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Reading between the poverty lines

India’s new Below Poverty Line estimate based on the Tendulkar Committee report has been hailed as being much more realistic than earlier estimates. But does it adequately count and include the poor of this nation, asks Sachin Kumar Jain

The poverty estimation of the government of India was first challenged by civil society organisations on the streets and in courts in 2002. After eight years of struggle, during which a number of strong interim orders were passed by the Supreme Court, the heavily debated and much criticised 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 question now is therefore: do the estimates 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 considerable sections of the poor in India.

Professor Utsa Patnaik, in her study of nutritional status and hunger in India, showed how 76% of families or 840 million people in India do not get the requisite daily intake of calories -- ie 2,100 calories for urban and 2,400 calories for rural residents. According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report on Unorganised Sector Workers, about 77% of people in the country subsist on under Rs 20 per day. Further, the National Family Health Survey-3 states that in India, 46% of children under the age of five 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 upon itself the burden of reducing 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. The Right to Food campaign argued that this poverty line was not a poverty line, but a starvation line, failing to include and thereby protect the most marginalised, 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 in 2010 the estimates of its own committee – the Tendulkar Committee – let us consider 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”, which is “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 submits 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 criticised 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.

The final paragraph of the committee report summary again betrays its interests which do not coincide with that of the poor of India. To show the government how appropriate the new methodology will be for its purposes, the committee uses the same methodology to calculate the poverty ratio of India in 1993-94. It finds that poverty stood at 50.1% in rural areas as opposed to 31.8% in urban areas giving an all-India poverty figure of 45.3% in 1993-94, which is a little higher than the earlier government estimate. However, the committee placates the government by stating in bold letters that “ even though the suggested new methodology gives a higher estimate of rural headcount ratio at the all-India level for 2004-05, the extent of poverty reduction in comparable percentage point decline between 1993-94 and 2004-05 is not different from that inferred using the old methodology.” In other words, sarkar , even with our methodology your poverty reduction propaganda can continue apace.

Once the Tendulkar Committee had accepted its bogus benchmark, it felt it necessary to justify the same. Despite stating that it made a conscious decision to move away from calorie intake norms to consumption norms in order to measure poverty, the Tendulkar Committee justifies its poverty line by arguing that the calorie intake at this line (of 1,776 for urban and 1,999 for rural, per person per day) compares well with the revised calorie norms of 1,770 per person per day set for India by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

This justification is both risible and shameful. The FAO, whose calorie norms have come under severe criticism for decades now, devised this reduced calorie intake norm of 1,770 for India as a Minimum Dietary Energy Requirement (MDER) for a person engaging in “light physical activity”, an example of which is “a male office worker in urban areas who only occasionally engages in physically demanding activities during or outside working hours”. The Tendulkar Committee makes no mention of this. Would the experts on this committee like to try living the life of a construction worker at 1,776 calories per day or dig NREGA trenches at 1,999 calories per day, consuming those respective diets day in and day out? It would be an ideal world if that were to happen. The tragedy is that today we live in a world where economists are deciding amongst themselves what defines poverty, without a clue about what it means to be poor in India.

It should be noted that FAO itself warns that “in countries with a high prevalence of undernourishment, a large proportion of the population typically consumes dietary energy levels close to the cut-off point, making MDER a highly sensitive parameter”. But did the Tendulkar Committee so much as consider the FAO's own warning? The recommended daily dietary intake in India should be that devised by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for maintaining health and consistent body weight, ie 2,425 calories (sedentary work) to 3,800 calories (heavy work) for men and 1,875 calories (sedentary work) to 2,925 calories (heavy work) for women. The argument of increased mechanisation in India to justify lower calorie needs in India does not hold water. A total of 93% of the country works in the unorganised sector and at the poverty line estimated by the Tendulkar Committee, the physical work done cannot be categorised as ‘light'.

The revised FAO intake norm stands at 1,770 for India and 1,900 for China as India has a greater proportion of children. But does the FAO itself consider the fact that at least one-third of Indian children are pushed to child labour involving physical work? The FAO calculation is simply a weighted average based on standardised figures for gender and age, ignoring a host of other details such as what work children do in India and factors like climate and quality of water. That this measure of FAO MDER will become a cut-off point to help decide who in India is BPL and who will be entitled for protection under the proposed Food Security Act is dangerous, and will again exclude millions of poor in this country, and ultimately increase poverty-related ills that plague this nation.

Basing its whole analysis on the government's National Sample Survey Organisation figures, the Tendulkar Committee further justifies its poverty line by arguing that the expenditures on health and education at the urban poverty line are adequate at the all-India level. Once again it would be a privilege to witness this “expert committee” and the entire Planning Commission take care of their families' health and education needs at this “acceptable” expenditure. Will someone please explain to the expert economists in the Planning Commission that there is a difference between median and mean? The median expenditure on education in India is much lower than the mean expenditure because of high inequality. If the Tendulkar Committee had chosen to use the mean expenditure instead of the median expenditure it would have found expenditure at the urban poverty line in education to be far lower and not the other way around. Furthermore, there is no space for a detail such as families at the poverty line taking loans to fulfil their health needs (the number one cause of poverty in India), which should not be included as real expenditure. The fact is that the Planning Commission has used the statistical tools it needs to present a certain pre-set picture of poverty in India. By accepting the Tendulkar Committee report, the Planning Commission appears to be more interested in presenting an improved image of Indian poverty to the world at the mid-term appraisal of the Millenium Development Goals in September this year.

The Right to Food campaign has maintained, in terms of the public distribution system (PDS), BPL, and the impending Food Security Act that basic services such as food, education, health, work and social security must be universally available for all Indians. In relation to PDS, the Right to Food campaign demands that all residents of the country must be covered under the same and that PDS should play the role of ensuring food security for all. While arguing for universal services, the campaign also understands that these social schemes cannot be uniform in nature and further affirmative action is required for those that are socially excluded.

In terms of affirmative action, the Supreme Court has already directed the government of India to add the aged, destitute, primitive tribal groups, the disabled, single women, widows, and pregnant and lactating women to the category of poor. “While acknowledging the multi-dimensional nature of poverty” at the beginning of its report, the Tendulkar Committee sidesteps this inclusion of vulnerable groups without a mention.

The Dr N C Saxena Committee report, on the other hand, presents an improvement in this regard by arguing for the automatic inclusion of socially excluded groups and automatic exclusion of those who are relatively well-off. For all those that fall in between, a scoring method is recommended with scores based on occupation, caste, and religion. The Saxena Committee report therefore provides comparably more verifiable and simple and targeted criteria for the identification of the poor of this nation, leaving fewer opportunities for vulnerable groups to be unprotected. The Supreme Court in its interim order in the Right to Food case categorically asked the government of India to take the Supreme Court Commissioner, Dr N C Saxena, on board to resolve the poverty estimation issue. Despite this, the Saxena Committee recommendations have been set aside and have gone unrepresented in the Planning Commission's recent decision to accept the Tendulkar Committee recommendations.

If the estimates of the Tendulkar Committee are accepted for determining BPL it will cause severe repercussions under the proposed national Food Security Act. As per the Arjun Sengupta Committee report and Professor Utsa Patnaik's studies, around 15.5 crore families are in a position to spend a small amount for survival, but Professor Utsa Patnaik states that they in fact do not get food for survival. The Dr N C Saxena Committee report states that 10 crore families are poor while the recently accepted Tendulkar Committee report counts only 7.4 crore families as poor. The figures agreed upon in the Tendulkar Committee will therefore cause food insecurity to more than 2.5 crore families at the least, even after the enactment of the proposed food law.

The correct identification of BPL becomes imperative at this point in time. The Right to Food campaign maintains that the process of identifying the poor for any targeted scheme must be disassociated from any externally calculated poverty line, such as that proposed by the Tendulkar Committee. Too many presentations and representations about the prevailing face of poverty and poverty lines in India have been generated in academic, ie economist, circles in recent times, without touching or seeking the perspective of those that it really belongs to – the poor people of India. Fortunately, we have a society that still finds poverty more than an issue of specialised economics, and that has the political capacity to reject “anti-people” theories that take strength from flawed methodologies and estimates.

(Sachin Kumar Jain is a development journalist and adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case. The views are his own)

Infochange News & Features, May 2010