Inadequacies in India’s Transgender Legislation

Decoding Gender Identity

Argentina, a pioneer in pro-trans legislation, has operationalized the term gender identity in its constitution. The article says that the “internal and individual way” in which a person understands their gender is their gender identity.1 This involves their personal experience with their body, changing (voluntarily) their appearance, and anatomy via surgical means as well as other expressions through dress and mannerisms.

The definition makes it amply clear that gender identity is a very subjective phenomenon, or a ‘qualia’.2  This means that since the gender of a person is an introspective experience, only the subject of that experience can verify the gender identity.

Transgender Policy in India

In the face of the historic 2014 National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs. Union of India judgment by the Supreme Court, that made it clear that gender determination is in the hands of the person concerned and did away with biological tests, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 (hereby referred to as ‘the Act’) is severely regressive.3, 4 The very potential of the Act to transform the sphere of trans rights has been diluted. Professor Bittu Rajaraman of Ashoka University, a transgender activist, noted that the policymakers have subsumed the intersex identity (having a sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit into typical male and female) within the trans identity (having a gender identity non-conforming to birth-assigned sex), as a subtype (in chapter 1, point 2.k of the Act). Clearly, there is an insufficient understanding of the very difference between gender and sex, and the many variations within each. Such a conflation makes for irresponsible policy. Specific policy requirements for the intersex community remain unaddressed; for example – legal prohibition of non-consensual medical procedures to make their bodies conform to assigned sex.5

Furthermore, the only self-perceived gender identity that the Act allows for is ‘transgender’, that needs to be substantiated by a district-magistrate approved certificate. Under no circumstances is a trans person allowed the autonomy to identify themselves as a man or a woman (if they wish to) upon self-perception. Point 7.1. states that only a person who has undergone surgery to become either male or female can apply for a certificate which states the so-called corrected gender. It comes as no surprise that this process would require an application, corroborated by documents from the medical institution, and the associated medical officers. For this clause to exist, despite multiple examples from around the world of the omission of medical processes as a prerequisite for gender affirmation, is dehumanizing. The act is striving to put trans people back into the tight binary holds of man and woman, and has left no space for people who exist in neither of the two categories, such as non-binary, gender-fluid and gender-non-conforming people, as well as people who do not wish to medically transition. Bangladesh has already seen the repercussions of pathologizing the trans identity; the community was given state ‘disability allowances’, but such welfare mechanisms backfired when trans persons were forced to undergo medical examinations to prove their transgenderism, and fired from their government jobs when they failed.6

Another surprising aspect of the act is offences and penalties section, which establishes that the maximum punishment for crimes against trans persons (point 18.d.), including sexual and physical abuse, will be two years along with an unspecified fine. In comparison to this, for crimes against women such as stalking (Indian Penal Code (IPC) 354D) and sexual harassment (IPC 354A), the punishment is at least three years in jail; for rape it is life imprisonment.7, 8 There is no explanation behind this other than the unsaid assumption that the trauma experienced by the trans people is somehow less grave, even though the crime is the same. The act also seeks to provide for grievance redressal mechanisms in all establishments (Chapter V, point 11), both public and private, but says nothing about the prevention and punishment of harassment that occurs in streets, slums, brothels and other informal places of employment. This is exemplary of the policymakers’ limited understanding of trans lives in India.

Further, the Act says that in the face of institutional or familial discrimination against a trans child, on the behest of a court, the child will be placed in a rehabilitation centre (point 12.3). The act is silent on the infrastructural, safety and medical conditions that these rehabilitation centers must comply with in order adequately provide adequately for the children that are going to be placed there. Studies10 have shown that an absent family and community structure for trans children manifests in the form of mental health problems in trans children, and leads them to engage in destructive behaviour like self-harm and substance abuse. But the act does not account for this. It also does not deal with civil rights such as marriage and adoption, which perpetuates the hetero-normative ideal of Indian society and prevents them from having a recognized and rights-enabled family structure.

An Overview of International Transgender Legislation   As this decade comes to a close, many countries have succeeded in giving the trans community their rightful place in society, through empowering and non-discriminating laws. These laws strive to give the trans people autonomy and state recognition, and also set excellent precedents for lawmakers globally to take note from.   Denmark   The Danish pioneered the movement for gender self-determination in Europe with the 2014 gender recognition law11. It does away with psychiatric diagnoses and medical treatments as grounds for filing an application. People under the age of 18 cannot file for gender self-determination.   Ireland   Starting in 2015, people above the age of 18 have been allowed to legally change their gender by “statutory self-declaration”12. The framework is being reviewed to account for younger people as well as non-binary/agender13/gender-fluid people, who do not want to opt for the male-female binary.   Malta   The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC Act) of 2015 provides “quick, transparent and accessible”14 gender recognition, contingent entirely on self-recognition. Declarations must be made to a government notary, who is legally prohibited from seeking medical information for the same. Applications for minors can be made by their parents or legal guardians. Additionally, birth certificates can remain without gender markers until the child has made an informed decision.     Argentina   By far, Argentina has one of the most comprehensive provisions for gender-identification rights. Article 1 of the constitution outlines the Right to Gender Identity as the (1) freedom to self-recognition of gender identity, (2) freedom to develop according to said identity and (3) the right to be identified and treated accordingly15. Article 4 accordingly supplements this by stating that under no circumstances will the applicant have to provide evidence of total or partial sex reassignment or therapies (both hormonal and psychological). Once these basic requirements are met, the public officer in charge can move for the issuing of a fresh birth certificate and a new national ID card. All legal entitlements and obligations remain as they were prior to gender identity change.   Others   There are certain countries which decided to break down the very construct of gender as a marker of identity. For instance, in New Zealand and Australia, it is no longer considered necessary for a person to even have a gender. Official documents for people are allowed to say ‘unspecified’ against gender. The Dutch parliament, similarly, is considering whether official documents should even record gender at all16.      While these are noteworthy pieces of legislation which provide legacy for other nation states to learn from, there is room for improvement. For example, in Denmark, a clause in the law that mandates a six-month period between application and approval has met with resistance from activists. The lawmakers added this clause to make room for people who might want to withdraw their applications. However, the organization Transgender Europe has raised concerns about how this provision fuels the myth that trans people are ‘confused’ about themselves and may make the wrong decision in haste.17   Additionally, the move by Ireland and Denmark to prohibit people under the age of 18 to file for gender self-determination is being understood by many as a move to undermine the autonomy of trans children. The policy seems to be based on the notion that they are not old enough to understand their gender identity. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has maintained that there is no valid reason to believe that people below the age of 18 do not have the mental or physical faculties to self-evaluate and recognize their gender status.18  

Understanding the Motivation Behind the Transgender Act

While there is no clear answer to this predicament, a few indicators can be identified. In a previous version of the bill, which lapsed in 2018 in the Rajya Sabha, begging by transgender persons was proposed to be criminalized.19 Rajaraman posits that this is indicative of the policymakers’ belief that trans persons beg out of choice, which is an extension of their incomplete understanding of the community’s concerns. There was little consideration of the fact that trans persons face an ostracization of inexplicable levels, shunned from places of work, worship, leisure and education. They beg, enter prostitution and become performers to eke out a livelihood.

Until recently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, classified gender dysphoria as an ‘identity disorder’, thereby insinuating that there is something inherently pathological about not feeling at one with one’s birth-assigned sex.20 While the manual has now done away with this classification, the medical community’s beliefs vis-a-vis dysphoria and transgenderism have been echoed by society for decades, which has been evident in discourses about the matter. Given the misinformation, even the most well-intentioned policymakers are unable to discuss trans rights without using trans-phobic vocabulary. For example, in the tabling of the Trans Bill in the upper house of the parliament, one of the members, who was vocally opposed to the bill, said the following:

If a baby is born blind, if a baby is born with hearing-impairment, then, do we think that this baby is a curse from God? No. It is God’s own children. Likewise, these transgender persons are also God’s children”.21

The parliamentarian then went on to add that the ‘brain power’ of transgenders is powerful and that they ‘can be trained’ to do many jobs. Policymakers of our country are hesitant about treating trans people as adults who have capacities of self-awareness and mature decision-making. Here, it must be noted that the 2016 version of the bill necessitated the establishment of a district level screening committee to hand out gender certificates, and the committee was required to have at least one psychologist or psychiatrist.22 While this section has now been removed, the patronizing stance towards the trans community is evident from the uninhibited allusion to transgenderism as some sort of a handicap. Given this circumstance, achieving an equal and unprejudiced stature for them, as well as an empathetic piece of legislation, are still distant eventualities.

What can be done?

A systematic ambiguity of legal recognition enables the perpetuation of structural violence against the community in India. Be it poor mental health, discrimination, isolation or abuse, the root of most problems faced by them can be traced back to inadequate policy coverage, which fails to provide for their special circumstances and does not address the historical injustice done to them. Annette Verster, a technical officer with the HIV Department at WHO, Geneva, said that “identity documents that do not match a person’s gender can hinder access to health services, social protection and employment”.23

In its present form, the act does not contain any actionable or attainable goals for the near future. Chapter IV of the act, which is dedicated to welfare measures that the government is required to take, is unspecific about these measures. There is no attempt to elaborate on what ‘full and effective participation’ means, what will be the format of the proposed welfare schemes or what will ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘recreation’ entail. This is not an act which will ensure an empowered status for the trans persons in India. The commitments should be broken down into unequivocal deliverables, for which organs of the government and special committees must be given accountability.

Policymakers, themselves, need to be sensitized about the matter of legislation, so that they are able to create an infrastructure of recognition for the trans community within the larger society.  It is time to think about how can we enhance communication between research and policy-making, so that legislation in the parliament is more attuned to the needs of people. Politics and policy are intertwined, which means that attempts shall have to be made to understand the political motivations behind the act. Only then will we able to make strides ahead, especially in the face of our parliamentarians’ unrelenting rigidity, presumably rooted in stereotypes and outmoded attitudes about the trans people. New methods of protest and communication will have to be adopted, although what they will be remains unclear.



1 2013. “Argentina Gender Identity Law,” Transgender Europe.

2 Tye, Michael. 2018. “Qualia,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University),

3 Wojcik, Mark. E. 2018. “Male. Female. Other. India Requires Legal Recognition of a Third Gender,” American Bar Association,

4 “THE TRANSGENDER PERSONS (PROTECTION OF RIGHTS) BILL, 2019”, [as introduced in Lok Sabha],

5 2019. “India: Transgender Bill Raises Rights Concerns,” Human Rights Watch,

6 Bhattacharya, Sayan. 2019. “The Transgender Nation and its Margins: The Many Lives of the Law.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, pg. 12. DOI: 10.4000/samaj.4930.

7 According to Section 354A IPC, sexual harassment includes unwarranted touching or other physical contact, demands for sexual acts, making sexually-coloured remarks and unwarranted exposure to pornographic material.

8 N.d. “Legal Provisions Related to Sexual Offences against Women”. Vikaspedia,

10 Ryan, C. 2014. “Generating a revolution in prevention, wellness & care for LGBT children & youth”. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 23(2): 331-344.

11 2014. “Historic Danish Gender Recognition Law Comes into Force,” Transgender Europe.

12 Brooks, Libby. 2018. “‘A Monumental Change’: How Ireland Transformed Transgender Rights,” The Guardian, sec. Society,

13 Agender people are those who do not subscribe to any gender identity, thereby remaining genderless.

14 2015. “Malta Adopts Ground-Breaking Trans and Intersex Law – TGEU Press Release,” Transgender Europe.

15 2013. “Argentina Gender Identity Law,” Transgender Europe.

16 Ghoshal, Neela and Kyle Knight. 2016. “World Report 2016: Rights Trends in Rights in Transition,” Human Rights Watch.

17 2014. “Historic Danish Gender Recognition Law Comes into Force,” Transgender Europe.

18 N.d.“WPATH World Professional Association for Transgender Health,” accessed December 16, 2019,

19 Singh, Prachi. 2019. “Why Is Transgender Community Unhappy with Trans Persons Bill?,” DownToEarth,–67158.

20 2013. “Gender Dysphoria”. American Psychiatric Association.

21 2019. “DC-MZ/1A/11:00.” Rajya Sabha Secretariat, pg. 164.

22 Bhattacharya, Sayan. 2019. “The Transgender Nation and its Margins: The Many Lives of the Law.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, pg. 12. DOI: 10.4000/samaj.4930.

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The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.


  1.  Rahmstorf, S. (2008, July). The 5 Most Important Datasets of Climate Science.
  2. Panda, A. (2020, May 26). Climate change, displacement, and managed retreat in coastal India – India. ReliefWeb.’s%20more%20than%207%2C500%20square,related%20to%20sea%2Dlevel%20rise.&text=Beyond%20displacement%20and%20migration%20along,relocation%20in%20major%20coastal%20cities
  3.  Status Report on Coastal Protection & Development in India Central Water Commission New Delhi .(2016).
  4. NOAA (2020, August 14).Climate Change: Global Sea Level | NOAA
  5. Masselink, G., & Lazarus, E. (2019). Defining Coastal Resilience. Water, 11(12), 2587. MDPI AG. Retrieved from
  6. Warrier, S. G., Aggarwal, M., Aggarwal, M., Sarkar, S., Sarkar, S., Padmanaban, D., … Gopal, S. (2016, November 9). Walls can’t keep out the sea in Kerala. India Climate Dialogue. 
  7. Krishnamurthy, R., DasGupta, R., Chatterjee, R., & Shaw, R. (2014). Managing the Indian coast in the face of disasters & climate change: A review and analysis of India’s coastal zone management policies. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 18(6), 657-672.
  8. E. Vivekanandan. Impact of Climate Change in the Indian Marine Fisheries and the Potential Adaptation Options. 
  9. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed. (2018). Community-based rehabilitation attempt for solution of climate displacement crisis in the coastal area of Bangladesh. 1. 358. 10.1504/IJMRM.2018.10016042. 
  10. Inti Carro, et al.,(2012, August 18) Building capacity on ecosystem-based adaptation strategy to cope with extreme events and sea-level rise on the Uruguayan coast ISSN: 1756-8692 Publication date:
  11. Climate Change Adaptation in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Compilation of initial examples, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1088, Clare Shelton,ISSN 2070-6065
  12. Podesta, John. (2019, September 4)“The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees.”
  13.  Alongi, D.M. Mangrove forests: Resilience, protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. (2008), 76, 1–13
  14.  Das S (2009) Addressing coastal vulnerability at the village level: The role of socio-economic and physical factors. Working paper series No. E/295/2009. 
  15. Alongi, Daniel. (2002). Present State and Future of the World’s Mangrove Forests. Environmental Conservation. 29. 331 – 349. 10.1017/S0376892902000231.
  16. Kantamaneni, K., Sudha Rani, N. N. V., Rice, L., Sur, K., Thayaparan, M., Kulatunga, U., Rege, R., et al. (2019). A Systematic Review of Coastal Vulnerability Assessment Studies along Andhra Pradesh, India: A Critical Evaluation of Data Gathering, Risk Levels and Mitigation Strategies. Water, 11(2), 393. MDPI AG. Retrieved from
  17. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed & Molla, Morshed. (2017). Sustainable adaptation for resolving climate displacement issues of south eastern islands in Bangladesh. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management. 9. 10.1108/IJCCSM-02-2017-0026.
  18. Ministry of Environment and Forests (Department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife). (2011, Jan 6).Coastal Regulation Zone Notification.

How would you define poverty? There are several definitions and each one of them helps us imagine poverty in different ways. One way to define poverty is the lack of resources required to lead a basic life. By this definition, as long as your basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, you are not in poverty. The United Nations defines poverty as the “inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” A more quantitative definition from the World Bank defines poverty as living under $1.90 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. This is the international poverty line. Amartya Sen’s capability approach describes poverty as “a failure to achieve certain minimum capabilities.” This means that poverty is not seen purely as an issue of economic development but includes measures of human rights and access.

It does not take long to realize that poverty has many faces. In a recent project called One Hundred Homes, researchers conducted a visual survey of India to examine what a household falling under a particular income or consumption level as per a standard government survey (IHDS, NSS) would look like in real life. The result was a collection of hundred visual essays showcasing the living conditions of families to understand the connection between wealth and poverty visually. A key insight is that it is almost impossible to predict which household is wealthier just based on the appearance of living conditions. We cannot simply look at assets owned to determine who is better off or worse off. Surveys usually measure poverty through consumption spending in a given period of time on a fixed category of things. This does not account for the value of the house, credit borrowed, subsidies received from the government, etc. In addition to this, the poverty line in itself is based on several assumptions such as calorie requirements and ignores indicators of education, health and wellbeing.

Figure 1: A snapshot from the One Hundred Homes project website (Source: One Hundred Homes)

Poverty, through its appearance and measurement, presents several puzzles. Some obvious facts about poverty may not be true. On the other hand, results from experiments to understand the lives of the poor may be counterintuitive.

For example, one knows about the vicious nature of poverty. But why do the poor remain poor? Do bad decisions cause poverty or does poverty cause people to make bad decisions? Sendhil Mullainathan and other researchers ran a series of experiments to understand how scarcity affects cognitive capability and decision making. For an illustration of how poverty affects thinking, they asked people to memorize a list of words similar to the one below in 20 seconds and asked them to recall as many as they can from memory.

Figure 2: List used by researchers in the experiment to determine effects of poverty on cognitive capacity (Source: Chicago Booth Review)

What’s interesting is that, although “money” was not on the list, people with low income are more likely to remember seeing money in the list than people with high income because words on the list are related to financial concerns. This portrays that money occupies a significant part of the cognitive load of the poor. Further, experiments also depict that people under financial stress perform poorly in cognitive tests such as Raven’s matrices and cognitive control tasks compared to those who are not. This implies that poverty in itself impairs sound cognitive performance. 

A more realistic experiment conducted on Indian sugarcane farmers tested their cognitive abilities pre-harvest and post-harvest. Sugarcane has one harvest cycle per year. Before the harvest, farmers are relatively poor and uncertain about their finances whereas post-harvest, the same farmer is relatively rich. A random sample of small farmers was tested pre- and post-harvest on Raven’s matrices, a measure of fluid intelligence and the traditional Stroop task, which gauges cognitive control. Controlling for other fixed effects such as nutrition, work effort, etc., the experiment showed that being poor reduces cognitive capacity. Farmers post-harvest performed better on cognitive tests compared to pre-harvest.

This research suggests that the poor are less capable not because of their inherent capabilities but because poverty in itself imposes a cognitive load. Imagine if you were to make a decision after staying awake an entire night. Would you be able to make the right decision? The effect of poverty on cognitive function is comparable to losing a full night’s sleep. The poor constantly make important decisions of education, health, consumption and saving in this state of mind. The implication of this is that policymakers need to be aware of the psychological nature and cognitive tax of poverty. Welfare programs with complex ordeals aimed at better targeting may be counterproductive. The timing of welfare policies is also critical. Cognitive aids such as nudge can go a long way in offsetting the effect of poverty on cognition.

This also begs the question, why do the poor have to make more decisions than the rich with regards to essential utilities like savings, healthcare, insurance and so on? A poor person, who may not have access to banking services or formal employment, must decide to save for his or her retirement. On the other hand, the decision is already made by the organization of a rich person through the provident fund. The same goes for insurance, healthcare and even water. A rich person in an urban area can simply open a tap in the comfort of their home and clean water flows out, whereas a poor person has to choose where to procure water from, uncertain of whether it is clean or not, and decide what to do if it is not clean. Poverty impedes cognitive function and affects decision making. Above this, the poor make a significantly greater number of decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty. Both these facts are detrimental to leading a good life. Human beings have bounded rationality and self-control problems, hence fewer the decisions, the better. This is the reason why in developed countries like the United States, essential utilities such as insurance, savings are left to institutions and not the individual. If a poor person has to consistently choose to save every month for his or her retirement, they are bound to run into self-control problems. It is unfortunate that despite evidence on this, policymakers have made little effort to minimize the decisions taken by the poor. What, if not this, is an indication of inequality?

Another puzzle is that of risk and entrepreneurship. More number of poor people are self-employed and own businesses compared to the rich. Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty. If the rich are better at managing risk due to their endowments and safety net, why is it that more poor people start businesses than the rich? This is the mystery of self-employment. That a person for whom it is easier is less likely to do it whereas a person for whom it is harder is more likely to do it.

A possible explanation for this is that the poor are natural entrepreneurs. But the question to ask is whether poor people are creative or does poverty force them to find creative ways of earning their income? This is not to say that poor people cannot be creative. An average poor person is probably as creative as the average rich person. However, there is an overrepresentation of entrepreneurs among the poor. The poor are entrepreneurs not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

Economics teaches us that people are generally risk-averse. So, they must prefer a salaried job to starting a business. A survey question asking parents regarding their ambitions for their children confirms this belief. The results from rural Udaipur and around the world are that most poor parents want their children to be in a salaried job. Only 7% of parents want their children to run businesses. For the poor, a job is a means to achieve stability and move up the social ladder. However, public policy does not seem to understand this. The policy view is that poor people are more entrepreneurial in nature and several policies have been created to encourage the poor to turn into entrepreneurs. Rural areas have the RSETIs (Rural Self Employment Training Institutes), which focus on providing training for rural youth on entrepreneurial development. There is no such equivalent for urban areas. However, for the urban poor specifically, there is a Self-Employment Programme (SEP) under the NULM, which provides financial assistance to set up self-employment ventures.

From my field experiences of visiting and working with SHGs (self-help groups) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the thrust has been for SHGs to begin businesses. NABARD, NRLM and civil society are invested in this idea, providing loans and market support. It is likely that most of the SHGs are not even interested in business but have to involve themselves in order to take advantage of the credit and market support. Even in the recent COVID relief package by the Government of India, the specific relief measure for SHGs was to increase the collateral-free loan limit to Rs. 20 lakh so as to meet their business needs. This differential focus on self-employment for the poor is concerning. 

Additionally, the traditional investment theory of risk-reward ratio does not work for the poor because of capital and technological constraints. Most businesses owned by poor people are not profitable. Different occupations are filled with different amounts of risk and uncertainty. Agriculture is one of the riskiest, yet least profitable occupations. Agriculture is subject to whether uncertainty, price uncertainty, market uncertainty, credit uncertainty, government uncertainty and what not! Hence, a poor farmer is not the same as a poor plumber and public policy needs to give attention to this fact. A reason why agriculture is one of the most intervened sectors by the government is not just populism but also the level of uncertainty tagged with the occupation.

There are many more such puzzles in the world of poverty. To unearth these puzzles, we need to rigorously test the traditional theories we hold about the poor. In a developing world, everybody is undergoing a transformation, with the poor transforming at a faster rate at the margin. Thus, we not only need to ask the right questions but also revisit the existing answers to update our understanding of poverty. Each piece of evidence gives us insights into the lives of the poor and incorporating these insights helps us create better poverty alleviation policies.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

On 24th March, 2020, the Indian government announced the imposition of a complete lockdown in the country as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As important as it was to enforce a lockdown, it was equally important to think of the unintended consequences that could result from it. In particular, it was important to think about the effect of a hastily implemented lockdown on vulnerable sections of society who live a hand-to-mouth existence and already lie on the margins of government support. The migrant workers are one such section, who were left to suffer in starvation, stranded, with no income, food and shelter. A lack of information and political will, exacerbated by the rigid framework for disaster management characterized the government’s slow response, forcing Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across the country to immediately intervene and take up the challenge of delivering relief to those in need. However, confronted with resource and infrastructural constraints, this type of relief delivery proved to be unsustainable. The suffering that resulted was nothing less than unimaginable, and can make one see, more clearly than ever, that when a crisis breaks out, relief delivery must be as fast as possible. In this context, I attempt to emphasize three interwoven gaps which need to be addressed, as a stepping stone towards quicker and more efficient relief delivery – Discretion, Data and Trust.

Understanding the Hurdles

As it usually does during disasters, the Indian government invoked the National Disaster Management Act (2005) as a framework for disaster management. In light of how the situation was handled, it becomes apparent to us that the administrative and operational procedures under this act are far too rigid to effectively address the mass hunger crisis that the lockdown imposed on migrant welfare. It took over five days for the Centre to declare the provision of any kind of relief for these people, and even with this announcement of free food, problems of information asymmetry and beneficiary identification still persisted. How would migrants know where to go to avail of these provisions? Did all of them know of its existence? This relief response characterizes the myopic top-down approach that the government tends to take, with heavy paperwork and a lack of urgency. For a response to be quick and meaningful, we need insights that are inspired by the ground reality of the situation. However, the lack of discretionary powers at the local levels of government prevents the realization of these insights. This stems from a lack of trust in local governments from the upper levels of the bureaucracy.

The next problem we are confronted with is a lack of credible data on potential beneficiaries. Without complete information on which people need relief and which areas are affected, it would be difficult for any agent of relief delivery to identify beneficiaries and efficiently allocate resources to different localities. This issue can be seen in the way the Public Distribution System (PDS) functioned to distribute dry rations to poverty-stricken populations. The limitation with PDS was that workers were only entitled to these rations in their home states, which essentially excludes migrant workers from accessing these benefits. Although the PDS system was eventually extended to include temporary beneficiaries, it remains that there was no clear cut mechanism to identify who needs it. There is also no credible data on the number of people who actually benefited from this provision. This problem is not even solved by CSOs in the way they operate, in that they lack the infrastructure to conduct essential surveys to gauge the extent of the problem in each area and coordinate amongst each other. As a consequence, all CSOs and State agents could potentially be targeting the same forty-percent of the population repeatedly, leaving the remaining sixty percent with no access. On top of this, CSOs had faced backlash from law enforcement officials for violating lockdown norms, restricting them from reaching people in need.

The major constraints faced by CSOs and governments are in the form of information and infrastructure. Moreover, due to a lack of credible data and the precedent of slow responses by the government, CSOs will not stand aside and trust the government to do its job. These are gaps that those on the ground are well aware of, and is in fact the very reason that they exist to fill them. Trust is a nuance of the problem that shows up in many ways in the intricate picture of relief delivery. We see a lack of trust not only in lower levels of government from the bureaucracy, but also a lack of trust in the bureaucracy from first-responder CSOs. Overall, it appears that Discretion, Data, and Trust, lie at the root cause of slow relief delivery.

Overcoming the Hurdles

In crisis situations, there is some potential in collaboration between CSOs and governments, where CSOs can serve as a channel for surveying and data collection, and the government can provide them with infrastructural support in the form of access and resources. The most effective way to mobilize CSOs would be through local governments. However, we see from the problem articulated above that discretion becomes a necessary condition to leverage local governments. A decentralized bottom-up approach would allow local governments to facilitate a process of community mobilization and collaboration through CSOs and engage a much larger group of people to help facilitate quicker relief. It would also give local government officials a more participatory role in judgement and decision making on the ground. Here of course, the problem of trust and accountability creeps up once again. With the right checks and balances in place, giving more discretion to local governments to utilize government funds would help to provide infrastructural support to CSOs. These organizations can then be sent on the ground in addition to existing government human resources to survey areas and collect data on affected population. The additional government backing would allow CSOs to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. It would also allow us to capture a more realistic picture of the on-ground situation within its own context, and enable us to respond in a more appropriate, effective manner through local governments. These surveys should be designed in a manner that holistically captures the need of a potential beneficiary, keeping in mind that the notion of ‘poverty’ is a fluid state.  The data collected from these surveys could be reported to local government officials, who can mobilize the necessary resources and funds, after understanding the situation in their areas. This increase in coordination would help in understanding which areas are getting too much attention at the expense of others. Moreover, since the CSOs themselves are collecting the data, it would add a significant amount of credibility, trust and understanding of the situation on-ground.


The nature of collaboration suggested here is intended to be inclusive, collaborative and is founded on trust. With trust, comes the willingness to allow discretion. With discretion, there is a strong possibility of more effective data collection. However, a simple relaxation of bureaucratic hurdles is not a sufficient condition for this. The system is plagued with a lack of transparency and accountability, both of which are detrimental to any form of trust. Issues on this front become increasingly complex with each day, in a world where realities are constantly distorted by conflict and propaganda. One thing that is certain, however, is that people have suffered, and continue to suffer. It is time for us to realistically and practically acknowledge what is going wrong and commit to putting aside our vested interests, in pursuit of collective good. We must develop the political will to step up, and come together in times of crisis.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.