UPA hides poverty data scam as millions go hungry
By Naresh Minocha
The NGOs-media rumpus over the definition of poverty has exposed only a tip of the UPA Government’s strategy to understate the magnitude of extreme poverty deprivation and indignity in the country. The furore has left untouched the UPA’s delaying tactics on fulfilling its constitutional obligations towards people that have been repeatedly reinforced by the Supreme Court over the years.
A Parliamentary Committee report issued in March 2011, coupled with a report from the Law Commission in April 2009, give a horrifying picture about the way the Government assesses poverty and the way it implements anti-poverty programmes.
The trigger for the latest furore is the Planning Commission’s (PC’s) second affidavit to the Supreme Court in the ongoing 2001 public interest litigation over the right to food.
In the second affidavit filed last month, PC presented the updated poverty line. The poverty line at June 2011 price level can be placed provisionally at Rs 965 per capita per month in urban areas and Rs. 781 per capita per month in rural areas.
According to the affidavit, at June 2011 price level, for a family of five this provisional poverty line would amount to Rs 4,824 per month in urban areas and Rs 3,905 per month in rural areas.
As put by Planning Commission’s Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia on October 3 at a fire-dosing press conference, “In our affidavit to the Supreme Court we had reported the poverty line in terms of monthly expenditure for a family, because this is how household budgets are normally understood. However, in public discussion, the monthly consumption expenditure has been converted into a daily per capita figure (namely Rs 32 for urban areas and Rs 26 for rural areas) which makes it appear very low.”
Even if accepts Montek’s explanation, the poverty line at June 2011 would have to be taken with a pinch of salt because the two prices indices used for updating the definition are dubious.
As put by an international poverty expert in 2008, “price indexes used to update India’s poverty lines are “at best outdated and at worst simply incorrect.”
PC’s affidavit says: “No part of this affidavit is false and nothing material has been concealed thereto.”
The bitter truth is that PC has concealed a lot. The affidavit, for instance, is silent about what the expert group on methodology for below the poverty line (BPL) census stated in its report submitted to the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) in August 2009.
The group (referred to as Saxena Committee) strongly recommended that “the percentage of people entitled to BPL satus should be drastically revised upward to at least 50 per cent, though the calorie norm of 2400 would demand this figure to be about 80 per cent.”
Put simply, the group believes that 80 per cent of the country’s population is BPL. The Group also quoted the then Government’s Chief Statistician as saying “the poverty estimates made in the years after 1973-74 understate the true incidence of poverty.”
The concealment of facts would, in fact become crystal clear to a reader by the time he reaches the end of this story.
The country, which is home to the world’s largest poor population, fares extremely poor in all global platforms for measuring poverty. It is small wonder then that UPA, which swears by globalisation, is opposed to adopting global, uniform norms for measuring poverty.
It does not update the poverty measurement norms on the basis of inflation that is running at double-digit for long under the benign leadership of UPA. The Supreme Court had to goad PC in May this year to update poverty line on the basis of latest prices.
UPA does not even have readily available data on the number of people who have come above poverty line due to poverty eradication programmes and those who are still below poverty line as is evident from an answer to a question in Lok Sabha on August 3, 2011.
The Government’s reply this five-part question on poverty was: “Information is being collected and shall be laid on the Table of the House.”
PC currently assesses poverty on the basis of large sample surveys of household consumer expenditure undertaken by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) once after every five years. The expenditure on food and essential non-food products and services such as healthcare is assessed against minimum consumption norms and ultimately derived into monthly minimum expenditure for a bare minimum survival.
PC, however, uses the poverty ratio of Assam (estimated at 19.73 per cent in 2004-05) for guesstimating poverty in seven other north-eastern States. PC has told a parliamentary committee that the data for other States is either not available or the sample size of the NSSO is so small as to be virtually unusable.
In a report focused on poverty issued in March 2011, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance (PSCF) thus observed: “The Committee find such a situation unsatisfactory where accurate poverty estimates for North-eastern States are not available at all. This raises serious questions about the adequacy and veracity of poverty related statistics in the country.”
While poverty estimation is a desk job for PC economists, it is field job for the MRD. The latter conducts BPL census in rural areas once in five years with last one being conducted in 2002. UPA has, however, delayed the subsequent survey. It is now slated for completion by December 2011 as socio economic and caste survey (SECS).
The Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation has never ever undertaken any such census as it found such initiative “very costly”. It is for the first time that a head count of urban BPL is currently under way SECS. The rural and urban segments of SECS are thus separate.
What is intriguing is that UPA has not yet made public the report of an expert committee on urban poverty that was supposed to complete its job in January 2011.
The latest data about the total number of BPLs population on the basis of head count would be known sometime in 2012. It remains to be seen how much caste data collected under SECS is made public. Moreover, it would be interesting to know how UPA cashes on such politically sensitive data overtly and covertly.
The absolute number of poor people in the country has increased from 16.4 crore in 1951 to 40.74 crore in 2005. (This latter figure would stand revised to 45.57 crore if one applies the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty).
This data is only uni-dimensional as it is based on consumption expenditure on food and essential non-food products and services. UPA has not formulated any mechanism to capture other dimensions of poverty that have been elucidated by Law Commission.
If one factors in other dimensions of poverty such malnutrition, underweight babies, prevalence of diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis, diabetes, lack of access to potable water and toilets and ubiquitous of destitute in cities, the picture about the intensity and depth of poverty becomes utterly disgusting and shameful. Who can thus deny UPA’s chest-thumbing claim India has arrived on the global stage?
If UPA lacks the political will to measure poverty as a multi-dimensional state of the majority of the country’s population, the least it could have done was to adopt the globally accepted definitions.
The World Bank, for instance, defines extreme poverty as expenditure of less than $ 1.25/day/per capita and moderate poverty as spending of less than of $ 2/day/capita by the persons.
The Bank, which is pumping billions of aid into India’s anti-poverty programmes, adopts these norms for uniform comparison of poverty across the globe.
It used the extreme poverty definition for global comparison in 2005. The World Bank estimated that 41.6 per cent of India’s population lived below extreme poverty in 2005. Compare this with 37.2 per cent of total population in 2004-05 arrived at by the PC’s expert group that redefined poverty.
The Indian poverty situation was much more dismal in 2005 if one factors in different dimensions of poverty. As much as 55.4 per cent of the country’s population lived below poverty line in 2005, according to the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI).
MPI was launched jointly by United Nations Development Programme and Oxford University in July 2010. It not only measures poverty but also intensity of poverty with the poor population. UNDP has substituted human poverty index with MPI in its annual human development report.
MPI gauges three dimensions of poverty (living standards, health and education) with 10 indicators such as access to potable water to child mortality.
Prior to the submission of the report of this group under the chairmanship of Professor Suresh D. Tendulkar in December 2009, PC relied on a restrictive old definition with which it estimated the per cent of BPL people at 27.5 per cent of total population in 2004-05.
Applying the WB’s definition of moderate poverty is applied to India, one gets bone-chilling picture about poverty from a research paper published by Asian Development Bank in August 2011.
Captioned Poverty in Asia and the Pacific-An Update, ADP paper estimates the absolute number of Indians living with income of less than $ 2/day/capita at 82.76 crore in 2005. In other words, 75.62 per cent of the country’s population was moderately poor in that year.
These numbers are similar to the observations made by the World Bank’s recent report captioned Perspectives on Poverty in India. It observes “India’s poverty line is very low by international standards, and 80 per cent of the rural population lives below the medium developing-country poverty line of Rs 22 (PPP $2) a day” (PPP means price purchase parity)
Accepting Tendulkar Committee’s estimates, PC obfuscated the issue of under-reporting of poverty and the implied denial of subsidised food and healthcare to crores of people.
In a press note issued in January 2011, PC stated: “Whether we use the new methodology or the old, it is found that decline in the percentage of population in poverty, is roughly of the same magnitude.”
That PC’s poverty estimates form the basis of several anti-poverty programmes is evident from PC’s own admission. In the same statement, PC noted: “One of the operational implication of this decision is that identification of beneficiaries for the schemes targeting for the BPL population would therefore be done using the new estimates for 2004-05.”
PC had also stated that “a final view on the methodology for measuring poverty in future will be taken on the basis of the results obtained from the 2009-10 survey conducted by National Sample Survey Organisation.”
UPA has not disclosed what it would do if poverty estimates reckoned on this basis turn out be substantially different from the SECS data.
In the BPL census, the Government had specified a ceiling on the number of BPL households to be identified for achieving conformity with PC’s poverty estimates. This fact has been unearthed by PSCF.
In its report titled Appraisal of BPL Criteria released in March this year, PSCF dubbed this farce exercise as like “the feet being made to fit the shoe”!
It observed “significant lacunae came into sharp focus such as multiple indicators/criteria used for identification of the poor, divergence of official estimates of poverty ratio with the actual incidence of poverty, no poverty census in urban areas, use of different methodologies for estimation and identification of BPL households, restricting the identification of poor in States to the cap fixed by the Planning Commission, variation in estimates, wrong-targeting of beneficiaries of welfare schemes etc.”
PSCF also observed: “Despite six decades of planning, a plethora of schemes and various measures initiated by successive Governments, it remains a stark reality that large number of our people are forced to live in abject poverty. It is disconcerting that we still have not yet arrived at a flawless and acceptable poverty estimation formula.”
Like PSCF, the Law Commission (LC) has taken pains to drive home the need for understanding appropriately the grave dimensions of poverty and the requisite remedial initiatives.
In its report titled Need for ameliorating the lot of the have-nots – Supreme Court’s Judgments submitted in April 2009, LC says: “Extreme poverty is denial of human rights.”
LC also noted that every man and woman has the human right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, to food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services. These fundamental human rights are defined in our Constitution.
LC recommended that “the Union and the State Governments should accord top priority to implementation of the judgments rendered by our Supreme Court in their letter and spirit in order that the lot of the have-nots is ameliorated.”
How insensitive is the UPA to LC’s recommendations can be judged from an official reply to a Parliament question, which was raised on July 15, 2009.
Answering a question as to what action the Government has taken on this and other LC recommendations, the Minister of State for Planning told Lok Sabha: “The Report has been forwarded to the concerned Ministries and departments by the Ministry of Law and Justice.”
UPA, on the other hand, has not even imbibed the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty, leave aside honouring its constitutional obligations towards poor. Answering a question on poverty in Rajya Sabha on September 8, 2011, the Minister of State for Planning stated: “The Government of India does not follow the World Bank Poverty line.”
UPA’s reluctance is understandable. If it accepts the term extreme poverty and its definition, it runs the risk of being accused of human rights violations on a mass scale.
To quote LC, “Few are able to look at starvation and extreme poverty without feeling a sense of failure.”