Sunday 25 September 2011

Counting Poorly; and Identifying…??

by Nesar Ahmad
In a recent affidavit to the Supreme Court the Planning Commission has revised the poverty line to estimate the number of poor in India. According to the affidavit now if one is consuming worth Rs. 25 in rural areas and Rs. 32 in urban areas, on 2011 prices, he/she should not be counted as poor. This has been revised from the 2004-05 poverty line of per-capita per day consumption of Rs. 15 in rural areas and Rs. 20 in urban areas. This extremely low and outrageous poverty line has rightly been criticized by the many quarters in media. The estimate of poverty made by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee based on the earlier poverty line was 37% ( 42% in rural areas and 26% in urban areas) for the year 2004-05 (see page 17 of the report). The Planning Commission in its earlier affidavit, submitted to the Supreme Court, had actually informed the court about the 2004-05 poverty line, on which, the apex court had expressed its shock. The revised poverty line has also been a shock to the country. The Planning Commission seems to be confused about the whole thing, the Congress party trying to downplay the affidavit and Congress allies in UPA are distancing themselves from the government on the issue.

The government patting its back for achieving 7 to 9 % of economic growth for last so many years is not ready to revise its poverty line norms which is outrageously low and outdated. The economists like Utsa Patnaik have been pointing it out for quite some time now that the nutrition level which can be achieved by consuming the equivalent of the poverty line defined by the Planning Commission is much less than the required nutrition level of 2400 calories per day, as recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). (The flaws in the India's poverty line have been found by others too, calling it rather starvation line). But since it was not a legal case in the Supreme Court, it never caught the media attention those days, as it seems to be doing now. Now, thanks to the case filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and others, and the many orders given by the Supreme Court (like appointing the Food Security Commissioners), the issue of poverty line and defining poverty in India has got some public attention. 

Killing two birds with one stone
The government, by underreporting poverty by putting the poverty line itself so low, wants to serve two purposes. One, it wants to show that the economic policies adopted by the government has been a success as they have helped reduce level of poverty in the country. You ask any question about poverty and low human development index in the country to any political party and you are slapped with the impressive growth figures. From Modi in Gujrat (poverty in vibrant Gujrat is 32% - 39% in rural areas and 20% in urban areas-, according to the same Rs. 15 and Rs. 20 poverty line) to Nitish in Bihar to (just voted out of power) Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in West Bengal all happily showing their growth records or doing everything in their power to achieve the economic growth. You ask a simple question that how this growth will be translated into betterment for people and you are branded as an anti development, anti growth and even anti nation. The friendly media which these governments have in form of national to local news channels and newspapers just love to sing the growth story. 

Second purpose which the government is trying to serve by underreporting the poverty is that of shirking its responsibilities towards the people in general and poor people in particular. The lower number of poor families which are known as BPL (Below Poverty Line) families means the government has to provide fewer houses under Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), less subsidized food to BPL families under Public Distribution System and so on. That means the government can save on development expenditure and spend less on subsidy so that it can give more tax benefits and forgive more and more taxes to be levied on rich and the corporate world. In order to do this the very process of identifying the poor families is designed to exclude poor families rather than to include them. 

Identifying the Poor: An Exercise of Exclusion
To make this a bit clearer, it would be useful to note that counting the poor or estimating the number of poor people and identifying them are two different exercises. Number and percentage of poor people is estimated by the Planning Commission, based on the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO’s) annual and quinquennial surveys on people’s consumption (NSSO also collects data on various other socio-economic indicators), applying the poverty line, of which it has informed to court. The process of identifying the poor families (known as BPL survey), on the other hand, is done by the state governments based on the directives of the Planning Commission. There have been three BPL survey so far in years 1992, 1997 and 2002. The government admits that there have been many anomalies in the BPL survey 2002 and there were problems of exclusion (of actual BPL families) and inclusion (of above poverty line or APL families), still it did not go for the BPL survey due in 2007, and for the last one decade the governments have been using the BPL list prepared in 2002. It also becomes difficult exercise for the state government because the Planning Commission puts a cap on the number of families which can be included in the BPL list. So if the state governments, even using the methodology given by the Planning Commission itself, find that there are more BPL families in their states than what is being suggested by the Planning Commission, they cannot do anything about it. This is exactly what happened in 2002. Since there has been many instances of exclusion of deserving families from the 2002 BPL list, and also the next BPL survey due in 2007 was not conducted, the state governments in some cases have come out with the Sate BPL lists (e.g. in Rajasthan), which has added to the confusion in the villages and the panchayat offices.

This year the government is conducting Socio-Economic and Caste Census-2011, which will serve dual purpose of identifying the BPL families as well as making a caste profile of the country’s population (since the caste based census could not be done along with the general census conducted last year). The process of this BPL survey was to be based on the recommendations of the NC Saxena committee, who recommended that regardless of the poverty ratio calculated by the Planning Commission, at least 50% of the total households should be included in the BPL list. The Planning Commission, however, has ignored this recommendation and has instructed the state governments that the number of BPL families will be according to the 2004-05 estimate of poverty in the state, which is based on its Rs. 15 and Rs. 20 per day consumption criteria.

The socio-economic and caste census 2011, for which pilots have already been conducted, is going to be based on three steps: 1. Some households are to be automatically excluded, 2. Some households are to be compulsorily included, and 3. Rest households will be ranked based on 7 deprivation criteria and a cut off mark will be decided to suit the poverty ratio decided by the Planning Commission. Recently, Jairam Ramesh, the newly appointed Minister of Rural Areas and Employment, hinted that the cap put on the BPL list may be revisited. He is also understood to have written a letter to the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission. But it is unlikely that he would be able to convince the Planning Commission. The Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment has been in favour of keeping the cap at least to 50%, as recommended by the NAC member, NC Saxena. But the Planning Commission thinks otherwise. 

The criteria of self exclusion being used in the socio-economic and caste census 2011 are extremely excluding and are likely to exclude many deserving poor families. For example anyone owning a two wheeler will be automatically out of the list. If you have a fridge you will be out of the BPL list automatically. Many poor people have a two wheeler (a moped or a second hand scooter/bike) for the very work they do like selling milk or vegetables. If a family in an urban slum (this year, for the first time, the exercise to identify poor is undertaken in urban areas as well) has somehow managed to buy a second hand fridge will be automatically out of the list. A poor farmer somehow possessing a Kisan Credit Card with credit limit of Rs. 50,000 is also going to be automatically excluded.

The families who are neither compulsorily included nor automatically excluded will be ranked according to 7 point deprivation criteria. The deprivation criteria also have serious problems. For example one of the deprivation criteria is a household having one room kacha house. The three room pucca house owner families have been excluded automatically, but what about families having two room houses or one room pucca houses. They are likely to not get a chance to be ranked under the deprivation criteria ranking and loose a chance to be identified as poor. 

The whole process, therefore, is an exercise to exclude maximum number of poor families and bar them from being listed as BPL families. So that government can cut down and minimize its expenditure on development and can divert its resources towards the corporate sector people to give them subsidy for starting their industries and setting up SEZ, so that even higher economic growth can be achieved. If the intention was to provide necessary services to the poor, the government would have not gone into BPL vs. APL categorization. Studies have suggested that the schemes which are universal in nature perform better than those which are aimed at targeting the BPL families. 

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