IT has been established beyond doubt that discrimination against individuals or groups of people based on religion, race, caste and gender results in the impoverishment of those targeted, making it difficult for them to have their basic needs for leading a decent life fulfilled. Though poverty is primarily an economic phenomenon, both discrimination and poverty are linked to injustice and discrimination because of one’s poverty means fewer opportunities to succeed and take part in economic activity.

The Indian Constitution is clear about discrimination. According to the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Section 153 A), it is criminal to use language that promotes discrimination or violence against people on the basis of race, caste, sex, place of birth, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other category. But in practice, we have a long way to go.

But discrimination based on religion, race, gender, ethnicity, caste and economic status continues to undermine the efforts in India and around the world to achieve a just and equitable society.

To highlight the inequities and galvanise the world to fight all kinds of discrimination, the United Nations celebrates March 1 as Zero Discrimination Day. India is no stranger to discrimination and inequality. But highlighting discrimination is not the sole aim of Zero Discrimination Day. Encouraging everyone to speak up in favour of zero discrimination and for those who are discriminated against is at the core of marking the day.

Poverty and discrimination

With its clear stand on discrimination of various forms, India’s Constitution has tried to fight the malaise through progressive legislation over the years. But the one that is most visible and results from discrimination is poverty.

It is no coincidence that India has almost the same number of poor people as its illiterate population. India has 270 million people below the poverty line, and there are around 272 million illiterate people in the country. For a child born in many parts of rural India, the discrimination starts with a lack of access to quality education.

The poor also do not have fair access to healthcare. For instance, a survey conducted by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation in 2017 and 18 revealed that 90% of the poorest people in India had no medical insurance of any form. According to experts, health-related costs in India keep people poor and push those just above the poverty line back into poverty.

It is no wonder that a 2015 Government of India (GoI) report states, “incidence of catastrophic expenditure because of health care costs is growing and is now estimated to be one of the major contributors to poverty. The drain on family incomes due to health care costs can neutralise the gains of income increases and every Government scheme aimed to reduce poverty.”

Education and access to proper health are fundamental rights that the government and the social sector can provide to uplift people from poverty.

Pandemic’s effect on poverty

According to a study by Pew Research Center, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed close to 75 million more people into poverty in 2020 alone. It is estimated that the number of poor in India (with an income of $2 per day or less in purchasing power parity) doubled to 134 million from 60 million in 2020. Some estimates say that the absolute number of poor has increased from 217 million in 2012 to 270 million in 2019-20 in rural areas. And from 53 million to 71 million in urban areas. A total increase of the absolute poor of about 70 million.

More recent research shows the link between malnutrition and deaths due to Covid-19. According to a study, adults and children with Covid-19 with a history of malnutrition had an increased likelihood of death and the need for mechanical ventilation. 

For a better future

We can achieve zero discrimination during our lifetime if we speak up and resolve to end inequalities surrounding religion, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and class. The biggest challenge remains to end poverty. India has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty ever since its independence, but we have a long distance to travel. Breaking the chains of poverty and providing the marginalised with the right to equal participation in economic activity is the surest way to end discrimination.

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