Reading Between the Poverty Lines

New estimates of Poverty in India

The poverty estimation of the government of India was first challenged by civil society organisations on the streets and in courts in 2002. After 8 years of struggle, which have witnessed a number of strong interim orders by the Supreme Court, the heavily debated and much criticized poverty estimates suggested by the Tendulkar Committee have been accepted by the Planning Commission. These estimates count 41.8% rural and 25.7 urban families as Below the Poverty Line (BPL) rejecting earlier lower and other higher estimates. Before they begin being used to determine beneficiaries of a variety of social schemes, the Tendulkar Committee estimates will need validation from both the government and the people of India. The acceptance or rejection of these estimates and the reasons for the same is a pivotal issue as entitlements like subsidised food, health services and medicine, and free education to large sections of Indian society will be delivered to those that qualify as BPL. The burning current question therefore is – do the estimations of poverty in the Tendulkar Committee report adequately count and include the poor of this nation? It is the opinion of the Right to Food campaign that the Tendulkar Committee estimates will exclude the counting of considerable sections of poor in India.

Professor Utsa Patnaik, in her study of nutritional status and hunger in India, showed how 76% families or 840 million people in India do not get the requisite daily intake of calories, i.e. 2,100 calories for urban and 2,400 calories for rural residents. According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report on Unorganized Sector Workers, about 77% people in the country subsist on under Rs. 20 per day. Furthermore, the National Family Health Survey (III) states that in India 46% children under the age of 5 years are undernourished. The Right to Food Campaign registered more than 5,000 starvation deaths in different parts of the country between 2001 and 2005. Yet, the government of India has been adamant in its stand that poverty in the country is decreasing. It has made this claim citing its policies, despite the fact that these manifestly pro-market, pro-corporate, and anti-agriculture policies have only worsened conditions for most. Despite appearing to increase the poverty ratio in rural areas, the Tendulkar Committee warms the cockles of the sarkari heart because it attempts to continue this economic myth making.

The Right to Food campaign, via its public interest litigation, PUCL vs. Union of India, lodged in the Supreme Court in 2002, questioned the definition and identification of poverty in India. In 2006 the campaign questioned the Planning Commission, and its creativity, which took the burden on itself to reduce poverty in India by a whopping 10% in 2006, and the small matter that it did so statistically using per capita consumer expenditure, calculated at 1973-74 prices. On the strength of discrepant estimates, the Planning Commission had declared that only 28.3% rural families and 25.7% urban families are poor. This poverty line was argued by the campaign not to be a poverty line, but a starvation line, failing to include and thereby protect the most marginalized, the destitute, and the socially excluded from the official estimation of poverty. The statistical manipulation that produced such low figures in the face of reality was found to be unacceptable and a people’s movement agitated against the Planning Commission’s figures and methodology. In response, two committees were formed by the government: the Tendulkar Committee set up by the Planning Commission and the Dr. N.C. Saxena Committee set up by the Ministry of Rural Development. While both the Tendulkar Committee and the N.C. Saxena Committee returned with a higher poverty ratio in rural areas, 41.8% and 50% respectively, the exclusionist statistical devil is hidden between these lines. As the Planning Commission has accepted the estimates of its own study last week – that of the Tendulkar Committee – let us directly confront why it has been quite happy to do so.

“In the interest of continuity” and “in some generally acceptable aspect of the present practice” the Tendulkar Committee decided to take the existing Poverty Line Basket (PLB) “corresponding to 25.7% urban headcount ratio as the new reference PLB to be provided to rural as well as urban population in all states.” In one fell swoop the Tendulkar Committee has shown its true colours. Rather than a radical reassessment of what defines poverty in India, something sorely needed in our country, the committee sticks to continuity, something ‘acceptable’ to no one other than the government of India. It is only by judging against the consumption basket of goods at the prevailing and erroneous government of India urban poverty line that the Tendulkar Committee arrived at a 41.8% poverty ratio for rural areas. How does this committee explain the choice of consumption around the prevailing urban poverty line as a benchmark of non-poverty? It offers that the urban ratio of “25.7% at the all-India level, is generally accepted as being less controversial than its rural counterpart at 28.3% that has been heavily criticized as being too low.” Therefore, just because the rural ratio incited more outrage in comparison to the urban ratio, the conditions of poverty prevailing at the urban poverty line were deemed kosher. So, much for an honest reassessment of methodology that was the mandate of the Tendulkar Committee.

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