Mocking The Poor
Poverty line and poverty figures are once again at the centre of a raging debate with strong political overtones in India.Persistence of mass poverty is one of the glaring failures of our country’s economic development.Way back in 2003 the UNDP Human Development Report pointed out that India contains regions of intense poverty relieved little by overall national economic growth.The latest estimate of the Planning Commission based on Suresh Tendulkar methodology places absolute number of poor at 269.7 million. A study by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative estimates the number of poor and food insecure people in eight North Indian and Eastern states at a whopping 420 million which is more than the combined population of 26 poorest African states !! The same report, using a Multi-dimensional Poverty Index summarised that about 53 per cent of Indian population lives in poverty of which 340 million i,e 28.6 per cent live in acute poverty.It also pointed out that about 198 million people are what could be termed as ‘potential poor’ ; who will fall to the ranks of poor if faced with any adversity like drought, flood, illness, loss of livelihood or a bad crop. World Bank which defines poverty at USD 1.25 per capita per day estimates India’s poor at 322 million in 2013 i,e 33 per cent of its population. Planning Commission’s estimates differ from those of the World Bank by a fairly close margin of 3 per cent. Still it is undeniable that India is home to about one third of world’s poor. Another estimate by the NC Saxena Committee placed poverty ratio at 50 per cent of total population. From any perspective the problem of poverty is still grave.
The dehumanizing existence and misery of the poor presents a sharp contrast to the affluence and brazen consumerism of the rich and a growing middle class whose pockets are getting fattened by greater opening up of the economy and shrinking role of the state. The picture gets grimmer when the focus is turned towards rural India where multitudes of peasants and landless workers languish in abject poverty trying desperately to eke out a living against all odds. Despite enormous amounts allocated for poverty alleviation since VI Five year plan when, for the first time, the government resolved to launch a frontal attack on the problem of poverty, there has not been much progress on this front. Political parties make pious claims about alleviating the misery of the poor in their election manifestoes, shed crocodile tears when they are out of power and do statistical jugglery while in power to project unbelievably low poverty figures to score brawnie points over their opponents.Meanwhile millions of poor caught in this quagmire of political kabaddi don’nt disappear in the thin air: they keep endlessly waiting at the margin. Unfortunately there has never been unanimity amongst academicians about who is poor and the size of poor population.It’s like blind men defining an elephant. Nonetheless, who constitute this sea of poor population in India and why this problem remains intractable has remained in the focus of the controversy surrounding poverty issues in India.
The measurement of poorness in standard of living is what we call poverty line. Estimates of poverty in India are based upon per day calorie requirements of 2400 and 2100 per capita for rural and urban areas respectively as recommended by the Task Force constituted by the Planning Commission in 1979. These many calories are considered sufficient for a person to keep him alive (not surprising that this line is mockingly referred to as starvation line). After their conversion into consumption expenditure these requirements are applied on NSSO’s consumption expenditure distributions to estimate the proportion and number of the poor.Thus poverty ratio is a head count ratio of all who fall below this poverty line.Actually a singular absolute line segregating the poor from the non- poor lies at the root of most of the criticism leveled against the methodology of counting the poor. Entire population below this line is not homogenous.Some poor have odd jobs and many don’t.There are those who are poor and have large families to support too as having many children is common amongst the poor.Some suffer from many diseases and go further down on poverty scale with every other bout of illness. Then there are poor belonging to scheduled castes/tribes who are doubly disadvantaged as historically they have been at the margin of rural societal structure. Actually SC/ST constitute the majority of the poor in rural areas.Women, especially girls bear the brunt of poverty as lack of resources creates suitable condition for application of gender biases.Its they who go without food, education and other entitlements and are most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. These issues too need to be incorporated in framing the poverty line. Without making any distinction amongst the poor on the basis of their relative deprivation a singular poverty line gives misleading results. For instance one would treat a homeless beggar and someone who is poor but has a roof over his head equally on the sole basis of this line. To resolve this problem South Africa uses three poverty lines.While the base line called ‘food poverty line’ measures poverty in terms of food required to survive, the middle and upper poverty lines make allowance for other requisites for a decent living like education, health, drinking water, employment and security. The food poverty line in terms of Indian currency was Rs 1841 per capita per month in 2010 ; much higher than our own of Rs 816 per capita per month for rural areas.
Likewise for measuring under-nutrition such yardstick is hugely misleading as large variations are found even amongst the very poor on this count. Moreover, empirical researches have proved that actual calorie intake at official poverty lines are far below than the nominal requirements.World Food Programme of the UN in its report on Global Hunger Index raised serious question marks on our official definition of poverty.
“The fact that calorie deprivation is increasing when the proportion of rural population below the poverty line is said to be declining rapidly, highlights the increasing disconnect between official poverty estimates and calorie deprivation.”
Even if a rural poor manages to have 2400 calories he may not still have sufficient nutritional value in his diet for a healthy life. The growing clamour to do away with this calorie –centric approach is precisely for these reasons.
Poor in India and everywhere in the world suffer from multiple deprivations which singular poverty line method fails to register and reflect fully. Though the primary deprivation relates to survival i.e. susceptibility to mortality at an early age, other deprivations like lack of opportunities and exclusion to access to education, safe drinking water, health services, water and sanitation lead to no less serious consequences.In India deprivation in education and economic provisioning is very high.More than 35 per cent Indians are illiterate and 20 million children have not been able to go to school. 43 percent of our children are malnourished and 58 per cent of children under five are stunted. Thus poor are not just income poor but suffer from hunger, malnutrition and under nutrition, squalor and diseases, precarious livelihoods, dependence and get pushed to margins in every sense of the term. There is an urgent need to develop a multi – dimensional poverty index to assess the spectre of poverty in its entirety. The current methodology which is based upon the recommendations of Suresh Tendulkar Committee does factor in money spent on health and education besides calorie intake to fix a poverty line of Rs 27.20 per capita per day consumption expenditure in villages and Rs 33.32 in urban areas based upon the Fprices of 2011-12 implying thereby that anyone earning more than Rs 810 per month in rural areas and Rs 1000 per month in urban areas is not poor. But if these figures are disaggregated using Consumer Price Index for agricultural workers these provide for abysmally low per month per capita expenses of Rs 39.70 for healthcare and just about Rs 01 per day on education. In urban areas an expenditure of Rs 49.10 on rent and conveyance is sufficient for someone to be pulled above the poverty line. Much of the outrage,shared by the apex court of this country as well,was on account of these ridiculously low figures.
Amidst this haze surrounding poverty line and related estimates the intent of the Planning Commission has come under serious doubt with allegations being hurled at it from leaders across political spectrum, media and civil society. The same Commission had fixed Rs 22.42 per day per capita expenditure as poverty line for country dwellers and Rs 28.69 for city dwellers in the year 2009. The absolute number of the poor was 40.7 crore then. Since then there have been two upward revisions of this line. Any upward revision should result in an increment in poverty ratio unless it is accompanied by an impressive growth rate of the GDP. That not being the case the decline in poverty ratio from 37.5 per cent in 2004-05 to 21.9 percent in 2011-12 was received with great deal of doubt and disbelief as the number of the poor fell to 269 million, that is by about 137 million. If poverty ratio is actually 21.9 percent only then why the new food bill plans to cover about 67 percent of India’s population. The Commission said this has been possible mainly due to an increase in the real per capita consumption expenditure of the poor based on the results of 68th round of NSSO’S survey on household consumption expenditure in 2011-12.Moreover the same Planning Commission has used internationally accepted poverty line of USD $1.25 as India’s in its negotiations with the World Bank for development assistance. The 2011 Global Hunger Index Report places India amongst the three countries where the GHI went up from 22.9 to 23.7 between 1996 to 2011. Countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam succeeded in improving hunger condition. India has the highest number of malnourished people about 230 million. Clearly hunger has grown fast and is a blot on economic development. If poverty has actually fallen by this large margin why India still remains at shamefully low rank on Human Development Index? World Bank data shows that while percentage of children who are underweight in sub Saharan Africa is 24, for India the same is 47!! It is clear that parameters of overall wellbeing of people are showing disturbing trends.
Rural economy is sending distress signals with rural livelihoods collapsing and young and able-bodied leaving in hordes to unknown destinations in search of a better future. At a time when rupee is depreciating fast in relation to pound sterling and USD, domestic price situation remains precarious, rural economy is not doing well and there is sluggish growth both nationally and internationally, drastically reduced poverty figures are hard to digest. Is it because the Planning Commission is under pressure to present a reduced poverty ratio as a commendable achievement in UPA Government’s report card? With general elections drawing close, is this UPA’s version of India shining? Media, civil society and opposition have lapped up this opportunity to tear the government apart. Totally oblivious of the conundrum emanating from prime time debates and parliamentary discussions, the poor of India go about their mundane existence wondering where the next meal would come from. Voices of reason are begging to be heard above this din.
By Sadhana Singh
(The author is a teacher at DGPG College, Kanpur)