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The poor fight to stay on BPL list

By Sudarshan Chhotoray

The BPL survey 2011 and its inclusion/exclusion criteria has serious repercussions for India’s poor. The very BPL card that helped a person build a house under the Indira Awas Yojana will now see him excluded for owning a pucca house; the phone booth granted to the disabled will now see them excluded for owning a fixed phone line; a basic outboard motor on a fishing boat will knock a poor fisherman off the BPL list

Below the Poverty Line (BPL)

For Ganapati Swain, a resident of Niladripur village, Pallibandha gram panchayat, Ganjam district, Orissa, the BPL (below the poverty line) card is his only means of survival. A wage labourer, Ganapati’s livelihood depends on the availability of work nearby.

Ganapati was included in the BPL category in the last census and so was able to avail of facilities such as buying rice at Rs 2 a kilo from the government, to feed his family of five including two daughters and a son. The BPL card also helped him construct a three-room asbestos house on his father’s property, under the Indira Awas Yojana. Ironically, this three-room concrete structure is sufficient grounds to exclude him from the BPL list this time!

Indeed, the fear is that if the Planning Commission’s recent submission to the Supreme Court of India on BPL identification is taken up, millions of Ganapatis will be excluded from the BPL list this time. If a person earns Rs 26 a day in rural areas, or Rs 32 a day in urban areas, he/she will be struck off the list, according to the controversial Planning Commission affidavit which has been challenged by civil society. According to what the Planning Commission told the Supreme Court on September 23, 2011, if someone spends more than Rs 965 per month in urban areas, and Rs 781 in rural areas, he/she will be treated as ‘not poor’.

It would seem as if the Government of India wants to further marginalise India’s BPL population which, according to the Tendulkar Committee report, is more than 40.74 crore, based on projected population figures for 2004, as on March 2005.

Fearing automatic exclusion from the BPL list, over 3,000 adivasis took out a rally to the district collectorate in Malkangiri, on September 9, 2011. Protesting at proposed fresh rounds of the BPL census and the BPL identification process being pursued by the government, Ira Padiami, president of the Adivasi Ekta Sangha, says: “The criteria fixed for BPL Census 2011 along with the caste census, which is going to start any time now, will further deprive us of genuine government schemes and jeopardise our life.”

Apprehending a similar threat to their survival, persons with disability (PWDs) also oppose the BPL census. At a press conference in Bhubaneswar on September 2, they charged the government with conspiring to leave them out of the BPL category as the proposed automatic exclusion criteria will make them ineligible, for possessing motorised two/three-wheelers. Although the government itself provides tricycles and motorcycles to orthopaedically-challenged people, it is now trying to snatch their rights from them, placing them above the poverty line. People who have PCOs, BSNL connections and other benefits reserved for BPL families, especially people with disabilities, will be left out of the enumeration (since possession of a fixed-line telephone is one of the disqualifiers for a family to be considered poor in rural areas). According to leaders of the Odisha Disabled People’s Network (ODPN): “Out of 10.5 lakh disabled people in Orissa, only a few amongst us have got government jobs and pensions. The rest are living under a cloud.”

Amidst these protests, the government of Orissa is set to complete the field survey for the centrally-sponsored BPL census much before the model code of conduct for elections to the three-tiered panchayati raj institutions comes into force. The socio-economic and caste survey, which was earlier scheduled in two phases in October, has been extended to December owing to non-availability of the Tablet PCs which are going to be used by the enumerators instead of the forms they usually fill up.

The state government alleges that the Centre, which was supposed to supply at least 42,884 machines required in two phases for 85,767 enumeration blocks with a projected population of 41,690,000, has not yet sent them. “We need at least three to four weeks to train enumerators, supervisors and data entry operators, besides mobilising employees and officials for field work,” says a senior government official.

A BPL census is conducted every five years to identify poor households in rural areas and provide assistance under various programmes of the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) and other ministries, and state governments. This time, the census commenced in rural and urban areas in June 2011, along with the controversial caste census, which is to enumerate India’s population on caste lines for the first time since the 1930s.

According to guidelines, the BPL census is to be carried out by state governments; the Ministry of Rural Development provides financial and technical support. The entire process is to be completed by December 2011. Although the Planning Commission has provided state-wise estimates of poverty, which are proposed to be used as a cap, it has not provided district-level caps.

Justifying BPL Census 2011, the government stated that BPL Census 2002 had serious limitations and, consequently, the BPL lists drawn up were full of flaws. There were reported errors of exclusion and inclusion, with above the poverty line (APL) people being put into the BPL category and vice-versa. Government is attempting to devise a methodology that will avoid earlier shortcomings as far as possible and also come up with a pre-test methodology and implementation mechanism.

In a prelude to this census, the MoRD appointed several expert groups in 2008 to suggest a method of identifying the poor. The last one was in August 2008. Accordingly, Dr N C Saxena, chairperson of the expert group, submitted a report in August 2009 and a pilot study was conducted in 254 selected villages across the country to test the validity of several poverty and deprivation indicators.

The pilot study was carried out in two stages -- a Socio-Economic Survey (SES) using a structured questionnaire, and a Participatory Socio-Economic Survey (PSES) using the participatory rural appraisal (PRA) technique. The pilot study revealed that automatic exclusion indicators were likely to exclude 28% of households, and deprivation indicators (SC and ST treated as one deprivation) would likely include 18% to 38% of households. The pilot further identified that 66% of SC/ST families were poor, and 34% of them were non-poor.

The proposed automatic exclusion criteria fixed for BPL Census 2011 are motorised two/three/four-wheeler/fishing boats, mechanised three/four-wheeler agricultural equipment such as tractors, harvesters, etc, kisan credit cards with a credit limit of Rs 50,000 and above, households that include a government employee, households engaged in a non-agricultural enterprise registered with the government, any member of the family earning more than Rs 10,000 per month, paying income tax or professional tax, households with three or more rooms with a pucca roof, households owning a refrigerator, owning a landline phone, households owning 2.5 acres or more of irrigated land with at least one piece of irrigation equipment such as a diesel/electric-operated borewell/tubewell, 5 acres or more of land irrigated for two or more crop seasons, households owning 7.5 acres or more of land with at least one piece of irrigation equipment, etc. If the pilot study is to be believed, 16% of SC/ST households fall under this category of exclusion; and 80% of the remaining 84% of households have to satisfy two or more deprivation criteria admissible to them as a result of belonging to scheduled castes or scheduled tribes.

“The criteria proposed by the government will go against predominantly tribal areas and other poor but less densely populated regions like KBK in Orissa,” says Manas Ranjan of ActionAid India. He adds: “The region has average landholdings of about 4 acres, and as per Saxena Committee recommendations no one with less than 12 acres of irrigated land will be excluded. As per the proposed methodology, those owning 7.5 acres will be excluded if they have a diesel pump. Other areas where poor people have significant holdings of poor quality land without government irrigation facilities will be negatively impacted by the proposed guidelines.”

Motorising country boats through outboard machines has become necessary even for poor fishing households. So they too stand to be excluded. Estimates suggest that 70% or more of sea-going fishing households may be excluded in this way.

The automatic inclusion criterion involves households without shelter, destitutes/those living on alms, manual scavengers, primitive tribal groups (PTGs), legally released bonded labourers, etc. Consider the amount of poverty the government is willing to overlook in the distribution of BPL cards by ranking households using deprivation indicators. A female-headed household with an adult disabled primary school dropout male member, an acre of land and a two-roomed kuchcha house will definitely be deprived of a BPL card if it does not belong to the SC/ST category. Even if it does, it’s unlikely to be covered as it will satisfy just one deprivation indicator. Apart from these, if the family satisfies several deprivation indicators it could still not be assured of  inclusion in the BPL category because of low quotas and better-off people fudging their responses.

The 2011 BPL Survey must also be looked at from the perspective of impending changes in welfare support restricted on the basis of BPL status. The government has said that, from 2012, kerosene subsidies will be restricted to BPL households; subsidised electricity connections under the Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Scheme are already being distributed among BPL stakeholders. Thus, a household just above the BPL category will have access neither to subsidised electricity nor kerosene. Even free healthcare, education, widow’s pension, Indira Awas and other facilities are provided only on submission of a BPL card. When our social security system is so grossly inadequate, and much of whatever exists is restricted to the BPL category, corruption and malpractice are inevitable.

This was evident in a number of villages in Chhellagada gram panchayat, R Udayagiri block, Gajapati district, where a non-tribal had taken possession of 30 BPL cards. (BPL cards are mortgaged here for a paltry sum.) Due to lack of awareness, illiteracy and ignorance, people are buying their quota of BPL rice at Rs 18; it’s being procured by the black marketer for Rs 2. Basanta Raita, a local activist, says: “Some people were forced to turn Antyodaya from BPL, and some Antyodaya to old age or widow pension at the behest of local touts. In the process they were deprived of benefits under the Indira Awas and Rajiv Bidyut Yojana.”

A report by the Odisha Khadhya Adhikar Abhiyan stresses that after the disastrous 2002 BPL survey, the Government of India is now conducting yet another anti-poor BPL survey. Had the 2002 survey been implemented in Orissa, large numbers of poor households would have been left out. The faulty identification process would have ensured that, compared to the poorest district of Koraput, a greater proportion of households in Cuttack would have been selected as BPL. Despite this, until end-2009, the central government kept pushing the Orissa government to implement the survey. Fortunately, the government of Orissa stood its ground. The Right to Food Campaign went to the Supreme Court on the 2002 BPL survey and obtained a stay on it.

The new survey, which comes nine years after the last one, is no less fraught with errors. This is evident from the proposed poverty estimates and the proposed methodology for identifying the poor.

While poor people all over India will be adversely affected by the survey, Orissa’s poor will be even more so. They will be affected on account of problems both with poverty estimation as well as identification of poor. The N C Saxena Committee, which was formed on the basis of the Supreme Court order on the 2002 BPL survey, recommended that at least 84.5% of Orissa’s rural households be identified as BPL. However, another committee (the Tendulkar Committee that has nothing to do with the Supreme Court order on the 2002 survey) has recommended that 60.8% of Orissa’s households be recognised as BPL. By accepting the latter, the Government of India plans to push 24% (about 16 lakh households) of Orissa’s rural households off the proposed BPL list. That means three out of every 10 poor households will be left out. Added to this, the identification criteria proposed for the survey will leave out a majority of Orissa’s farmers, fishers, weavers and other artisans, petty traders and dalit Christian households. Interestingly, the latest edition of the State Economy Survey says that poverty in Orissa has dropped to 28.17%.

There are other contentious issues in the 2011 survey, such as the use of Tablet PCs instead of paper forms. It means there will be no paper records and no signature/thumb impressions to prove that households have been surveyed. Secondly, the survey process assigns no role to panchayats or gram sabhas until the entire survey is over. This implies that there will be no real-time monitoring of survey work by panchayats or gram sabhas/palli sabhas. Finally, there’s the controversy over estimation recommendations based on the minimum calorie intake standard (2,400 kcal per day) and minimum dietary energy requirement (MDE) norm (1,700 kcal per day), etc.

In a state where 57% of the 3,49,51,243 rural population lives on less than Rs 12 a day, and a state where 45% of the population are tribal or dalit households, the cut-off provisions enumerated in BPL Survey 2011 will pave the way for a lot of conflict in the coming years.

(Sudarshan Chhotoray is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist, documentary filmmaker and independent researcher)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011