Reading between poverty lines

Is the latest poverty estimate a true indicator of rural poor in India?  

By Sachin Kumar Jain
Published: Monday 31 May 2010

Rural India is much poorer than officially thought. The Planning Commission has accepted the report of a committee, led by economist Suresh Tendulkar, which estimates that more than 41 per cent of rural India is poor. States will now have to issue more below poverty line (bpl) cards. But is the report an accurate index of poverty?

In 2006, the Planning Commission declared 28.3 per cent of India’s rural population and 25.7 per cent of the urban population as below the poverty line. Civil society groups disputed the figures, and the Right to Food Camp-aign argued the government’s poverty line was a starvation line which did not protect the most marginalized. In respo-nse the government set up two committees. The rural development ministry set up a committee headed by former civil servant N C Saxena; the Tendulkar co-mmitte had the commission’s mandate.

The Tendulkar committee has persisted with the earlier poverty estimates for urban areas while returning a significantly higher estimate for rural areas. The Saxena committee, though, estimates that 50 per cent people in rural India are below the poverty line. These higher estimates notwithstanding, the road to poverty reduction is still thorny.

The Tendulkar committee steered from the calorie norm set in 1973-74—money required to access 2,100 calories in urban areas, and 2,400 calories in rural areas. It defines the new poverty line on a wider access to commodity and services like health, sanitation and education. The new all-India average rural poverty line is set at an expenditure of Rs 446.68 monthly; the national urban poverty line at Rs 578.8. Poverty line is a per capita expenditure of Rs 12 per day.
Access to—or the lack of—essential services is necessary to determine poverty. But the Tendulkar committee has tinkered with the calorie norms in a way that would harm many. It notes this new poverty line will accommodate a calorie intake of 1,776 in urban areas and 1,999 in rural areas. The committee has gone by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (fao) which sets 1,770 as the accepted calorie intake for Indians. But, fao admits 1,770 is calorie requirement for people engaged in sedentary activities. Would it be fair then to let people dig trenches under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act at 1,999 calories a day.

The Indian Council for Medical Research has a more nuanced calorie index for maintaining health and body weight: 2,425 calories for men doing sedentary work to 3,800 calories for those doing heavy work; for women the figures are 1,875 and 2,925. The argument that increased mechanization justifies the lower calorie norms won’t hold much water in a country where at least 80 per cent of the population is employed in the unorganized sector. Work in such sectors cannot be categorized as ‘light’ without creative liberty.

The Tendulkar committee report begins by acknowledging the “multi-dimensional nature of poverty”. But it sidesteps this inclusion of vulnerable groups without another mention. It can be argued the vulnerable—old, aged, destitute, primitive tribal groups, disabled, single women, widows—would be included in bpl categories. The stress should, however, have been on affirmative action to provide for such groups.

The Tendulkar Committee estimates will have repercussions for identifying beneficiaries under the proposed Food Security Act. The Arjun Sen Gupta Committee report on the unorganized sector and economist Utsa Patnaik argue that 155 million families cannot spend for their survival needs. The Saxena Committee states that 100 million families are poor. The Tendulkar Committee report, in contrast, counts only 74 million families as poor. Accepting these figures will impair the food insecurity of 25 million families at the least, even after the enactment of the proposed food law.

Sachin Jain is advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioners on food

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