According to its own, somewhat impoverished, statistical standards, India has done relatively well in reducing the number of people living below the poverty line, thanks to recent fast economic growth. The official ratio of Indians living in poverty declined from 45 percent in 1994 to 37 percent in 2005 before falling sharply to 22 percent by 2012.

That still leaves 270 million wretchedly poor people, or more than the total population of Indonesia or Brazil, the fourth- and fifth-biggest countries in the world, and almost twice the population of Russia. Economists and social workers have questioned whether India's poverty figures have been cooked or whether they measure what it is to be really poor. The then vice president of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, told me in 2009 that he estimated that 40 percent of Indians lived in poverty.

Now the McKinsey Global Institute, an arm of the consulting group, tries to put India's poverty into proper context. It has suggested a challenging way in which the country can meet the essential needs of its population through radical but practical economic, political and social reforms.