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Playing with numbers,and lives

The Planning Commission,headed by the prime minister,has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court quantifying the daily poverty line for an adult as Rs 26 in rural,and Rs 32 in urban India. At today’s relentlessly increasing prices,Rs 26 will not get a manual worker even one nutritious meal a day — leave alone the 2,400 calories he is required to eat to enable him to work,according to ICMR standards. Some years ago,in the tribal areas of Udaipur in Rajasthan,studies on the impact of drought on deprivation levels showed that members of tribal families had to take turns to eat,and at times an adult ate only once in two or even three days. This is the hunger standard that the Planning Commission wants to impose throughout the country — that if you and your children eat more than once a day you cannot be considered poor.  

Estimates of poverty are useful as broad indicators which can help governments formulate and monitor policies. This is how they were used in India till the 1990s,but changed with the introduction of the inherently anti-poor system of targeting as a core plank in the so-called economic reform policies. This necessitated the identification of the poor in very concrete terms,family to family,since henceforth a growing number of poverty alleviation programs would be restricted to only those officially recognised as being poor. In the years that followed,crucial government programmes like food subsidies,health,housing,bank loans,pensions,help to children and adolescent girls have all become targeted. Thus it becomes all the more obligatory for the government to have a transparent and just system of poverty estimation and identification.   

Instead what we have is an utterly fraudulent,non-transparent and arbitrary system,presided over by the Planning Commission,which has usurped all powers to decide the criteria and estimates of poverty. In the last decade there have been repeated criticisms recorded in the reports of parliamentary standing committees,from state governments,political parties,activists and thoughtful economists,but to little avail.

Things have only got worse. An example which shows the utter arbitrariness of the system is provided in an answer to a question in Parliament. Using the same set of data,for the same reference period,it reported that four different official committees arrived at four widely differing estimates of poverty,ranging from 27 per cent to 37 per cent to 50 per cent to 77 per cent. If the Lakdawala Committee method is used,the rural monthly poverty line is Rs 356.30,whereas the Tendulkar Committee methodology makes it Rs 446.68 for the same reference period at 2004-2005 prices. However the Tendulkar Committee methodology,accepted by the government,is flawed in several ways,including an inexplicable reduction in the calorie norms used,and a superficial projection of the existing urban consumption basket for calculating  rural needs without correcting the inadequacies in that basket.    

The rural development ministry,which at one time had independently-decided criteria for assessing poverty,has meekly surrendered jurisdiction to the Planning Commission. In 1992,the first time a BPL census was conducted,an income criteria of Rs 11,000 a year — higher than the present criteria — had been used,leading to an assessment that 52 per cent of the population was below the poverty line. At that time the Union finance minister was Dr Manmohan Singh. The Planning Commission refused to accept the figures,as being too high,and that spelt the beginning of the end of the independent surveys of the ministry of rural development. Things have come to such a pass that the recent instructions given to states in the BPL Survey 2011 includes this gem: under the heading “poverty cap”,it states: “The Planning Commission has provided state-wise estimates of poverty,which are proposed to be used as a cap.” In other words,even if house-to-house surveys show higher levels of people living in poverty,the numbers cannot exceed the caps set by the Planning Commission.  

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The proposed food security law goes further,by legalising the linkage between Planning Commission caps and eligibility. The government’s official draft bill says: “The Central government shall,for each state,determine the numbers of persons belonging to priority (BPL) households.” The National Advisory Council,headed by Sonia Gandhi,had in its draft also included a clause that “identification will be based on the criteria notified by the Central government.” One wonders whether the veteran activists who were part of the drafting committee in the NAC were unaware of the poverty line which at the stage of their drafting was even lower than the Rs 26 line they are so articulately criticising today. Even though the defenders of the bill claim that the numbers of those eligible for food security have been revised upwards,the basis of that revision is still utterly arbitrary and relies on the Rs 26 poverty line and such-like estimates to retain the targeting system.  

The Supreme Court case provides the opportunity to once again highlight the just and legitimate demand to scrap the bogus estimates of the Planning Commission as the basis for eligibility for poverty alleviation programmes. Such a demand forms an essential part of the ongoing struggle for universal,not targeted,entitlements to food,health,housing and other such minimum rights. This is easily realisable,provided the government re-orients its priorities,away from gifting over Rs 5 lakh crore in one year alone to the private corporate sector as taxes foregone,or losses to the public exchequer through corruption and cheap sale of spectrum,PSUs and natural resources.

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The writer is a member of the CPM politburo and a Rajya Sabha MP

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