The poverty quibble

Government claims a huge drop in poverty numbers but critical indicators—health, malnutrition and wages—continue to be grim. So how did the poor fare better?

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2013

Government claims a huge drop in poverty numbers but critical indicators—health, malnutrition and wages—continue to be grim. So how did the poor fare better?

imageAfter a long, long time there was good news to splash as media led with the report of a record 21.9 per cent drop in poverty levels. The July 24 newspaper headlines were celebratory as they reported the Planning Commission’s findings that poverty rates had declined from 37.2 per cent for the country as a whole in 2004-05. Even better was the sharp decline in rural poverty from 41.8 per cent to 25.7 per cent, while urban dipped from 25.7 per cent to 13.7 per cent. In sum, 137 million Indians were lifted out of poverty over the seven-year period.

So shouldn’t we all be cheering? Everyone likes good news but at the risk of being labelled a Gloomy Gus one cannot help but ask what it is that we are celebrating. That people are somehow keeping body and soul together is supposed to make us feel better? Poverty may well be down but how are we to ignore other figures, and facts, that cast such dark shadows over the sunny scenario on poverty levels?

Here is the squalour of numbers we are dealing with: every year 1.7 million children under five years die and many of them from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea; around 45 per cent are malnourished and around 43 are stunted or underweight because of lack of nutrients—it’s just 25 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa—and less than half are immunised.

There are other problems common to both children and adults: lack of education (a quarter of Indians are illiterate), they live in squalid conditions (nearly half our homes have no toilet), most have no access to clean drinking water. This is the familiar litany of misery in which the wretched of this country exist with a government that is unable to cut maternal or infant mortality rates unlike its poorer neighbours. A World Bank study released in 2011 showed that health spending is one of the leading causes of poverty in India, pushing as many as 63 million people or 11.9 million households to below the poverty line (BPL) by healthcare expenditure.

And yet, here we are celebrating the slimmest of incremental change in the lives of the poor as a great achievement.

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India’s poverty estimates are based on household consumption expenditure captured in the five-year surveys carried out by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. And these figures are notoriously unreliable. Although the last quinquennial survey in this series was conducted in 2009-10 (NSS 66th round) that was not used because the government thought it “was not a normal year because of a severe drought”. NSSO repeated the largescale survey in 2011-12 as the 68th round and the methodology used for estimating poverty is Suresh Tendulkar line. This means anyone who has spent more than Rs 27.2 per day in rural areas and more than Rs 33.33 in urban areas is not considered poor. The methodology is being revised by a committee headed by chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council C Rangarajan following widespread criticism of the Tendulkar line as being too low.

The Planning Commission concedes that once the revision is made on this committee’s recommendations “the absolute levels of poverty would be higher” although the rate of decline would be similar. One cannot help noticing how political the current exercise of determining levels has been. The press note issued by the Planning Commission was subtly political: it was aimed at showing that the drop in poverty was much sharper during the years of the UPA government’s rule. The annual average decline between 1993-94 and 2004-05 was 0.74 per cent, whereas it showed a dramatic fourfold increase to 2.18 per cent in the subsequent seven years till 2001-12.

But the UPA’s smugness will be wiped out if the results of a BPL census are made public soon. According to a report in the financial daily Business Standard, close to half the rural population qualifiesas BPL. Quoting sources in the rural development ministry, the report says 48 per cent of the population is “suffering from seven listed deprivations (woman-headed family, scheduled caste/tribe families, daily wage workers, etc)” to qualify as BPL.

Till then, the new poverty rates will provide much grist to the debating mill of economists and policymakers. Predictably, this will be focused on the familiar polarised lines: did the country achieve this reduction through growth or through social welfare measures such as the rural employment guarantee scheme. It seems almost pointless to reiterate that true growth or reduction in poverty levels will not come about unless we have a government that provides essential services to its people. That’s how China pulled 680 million of its people out of destitution between 1981 and 2010, slashing the poverty rate from 84 per cent to 10 per cent. Perhaps, the apex planning body in this country which is clearly in stasis could stir itself to make a real change in the lives of the destitute.

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