India is a country that for the traveler and the visitor will leave you shocked, astonished and amazed all the time and everywhere you go. In countless streets the people you can meet are an experience of its own. Portraying the faces of India has been of great interest for the photograph during his travels to India. It is the faces and the portraits that for the photographer define some of the cultural understanding and keeps him fascinated about India.
India is a country that for the traveler and the visitor will leave you shocked, astonished and amazed all the time and everywhere you go. In countless streets the people you can meet are an experience of its own. Portraying the faces of India has been of great interest for the photograph during his travels to India. It is the faces and the portraits that for the photographer define some of the cultural understanding and keeps him fascinated about India.



Wise people say that poverty is easy to spot, but hard to define. The income based one dimensional poverty line of the World Bank fails to reflect the hardships faced by the poor and it gives only headcount. In this blog post the photographer Kristian Bertel looks at the major factors behind India's poverty.

This points to the need of seeing poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon and the way one can look at poverty one can see that when it is constructed it offers a useful breakup of various deprivations faced by the poor as if poverty is being looked through a microscope. Rather than measuring poverty by income level, it is more appropriate to explore how much people can achieve with that income, considering the fact that such achievements will vary from one individual to another and from one place to another. What people can do or be is the most fundamental yardstick of people's well-being because same level of income or resource translate into different levels of doing or being and also because there are non-material factors that also affect people's capability to do or be. Poverty is capability deprivation and it results from failure of basic capabilities that are critical to a person's well-being. The approach links 'poverty to the failure of the ability to achieve precisely those things that are ultimately important'. A response to poverty then, is about the expansion of choices and capabilities that people can have in order to lead lives they value.

Social inequality leading to exclusion and marginalization
Rural India where seventy percent of the population lives is still quite caste conscious compared with the urban society where education and financial well-being has largely erased the caste divisions. Mahatma Gandhi tried to remove the social stigma of untouchability by coining the label 'Harijan' which means god's people for them but with only partial success. The official label for about 170 million, which is around around fourteen percent of current total population unfortunate lower caste people is 'Scheduled Caste'. Another segment of society that is still very much detached from the mainstream is the tribal community forming eight percent of the population. These tribal people called 'Scheduled Tribe' have historically lived in secluded areas such as forests. The Colonial British designated their habitations as excluded areas, not due to any special privilege but for convenience of the colonial policies. Unfortunately, the "free" governments after 1947 never bothered to assimilate them into rest of the mainstream society and the tribal communities continued to remain isolated and barely governed and as a result, besides the poverty of the tribal communities.

Many castes in India
Beside the 'Scheduled Caste' and 'Scheduled Tribe', there are several other communities designated 'Other Backward Classes' or simply 'Other Backward Classes' – they may or may not be Hindus. Their socioeconomic plight is also similar to 'Scheduled Caste' and 'Scheduled Tribe' and the list of 'Other Backward Classes' is dynamic and every now and then the government edits it mostly for political reasons, there is significant confusion about their exact proportion. However, most experts agree 'Other Backward Classes' to be in the range twentyfive to thirtyfive percent of the population. Combined together they form fifty to sixty percent India's population. Thus, the population of the so-called forward or upper class is less than one-third, but who by and large control everything. Now tell me how any country can possibly progress if over half of its people get excluded from the mainstream societal processes. While marginalization and exclusion happen in all societies, but in India it is in grotesque proportions due to sheer numbers and the policy of reservation in government jobs for the backward communities has certainly helped them to rise up to some extent. But it is insufficient because government jobs are limited. A far better way is to train and turn them into entrepreneurs and here the idea of social business offers a great opportunity for NGO and social organizations to make a difference. The remedy lies in policies leading to inclusion and empowerment of the poor.

The income based one dimensional poverty line of the World Bank fails to reflect the hardships faced by the poor. It gives only headcount. A life in poverty means living deprived of sufficient food and nutrition, education, proper shelter, sanitation, clean water and so on. This points to the need of seeing poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon.

Illiteracy in India
High level of illiteracy, particularly in the rural areas and among women, has been a crucial factor not only in perpetuating economic backwardness but also for high population growth. The persistence of high illiteracy has created a situation where poverty and population have been feeding each other. It is well established that female literacy plays an important role in the well-being of the family in many ways. When women are educated, they not only contribute economically but also raise healthier kids and keep the family size small. Early marriage of girls and early child bearing is closely related with their low literacy, it feeds poverty.

Population in India
While the growth rate of population has decreased significantly over the decades and the rate fertility decline has accelerated since 2011. India's population is currently growing annually at the rate of about 1.4 percent. The total fertility rate has sharply fallen to 2.3 and should approach the replacement rate of 2.1 by 2020 and country's population should stabilize by 2050 at around 1.5 billion and then begin to fall. The current population increase is largely driven by population momentum and large base of people in the fertile age, not because people want large families and around 18 million people are added to population each year. However, not that many people are lifted out of poverty every year. Early marriage of girls and lack of awareness about reproductive healthcare, particularly in the rural areas, are major factors behind current population growth. Population is clearly a factor contributing to and sustaining, high levels of poverty.

Gender inequality
Gender equality is both a core concern and an essential part of human development. Indian social fabric is highly patriarchal which has left women significantly exploited and discriminated. If caste based biases work only outside home in the open society, the discrimination against women operates both in and out of homes. Not only men always get preference in every walk of life, their attitude towards women is largely patronizing and imposing. Their weak status, particularly in the rural areas, is at the root of most chronic problems. It is their lack of awareness or access to family planning tools and early marriage of girls and their early child bearing, which ultimately have led to high population, where lack of awareness of health issues related to pregnancy and child upbringing has resulted in high mortality rate, under-nutrition and malnutrition among children, where lower education and lack of freedom has resulted in low participation in societal processes. All these factors are enough to feed and sustain poverty.

Faulty economic reforms in India
The so-called economic liberalization and market reforms that started in the 1990s are nothing but an attempt to replicate the Western capitalism that promotes "trickle down" economy. It serves to make the rich richer and expand the economy. India has become more unequal in recent years. In early 1990s, there were just 2 billionaires, now there are 131 billionaires, in a country of 1.33 billion people and the rich elites are also controlling more wealth, their share increased from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2008 and today, they are still richer and much more powerful. Experts suggest that if India could only freeze its rising inequality, by 2019 around 90 million more people could come out of extreme poverty. The push to urbanization means uprooting the poor from their rural roots and turning them into "cheap labor resource" for businesses in the town. In the cities they would live in large slums, exploited both by the mafia and employers, devoid of human dignity and livelihood security.

Solutions for India
Given the huge population and poverty, India needs an employment centric economy – millions of micro, small and medium business units and only they can employ the unskilled or low skilled people from the vast pool of the poor. Large high-tech industrial units do not generate too many jobs and whatever jobs they create is suitable for those who are already well off. According to a survey, the size of India's workforce is around 450 million. Of which only about 30 million work in the formal or organized sector and the government recognizes only about 70 million as unemployed or underemployed. Thus, there are 350 million unrecognized by the government as unemployed. Government surveys list them as self employed but they barely survive and live chronically in poverty and who are these "self employed" people, more in numbers than the population of United States and how do they survive?

They milk the cows, become seasonal farm workers, run small shops or sell on the roadsides, make incense sticks, match sticks and bidis, drive manual or auto rickshaws, work as domestic help, work as unaccounted contract workers on daily wages, work as gardeners and watchmen or work as plumbers, carpenters or shoe repairers and so on. They have no safety net such as pension or healthcare benefits enjoyed by the regular employees and hence, are the most vulnerable and they are also the first victim of natural calamities, now becoming more frequent due to climatic disorder and the poor are always the first victims of climatic disasters. Of course, nothing changes for better after their death-toll makes headline news.

Here is another twist. Such employment surveys do not consider the huge workforce – people working in units employing less than 10 people – and those employed in the informal sector. A commonsense question: Why Indian government does not make policies around this informal sector, if it is serious about eradicating poverty? And the answer is: because India is run by the "follow West" economists who have not the slightest idea what type of economic reforms India and its poor people really need. Their thinking stops at inviting "foreign direct investments" and vision fails to go beyond air conditioned corporate houses of the rich few.

Corruption in India
Corruption and leakages in government schemes are widespread in India. Late Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi had famously admitted that only about fifteen percent money actually reaches the ultimate beneficiaries. Even if we discard this figure as highly pessimistic and assume that say thirty to thirtyfive percent of the welfare funds actually reach the designated beneficiaries, the rest is siphoned off by the middlemen and people connected to the implementing government machinery and this is a common way for the people with "high connections" to acquire dirty wealth – by depriving the poor who generally have no voice or ability to assert. Another common form of corruption in schemes designed for the poor is inclusion of non-poor people with political connections in the list of beneficiaries and the end result is that the eligible poor are denied the benefits. The scale of corruption has steadily increased since the economic reforms were started.

The Colonial Rule in India
"- A significant fact which stands out is that those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today", has been said by Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India. The colonial British rule laid the foundation for a long term and chronic poverty in India after they departe and this is what Nehru is saying above using different set of words. The tiny state of Kerala in the southern India fortunately saw the least damaging influence of the British exploiters there are many reasons for that and is at present a unique model in the world of improvement in the quality of life through social and human development alone. It is something unthinkable for a Western brain which has been taught to see economic growth alone as "development". It was the traditional historic prosperity of India that attracted invaders from various parts of the world in the last 2000 years. Prior to the British, India had been ruled by the foreigners like the Kushanas, Turko-Afghans and Mughals. All of them gradually got assimilated into the Indian society and culture and they not only became absorbed in India but also protected and promoted Indian society, culture and economy. None of them systematically drained India's wealth or resources to make another country prosperous. Revenue collected or wealth acquired by them was spent within India and whether spent on the public or for personal luxury of the ruling elite, the wealth remained within the country.

Unlike their predecessors the British, however, consciously remained in India as foreign occupiers until their departure in 1947 and they remained isolated from the Indian society and culture and formed a separate class of their own within India. The only reason for their presence in India and in other occupied colonies was to secure raw materials for British industries and other goods for the comforts of their citizens and the vast population in India also provided market for goods manufactured back home. They subordinated Indian economy to the British trade and industry. Their economic policies actively favored non-Indians or made things difficult for Indian businessmen. As occupiers, they used Indian wealth to pay for all their expansionist ventures and territory building both inside and outside India.

Famine effected the people of India
Moreover, the British policies forcibly disbanded community grain banks and promoted replacement of food crops for local consumption with cash crops like cotton, opium, tea and grains for export to feed the animals in England. This change in the cropping pattern left Indian farmers vulnerable to famines and there are documentary evidences to suggest that the colonial rulers chose to ignore the famine affected people and it is estimated that during the two centuries of colonial rule, famines and the resulting epidemics caused over 30 million deaths. The most recent Bengal Famine of 1943-44 led to about 1.5 million deaths from starvation, 3.5 million if deaths from epidemics are also included.

As oppose to the Western 'trickle down' capitalism India needs a comprehensive "human development" plan in order to really crush the widespread poverty. It needs an economy that supports millions of small and medium enterprises that are suitable to employ low skilled poor people. Focus on good governance to root out deep rooted corruption that eats away major chunk of the welfare budget. Finally, promote women empowerment through education and healthcare, it will greatly help deal with poverty fed by the population growth. India must realize that by blindly following growth, it is only promoting inequality that sustains by keeping the poor in poverty.

Traveling with a camera
Kristian Bertel is a passionated travel photographer, who photograph life as he sees it through his lens. The work mostly consist of portraits, like in this blog post a portrait of the life in Mumbai. "- To travel broadens my view of the world, where I get an insight look of how life is in different parts of the world", he says. His images from India have been shown online as photo essays - documenting many aspects of the daily life particularly in India. His photographic work consists of portraits of city life in India, like in this blog post with pictures from a Mumbai in Maharashtra, India. He works as a travel photographer and he is available for editorial and travel assignments all over Europe, Asia, Africa and in the Middle East. For further information and inquiries please:
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More photographs from India
If you are interested to see more photos and imagery from India, you can see one of the slideshows, which also appears on the photographer's website.
See the slideshow | press here