Six days a week, 50-year-old Chandrika works as a housemaid on the outskirts of the south Indian city of Trivandrum.
Chandrika is all angles, a mere 4’8″ of bone and muscle. Her body is testament to the intensely physical nature of her work and to a life lived at the global poverty line. In today’s India, that amounts to 100 rupees a day, or the equivalent of $2.
Chandrika’s average daily budget breaks down as follows: 27 rupees for a kilogram of rice, 25 rupees for fish, 10 to 15 rupees for ingredients to cook the fish, and 10 to 20 rupees for vegetables. For breakfast, she spends 25 rupees.
“Water is the only thing that is free,” says Chandrika. “100 rupees is not enough, but somehow, I manage.”Tushar Vashisht is a 26-year-old international banker who grew up in India and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, he left his job with Deutsche Bank and returned to India, where he met Matt Cherian, an engineer with a master’s degree from MIT. Though both men are Indian by birth, time spent abroad allowed them to return to India as insiders with an outsider’s perspective.
“I often wondered what it really means to be an average Indian,” says Vashisht, “and [I] couldn’t really get a good, accurate response to that because I myself was living several times the average income. So I wouldn’t necessarily be able to appreciate and understand the constraints and choices that an average Indian has to face.”
Late last year, Cherian and Vashisht spent three weeks in Bangalore living on 100 rupees a day followed by one week living at India’s controversial new poverty line of 32 rupees a day – which equals about 60 cents. They went without ‘luxuries’ like toilet paper, eating meat or taking the bus.
The limits of such a budget also made the two entrepreneurs realize the essential connection between poverty and innovation.
“When you’re living on that amount, life is all about innovation,” says Vashisht. “Innovation is the name of the game, pretty much every second, because every hour you’re thinking at least 10 minutes on that hour how you’re going to survive the next hour.”
Cherian and Vashisht kept a blog, rs100aday.com, They used it to track their experiences as well as every rupee they spent. The blog gained popularity around the world, but particularly with a small but growing group of young, foreign educated Indians who’ve come home hoping to make a difference.
The 100 rupees a day experiment also happened to take place just as many middle class Indians were protesting the rampant corruption in Indian politics. And as Occupy movements worldwide were gaining momentum.
“Trust me, I have nothing against Wall Street,” says Vashisht, who previously worked on Wall Street. “I think it’s a phenomenal institution, and I’ve been part of that institution. But it’s just that it’s the top elite who end up making decisions for everybody without necessarily knowing what it means to be an everyday person.”
Cherian and Vashisht acknowledge that their living on 100 rupees wasn’t the same as the ‘average Indian’.
In particular, they used their savings to fund the project, so they didn’t experience the erratic shifts in daily income that characterizes poverty in India and other parts of the global south.
“Somebody doesn’t pop out of the ground and give you $2 every day,” says Daryl Collins, co-author of Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day.
“What is the most difficult is that sometimes it’s $5 and then it’s nothing and then it’s $1 and then it’s $2 and then it goes back to nothing.”
Being unmarried and childless, the two men also did not need to support a household or other family members.
“What most twenty something Indian men living in Bangalore would be doing would be saving up money to send home,” says Collins. As part of her research, Collins and her team found that many laborers sent up to 60 percent of their earnings home. “Somebody who is living on 100 rupees a day, they could indeed be living on 40 rupees a day because they are sending so much back home to the villages.”
Matt Cherian and Tushar Vashisht say that the 100 rupees experiment humbled them in ways they never expected.
Spending a month living at the global poverty line also made them realize that they, like a growing number of Indians, are often overfed. The duo’s next venture will focus on one of India’s fastest growing problems: the epidemic of obesity.