Saturday, May 21, 2011

All Poor are equal, but some Poor are more equal than others

Poverty and deprivation get covered as events” writes P. Sainath in his critically acclaimed and bestselling book ‘Everybody loves a good drought stories from India’s poorest districts’ “Yet, poverty is about much more than starvation deaths or near famine conditions. It is the sum total of a multiplicity of factors… Hunger-again just one aspect of poverty-is far more complex here. It is more low level, less visible and does not make for the dramatic television footage that Somalia and Ethiopia do.” Off late, with release of movies like Slumdog Millionaire and with tourist coming here solely for the purpose of clicking the deprived class, the poverty and the poor has seen massive dramatization in India and the world. But when it comes to counting them for the purpose of their welfare, the whole task becomes much more complicated as understanding the poverty as a process in India.

The Central Government on Thursday May 19th, 2011 approved the proposal of head counts of poor in the country, for the sole purpose of better targeting of the numerous welfare schemes it operates. First such census was done in the year 1992 to count the number of families below poverty line. This time it would be a paperless exercise using handheld devices manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited. Apart from counting rural poor, which used to be done earlier, this time urban poor would also be enumerated. The Ministry of Rural Development, Housing and Urban poverty alleviation, which is the nodal ministry to conduct this exercise, along with Registrar General of India would jointly conduct this exercise. A new methodology for determination of poor would be used, according to Business Standard “The new methodology for the rural census would divide the rural poor into three sections. One set of the population would be included in the BPL category, while another set of people — the economically affluent but socially deprived — would be excluded from the BPL category. A third set of the population would be enumerated on the basis of seven socio-economic parameters. The methodology for the rural census would consider the economic conditions of the family and attach only moderate importance to factors like social backwardness. The urban population would be enumerated on the basis of three criteria — residential status, social vulnerability and occupational vulnerability.” However there is a catch, for the first time religion and caste would come into picture, that is, the religion and caste of those counted would also be determined.

Although this mammoth exercise of determination and labeling of poor would be undertaken by the Ministry of Rural Development, Housing and Urban poverty alleviation along with Registrar General of India. But those who will get benefits would be only identified by the Plan Panel. As report in Mint says, “While the Planning Commission estimates the number of poor in the country, the ministry of rural development identifies the poor. The processes used by the two are different: the Planning Commission estimates poverty based on consumption, while the BPL census uses socio-economic characteristics such as household assets.” Therein lays the anomaly. Though data would be determined on a different basis, the information from it would be extracted from it using totally different criteria.

This only shows serious lacunae in Government policy making at the highest echelons of the governance. The editorial in the Mint bluntly puts it like this,” On the list of this government’s most serious lapses in policymaking, this one should rank somewhere near the top. The below poverty line census, due to its methodology approved on Thursday, will identify more poor households than officially estimated. But, because the government has also decided that the official estimates will serve as a ceiling, the additional poor families will not benefit from poverty alleviation schemes. In other words, the government will pick and choose who is to be officially poor and who isn’t. India has always had trouble with the ways and means of defining poverty and identifying the poor. But Thursday’s decision says something about the government’s confusion over the political handling of poverty. It is almost as if the aam aadmi’s government was telling some of its votaries: “You may be poor, but you ain’t poor enough”.”

More than Rs. 612, 000, 000,000/- (Rupees Six Hundred Twelve Billion) is spend annually by the Government on welfare of poor and how much actually reaches them is the mystery of the millennium. As it is no state secret that government programs for welfare of poor are usually not in sync with actual requirement and often the money flows out through the bureaucratic leakages. If they are not, the schemes provide incentives for diverting the resources meant for poor, for example, in National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (or loot if you prefer) monies are given for digging up pits and filling them up and calling it work.
Now if to this determination of poor, if we add in the factors of religion and caste, instead of a portable solution to this chronic problem, it would only provide a heady cocktail to the political parties, dry gunpowder which can be lightened up by smallest spark. Further, Supreme Court in many occasions has pulled up Plan Panel for putting a ceiling on the number of poor in the country as if putting a ceiling would end India’s poverty problem. The Mint reports that in one such instance the Honorable Court observed,” The bench made the critical remarks while dealing with a PIL filed by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) complaining about large scale corruption and irregularities in the PDS mechanism of the country. Questioning the plan panel rational in fixing 36% as the percentage of BPL families in the country, the bench said, “It is astonishing as to how you can fix 36% people in the BPL category in 2011 by relying on the 1991 census data… How can you fix such a limit when the per capita income varies from state to state?... The bench also questioned the Commission for fixing the per capita daily income of Rs. 20 in urban areas and Rs. 11 in rural areas to determine the BPL category…How can you justify fixation of this meager amount when even in the rural areas the amount is not enough”, further the Bench also extolled Deputy Chairman of Plan Panel to file a comprehensive affidavit in this regard. Now with such arbitrariness in determination and selection, isn’t the government is playing with the taxpayer’s money.

Milton Friedman once quipped about government spending,” There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government.” With such anomaly at the highest level which in fact will direct expenditure of billions of rupees, done with arbitrary manner, is it worthwhile to ask, whom the government is trying to please, itself by claiming poverty is down, its finances by claiming they are doing things efficiently or the electorates by providing benefits to chosen few and beating its chest to the rest about reduction in poverty.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” writes George Orwell in his famous book ‘Animal Farm’, today a poor might say, “All poor are equal, but some poor are more equal than others.”

© Tarun Mitra

1.      Mint, “Quick Edit | Uncommon incertitude”, May 20, 2011
2.      Mint, “UPA courts trouble with BPL census”, May 20, 2011
3.      Business Standard, “Cabinet approves BPL census”, May 20, 2011
4.      Mint, “SC slams govt over fixing BPL criteria”, April 20, 2011


SUB said...

great thought provoking post...

Tarun Mitra said...

Thanks Subrashish....:)...