay:

For removing poverty from the country, the very first thing that needs to be looked into is educating the children, the youth and the women of the country. Without education, the development of a country is impossible and so are the chances of removing poverty. The Indian Constitution over the years have evolved regarding this matter, taking it seriously for the development of the country and eradicating poverty.

The right to education was initially not included as a part of a fundamental right and was only included as a directive principle under Article 45, which mentioned providing free education up to the age of 14 years. The question of the right to education as a fundamental right first arose before a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Mohini Jain vs. State of Karnataka[17], where the court implied that, under Article 21, the word life should include education because education is the base for providing and promoting a good and dignified life.

In this case, the court took an extensively expansive view of the state obligation to provide education to everyone at all levels. Subsequently the Constitution eighty-sixth Amendment Act, 2002 introduced Article 21A which made the right to education a fundamental right, which requires the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children (age of six to fourteen years)[18] in manners as the state may, by law, determine.

Other than providing the right to education the Constitution also mentions the right to work in Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) under Article 41 of the Constitution, also Article 39 expressly and specifically requires the state to direct policies for securing principles like 'Equal rights of men and women to adequate means of livelihood', 'Equal pay for equal work for both men and women. At this point it is important to understand that to pick the country out of poverty, every people will need work including women too. Depriving women of the country of education and jobs will not lead to the betterment of the country.

Saying that it is very important to look into that despite any gender every people who are putting into equal work should be paid equally. According to Article 39(d), of the Constitution, the state has to ensure that every person is paid equally for equal work be it, men or women. The parliament has introduced the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, to implement Article 39(d). The main objective of this article is to prevent discrimination on the grounds of sex in the work area. For reducing poverty equal distribution of wealth is a very important factor to be looked into.

Even though Article 39(d) is part of 'Directive principles' but the Supreme Court has emphasized in the Randhir Singh case[19], that the principle of 'equal pay for equal work' is not just an abstract doctrine. Though it is not expressly declared to be a fundamental right yet it maybe deducted by constructing Article 14 'Equality before law', and Article 16 'Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment in the light of Article 39(d).

Right to Food, Livelihood and Housing:

Right to food, though not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, it has been covered under Article 21 as the Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity. When reading Article 21 with Articles 39(a) and 47, it clearly shows how the constitution makes it a duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition of its people and the standard of living. Under means of livelihood, as mentioned in Article 39(a), food is an important means for livelihood.

The Supreme Court held that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 includes the 'right to livelihood'[20]. The court has argued in Olga Tellies[21], a case where the pavement dwellers were resisting eviction from their habitat by the Bombay Municipality Corporation that the right to livelihood is born out of the right to life, as no person can live without the means of living that is the right to livelihood.

The court also mentioned that 'if the right to livelihood is not treated as a part and parcel of the constitutional right to life under Article 21, then the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life is to deprive him of his means of livelihood that includes factors like food, living place and such basic needs that are required for bare survival.' Deprivation of livelihood would not only denude the life of its effective content and meaning fullness but it would also make life impossible to live.

Poverty arises when the basic needs of people comes into danger which includes food and livelihood, keeping that in mind the Constitution evolved the interpretation of Article 21 to include such wide interpretation for the safeguarding of the poor people of the country.

In the case of Shantisar Builders vs. Narayan Khimlal Totame[22], the Supreme Court ruled that the right to life is guaranteed in every civilized society and that would also include the right to food, clothing, right to a decent environment and a reasonable accommodation to live in, this are human rights as they will help him grow in every aspect, physically, mentally and intellectually.

In several other cases, the court read that the right to shelter in Article 19(1)(d) and Article 21 also guarantees the right to residence and settlement for every people equally. Again in Chameli Sigh vs. State of UP[23], the court held that the right to shelter is not just merely for the protection of his life but also it is an opportunity for him to grow and hence it includes clean surroundings, pure air and water, electricity and other civic amenities.

Is poverty a violation of Human Rights? Challenges of eradicating poverty and the way forward:'

India is known to be a country with diverse religions and cultures throughout its history, though the Indian perspective of law considers every human being as equal and considers the society as one organic whole place as per the Constitution of India. But if we look into the practical aspects of how the Indian society works, it is evident how division is made among people, for instance, the division among the caste system in India is not a new issue. Other than a hierarchical arrangement of high and low, pure and polluted is persistent in Indian society.

The Constitution has given importance to preserving the basic human rights of the people of the country under Article 14, 21 following with the Directive principles, but failing to apply such law to every citizen in the country is creating human rights issues. Human rights are basic rights of an individual that includes the right to not merely exist, but to live with dignity in the society, and have the right to avail the basic needs like food, water, clothing, shelter and other civil, political and economic rights to live like a human being.

The 223rd Report of the Law Commission of India explicitly mentioned that extreme poverty is certainly a denial of human rights[24], the report that was drawn in April 2009 also explained that often, poverty is the result of the direct and the indirect consequence of society's failure to establish equality and fairness as the basic ground of its social and economic structure of the society.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions that every human being is entitled to a standard of living adequate to provide for the health and well-being of the individual and his family, and the covenants along with the UDHR mentions the right to economic, cultural, civil and political rights. The increasing difference between the rich and the poor throughout the world and not just in India is amplifying the violence in the world, which includes regional and national conflict, crime and violence, use of illicit drugs and also environmental degradation,[25] creating place for more human rights violation.

After the implementation of the 1991 economic reforms, India slowly but steadily made progress in terms of globalization, despite the rapid growth and development India continues to have an unhealthy proportion of poverty in the country. The need to remove poverty from the country has been the goal since the Constituent Assembly meetings, to the five-year plan and the target remains in the Millennium Development Goals.

It has to be noted that over the years, since independence population living in poverty has declined but, the poverty lines were set low and the decline was not as rapid as it was expected. A large number of social protection schemes and programmes has been implemented by the government in sectors of healthcare, providing works, education, security of food but all of these programmes suffers an array of problems like rigidity, non-adaptability to local conditions, late distribution of funds, misuse of the funds given for helping the poor and the presence of corrupt officials in the system has made the application of the social welfare programmes difficult[26].

For instance, the guarantee of 100 days of wage employment to one person in each rural household annually scheme under MGNREGA, the achievement has been even less than 55 days. Other than this the problem of having inadequate access to healthcare, poor sanitary conditions, the continuous rising of hunger rates in the country and inequality in the education system and unemployment remains.

The lockdown due to the pandemic has increased unemployment, lack of food and insufficiency in the healthcare system of the country in an unimaginable way. The pandemic has also resulted in creating hindrance in the education system of the country creating space for further decrease in the development of the country.

To eradicate poverty, it is very important to recognize that poverty in India is divided into Urban poverty and Rural poverty, and both places require different kinds of solutions for similar problems. Steps like removing the barriers in applying for the social welfare programmes and investing in agriculture should be the immediate target to shake the ongoing poverty in the country.

Other than that there is a need for removing inequality among genders ad caste in the education and the employment field and investment in infrastructure, creating jobs and security for the labourers after the hit of the pandemic is a very important issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible to stop the more poverty hitting the country. Sticking to the Millennium Developmental Goals and continuous economic growth is the only way out of the consistent poverty in the country.

  1. Number and Percentage of Population Below Poverty Line, Reserve Bank of India 2013, (Accessed September 3rd 2021)
  2. 8% GDP growth helped reduce poverty: UN report, THE HINDU, (Accessed September 3rd 2021)
  3. Aasha Kapur Mehta, Amita Shah, Chronic Poverty in India: Overview Study, Pp 2, Chronic Poverty Research Centre ISBN Number: 1-904049-06-0 (Accessed September 4th 2021)
  4. More Sachin Sudhakarrao, Narendra Singh, POVERTY IN INDIA: concepts, measurement and status, (Accessed September 4th 2021)
  5. Dr. Seema Gaur, Dr. N Srinivasa Rao, Poverty Measurement In India: A Status Update, Pp 4-6, Ministry of Rural Development Working Paper No. 1/2020. (Accessed September 4th 2021)
  6. The pandemic has worsened India's poverty crisis', The Indian EXPRESS, (Accessed September 6th 2021)
  7. Covid-19, Amplifying the Return of Mass Poverty in India', INSTITUTE MONTAIGNE, (Accessed September 9th 2021)
  8. Covid-19: Poverty doubled in India in 2020. Will second wave make it worse?', INDIA TODAY, (Accessed September 9th 2021)
  9. Coronavirus | Pandemic may have doubled poverty in India, says Pew study', THE HINDU, (Accessed September 9th 2021)
  10. Article 14- Equality before law The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  11. Virendra Krishna Mishra vs. UOI, AIR 2015 2 SCC 712.
  12. Legal Empowerment of the poor and eradication of poverty', Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations General Assembly, Sixty-fourth session 2009 (Accessed September 16th 2021)
  13. Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation vs. Bal Mukund Bairawa, AIR 2009 4 SCC 299.
  14. CERC vs. UOI, AIR 1995 SC 922.
  15. Id. 13
  16. Kirloskar Bros Limited vs. ESI Corporation, AIR 1996, 2 SCC 682; State of Punjab vs. Mohinder Singh Chowla, AIR 1997 SC 1225.
  17. Mohini Jain vs. State of Karnataka, AIR 1992 SC 1858.
  18. Bachpan Bachao Andalan vs. UOI, AIR 2011 SC 3361; Kumar Thakur vs. UOI, AIR 2006 6 SCC 1.
  19. Randhir Singh vs. UOI, AIR 1982 SC 879; DS Nakara vs. UOI, AIR 1983 SC 130.
  20. Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay vs. Dilipkumar R Nandkarni, AIR 1983 SC 109.
  21. Olga Tellies vs Bombay Municipal corporation, AIR 1983 SC 180
  22. AIR 1995 SC 940
  23. AIR 1996 SC 1051
  24. Need for Ameliorating the lot of the Have-nots, Law Commission of India, Report No. 223 (Accessed September 26th 2021)
  25. Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Statement to the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, (Accessed September 26th 2021)
  26. Aasha Kapur Mehta , Poverty eradication - Why do we always fail?, DownToEarth (Accessed September 26th 2021)

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