Monthly Archives: August 2013

How Poverty Taxes the Brain


esearchers publishing some groundbreaking findings today in the journalScience have concluded that poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.

In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inherent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that they ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder to execute fundamental life skills. Being poor means, as the authors write, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”



Urbanflow Engine – A new tool for Participatory Planning

Participatory planning is difficult because it involves stakeholders from varied backgrounds and technical skills. Therefore, engaging them, having an informed discussion and communication are a major problem. Urbanflow Engine (UFE )which is a decision-making and communication tool can be an answer to this! It helps professionals in city planning departments, non-profit organizations, and private consulting companies. Using Urbanflow Engine, professionals can communicate their project ideas easily to non-technical users and engage them in discussion using an interactive map.

Urbanflow Engine addresses the problems of communication and information sharing in participatory planning process through the use of web based technology. Urbanflow Engine consists of a customizable spatial analysis interface that helps compare different scenarios using user-supplied data and inputs from public data sources. All the analysis is done through a URL and in the browser. The tool aims to inform debates and public consultations around urban planning with data and simple analytical tools. Additionally, the simple controls makes it easy to make changes to assumptions and see the impact on a map. Many existing urban planning tools are very much focused on spreadsheet-based analysis and lack any spatial visualization capabilities. UFE thus fills an important gap by recognizing the importance of spatial analytics and the additional public and stakeholder communications needs for decisions related to urban infrastructure that affect large numbers of people.

The clear, user-friendly visualizations in UFE belie the complex, yet transparent analyses done by the tool.  With a focus on simplicity and ease of use, UFE introduces sophisticated internet technology into the world of urban planning.

The foundational research for the tool started at MIT, and over the last two years it has been developed to a state-of-the-art simulation and modeling technology that will enable users to visualize the flow of people, products, and vehicles in an urban environment through the infrastructure network comprising roads, depots, stations, etc. It enables import of open data in addition to self-creation of models based on user inputs to visualize scenarios for urban Waste and Transportation sectors. Users can create “experiments” or scenarios for analysis, which provide important insights for policy making and planning at a relatively low cost with all the advantages of a web-based environment.

As a part of the initial trials of the tool and a study was conducted on a waste management network analysis in India. The aim was to understand and analyze the existing network and explore improvements in collection and resource efficiency. This study was done as a part of a student’s Master’s thesis in association and help from the local government. Khandwa is a town in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh, India and it is the administrative headquarters of Khandwa District.  The student studied and built the waste collection network of twenty two bins. A proposal to increase collection efficiency was to add a transfer station to act as an intermediate collection point. Traditionally, to solve such problems, the planner would have to use a combination of Excel and mapping / routing technologies and PowerPoint to present, compile and analyze data. Also this type of analysis is difficult to communicate to non-technical users. With a web base interface that was simple and easy to understand controls, one was able to present this information to local authorities and have a discussion about it.Image

Network Comparisons through UFE

Urbanflow Engine is a new communication and analysis tool for Urban Planning projects. With the goal to make urban planning information accessible to non-technical users, it is very simple to get started for free, completely web based and can be reached at Urbanflow Engine is founded by a small team of planning professionals led by Hrishikesh Ballal, currently a PhD student at University College London’s Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis and you can contact him at You can find out more about him at Contact  Hrishikesh for doing pilot studies or giving your feedback!

The truth about poverty numbers!

Biswa Swarup Mishra writes about how the recent commentary both in the print and electronic media seems to be in denial of the decline of poverty ratio for India has from 45.3 per cent in 1993-94 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12 and also provides us a look into how the poverty numbers are actually calculated!


The poverty ratio for India has declined from 45.3 per cent in 1993-94 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12. The recent commentary both in the print and electronic media seems to be in denial of this decline.

A decline in poverty ratios in a pre-election year would have been a matter of joy, but not for the present government. The government is in a quandary on how to respond to the declining poverty numbers.

The government seems to be disappointed by the very low poverty numbers (just over one-fifth), when it is mooting the Food Security Bill (FSB) for two-thirds of the population.

The poverty numbers released in July 2013 raise serious questions on the need to expand the scope of the Food Bill. Some observers feel that extending coverage to two-thirds of the population would enable the better-off to corner the benefits earmarked for the extreme poor, given the social-cultural dynamics, their proximity to power, and more awareness.


The poverty numbers have caused a flutter in the media, questioning the benchmark monthly per capita consumer expenditure (MPCE) used to differentiate the poor from the well-to-do.

The Planning Commission releases poverty estimates based on Large Sample Surveys on Household Consumer Expenditure conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).

Generally, the large scale consumer expenditure surveys are conducted every fifth year. The last quinquennial survey (once in five years) was conducted in 2009-10.

However, since 2009-10 was not a normal year because of a severe drought, the NSSO repeated the large scale survey in 2011-12.

The 21.9 per cent poverty number is based on provisional estimates of household consumer expenditure obtained from sample survey undertaken during July 2011 and June 2012 covering 7,391 villages (59,070 sample households) in rural areas and 5,223 urban blocks (41,602 sample households) spread over almost all States and Union Territories in the country.The survey tries to ascertain the volume of consumption by asking respondents to recall spending on different goods and services.

As frequency of purchase depends on the nature of goods and services consumed, the reported MPCE is based on different recall periods. The MPCE is measured by capturing the spending on items such as clothing, bedding, footwear, education, medical (institutional) and durable goods over the last 365 days and spending on items such as food items, fuel and light, durable goods, conveyance, rents, toilet articles, non-institutional medical, paan, tobacco and intoxicants in the last 30 days.

This approach to elicit consumer expenditure is described as the ‘mixed reference period’ MPCE.


The MPCE, which defines the all-India poverty line, is Rs 816 for rural areas and Rs 1,000 for urban areas.

The rural and urban poverty lines show wide inter-State variation.

The range of the poverty line for rural areas across States is between Rs 695 for Orissa and Rs 1,301 for Puducherry. Similarly, for urban areas, the range is Rs 849 for Chhattisgarh and Rs 1,309 for Puducherry across States.

The expenditure sufficient to be above the poverty line is often expressed on a daily basis by arithmetically dividing the monthly expenditure by 30, which turns out to be Rs 27 for rural areas and Rs 33 for urban areas. Many commentators have questioned whether a person can lead a dignified life with a spending of Rs 27 per day.

However, it needs to be emphasised that conceptually, poverty line is defined in terms of per capita consumption expenditure on a monthly basis and not on a daily basis. The practice around the world is to define poverty lines in terms of a year or a month. The NSS surveys are the basis of measuring consumption poverty on a monthly basis, and that too at the household level, for a family of five. Consumer expenditure data when viewed on a daily basis for an individual misses the economies of scale and scope, which is relevant for a household over a month and certain categories of expenditure over a year.


Beyond the conceptual and technical aspects, the reasonableness of the MPCE defining the poverty line can also be ascertained by looking at the actual average MPCE of the entire sample.

The average monthly per capita rural expenditure in rural areas was Rs 1,287 and Rs 2,477 in urban areas.

The MPCE defining the poverty line was 63 per cent of this average in rural areas and 40 per cent in urban areas. Thus, the person classified as below the poverty line in rural areas was spending 63 per cent or less of the average monthly expenditure for the entire sample.

Similarly, a poor person in urban area spends below 40 per cent of the average monthly expenditure for the entire sample. This seems like a reasonable yardstick.

Contrary to popular perception, the consumption expenditure tracked for computing poverty does not consider only food items, but an entire gamut of food and non-food items.

Broadly, food items account for 52 per cent of the total monthly consumption expenditure in rural areas and 37 per cent in urban areas.

The rest is spent on a host of non-food items. Looking at the composition of expenditure, one may not feel comfortable with certain expenditures.

For instance, spending on house and garage rent, residential land rent and other consumer rent at around Rs 75 per year, and around Rs 50 in a year on items such as spectacles, torches, locks, umbrellas, raincoats, gas lighters, in rural areas appears too low.

Nonetheless, we must appreciate the fact that these are actual expenditures reported by households and recorded by NSSO.

Instead of attaching value judgments and questioning the reasonableness and adequacy of different expenditure categories, the emphasis should be on using the appropriate recall period and better designing of the questionnaires.

(The author is Professor in Economics and Acting Dean, Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. Views are personal.)



How do you break the poverty cycle when you cannot even read or write your own name, let alone fill out a bank loan application? How do you find a way out of poverty when your illiteracy is standing in the way of all your dreams? Akshay Sharma has found one possible solution with LaXmi – a board game to facilitate financial literacy learning – with which he hopes to help 212 million illiterate Indian women make better lives for themselves.

1/3 of the female Indian population is illiterate. That is equivalent to around 212 million women, who cannot read or write their own name in India alone. Being illiterate is an extreme limitation to these women, and although much is done to increase the number of girls going to school, little has been done for grown women.

One big issue for these women is their inability to apply for financial help. With 50 million women earning less than $2 a day, many need extra help to secure their survival. However, without being able to fill out a standard form, the women are not eligible for any types of loans. Untill now…

LaXmi is a financial literacy system for semi/illiterate women engaged in micro financing in rural India. What is different about LaXmi is how it works. LaXmi is designed similar to a board game and helps illiterates visualize which loans they need (e.g. to buy a cow) and how long it will take to pay back the loan with interests. The game also helps women understand the processes of micro financing as well as teaches them about managing their finances in general.

Developed by Akshay Sharma, the system incorporates both an analogue and a digital component to facilitate comprehensible training for women who form Self Help Group (SHG). It is a language independent system with an engaging and interactive way of learning about the intricacies of financial literacy and financial planning.

Micro financing has proven to be effective in empowering women at the grass root levels. Most of the members of Self Help Groups are illiterate, and as a result have to depend on a professional accountant to maintain their records. Sharma saw an opportunity for Design intervention and created a visual book keeping system that would not only engage the members in the process but also reduce their dependence on the group accountant.





Appreciation courses on Urban Poverty-PRIA

PRIA (Society for Participatory Research In Asia), India and SPARC have designed & launched two new courses : Participatory Enumeration & Mapping and Participatory Urban Planning: Making Cities Inclusive of Urban Poor

Appreciation course on Participatory Enumeration & Mapping  is designed to enable the student to learn about the practical methodology of conducting household surveys with the urban poor and to produce settlement maps where urban poor live.

The Course also provides tools, instruments and protocols used in practical case studies where participatory enumeration and mapping was conducted in different countries.

The course on Participatory Urban Planning: Making Cities Inclusive of Urban Poor

highlights ways to ensure participation of the urban poor and informal workers during planning processes in neighborhoods, wards, zones and city levels such that their needs and aspirations of the are also taken into consideration. It demonstrates how communities find ways to address challenges of ineffective and non-responsive service delivery arising due to lack of capacity, transparency and accountability existing within local governance institutions.

This course is key to understanding how such participatory approaches empower the poor and marginalized citizens and engage civil society in developing plans for making cities inclusive. The approaches hold an assurance of providing universal access to urban services, making this a dream come true for many citizens, particularly the poor and marginalized.

The two courses are both of 10 weeks duration and begin on August 23, 2013. Enroll now! For more details see:

Food – Not just for thought!

Here are some thought provoking images from Kibera



This is the practice of urban agriculture in the slums of Kibera. How often do we see similar garbage dumps in slums of India, yet there is still no drive to push for urban agriculture in our country. The world has taken up to the concept of urban agriculture, slums of Africa are taking it as an economic and environmental opportunity, Cuba transformed its whole debt struck economic situation with the practise of urban agriculture. India has many lessons to learn.

Read more about the Kibera example at :


By Rajesh Tandon, Source:

During the past decade, the most fascinating phenomenon of human demography has been massive migration of populations from rural to urban areas. This migration has been most prominent in the Asia-Pacific region where more than half a billion people have entered cities. More than half of the world population now lives in cities.
In this great rush for urbanization, cities have become far more stratified and exclusionary than before. Not only regions of a city have gated communities, access to high quality services of water, sanitation, transportation etc; many of these ‘elite’ parts of big cities also have high quality educational and cultural facilities and institutions for their citizens.
Yet, an increasingly larger proportion of city-dwellers are living in poor conditions, earn low incomes and wages, engage in informal occupations (like vending, hawking, rag-picking, construction, etc), live in informal settlements which are not recognised by municipal authorities. However, their economic contribution to the life of the city is enormous.
A brief look at the great cities of human civilization would suggest that the social and human scaffolding was essential for economic activity to thrive. Great cities have many educational institutions at post-secondary levels; welcoming cities have cultural institutions that promote learning (like museums, libraries and music/theatre/art centres). In a way, cities promote learning, life-long learning, of their citizens.
It is in recognition of this reality that two interesting recent developments are worth mentioning. First, at the initiative of UNESCO/UIL, an International Platform of Learning Cities is being promoted, and a major conference is being planned in Beijing in October. PASCAL International Observatory is convening its Asia-Pacific conference on Learning cities in Hong Kong in mid November.
Two sets of issues are important for these initiatives to keep in focus. First, cities have elites and the poor (homeless, jobless); learning institutions, efforts and policies must not exclude these informal inhabitants of cities. They are poor, hence learning opportunities for them must be even more actively designed. If urban poor do not get access to learning resources and opportunities, they will remain ghettoized.
Second, in most cities, local governments are active; sometimes democratically elected, sometimes not, municipalities have councilors and mayors. It is important that mayors and other leaders of municipal governance own and drive these efforts of making their cities learning-oriented. Local political and institutional leadership must be engaged right from the beginning. Otherwise, experts will create plans that no one wants to own.
By virtue of their homes in cities, post-secondary educational institutions have potential for an enormous contribution in learning cities. However, such educational institutions must keep in focus the twin requirements of inclusive cities (cities for all citizens) and the central responsibility of local governments, municipalities, councilors and mayors in its realization.


The UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education grows out of and supports the UNESCO global lead to play “a key role in assisting countries to build knowledge societies”.

This recently created UNESCO Chair uniquely has its home in two complementary but distinct institutions. It is co-located at the Community Development Programme in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria (UVic) in Canada and at the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) located in New Delhi, India. Dr. Rajesh Tandon, Founding President of PRIA and Dr. Budd L Hall, Professor of Community Development at UVic serve as the first Co-Chairs.