Who is poor in India?
NDA government must decide the answer before it's too late
That is the question the NDA government will have to answer soon
FOUR YEARS ago, India’s poverty line and the methodology to identify a below poverty line (bpl) family to direct welfare programmes made headlines, but for the wrong reasons. While ` 1,86,000 crore was wasted by not auctioning spectrum, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (upa) government had the audacity to claim that ` 18 per day was an adequate income to define the poverty line that will decide entitlement to welfare programmes. Given the startling sum of public money that was being lost in various scams, there was public and media outrage over anything that was anti-poor, including poverty line estimates.
That was the beginning of a long debate on deciding a bpl family. It triggered the Socio Economic and Caste Census (secc) in 2011. This particular survey has included caste census after 80 years. The survey will not only bring out economic status but also indicate which caste is doing well economically.
The National Democratic Alliance (nda) government recently released the secc report, but it did not include the caste data. It is on the basis of this report that the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp)-led government will target its welfare measures. But first, the government must decide who is poor in India.
The indications are not encouraging. First, the government has not released the caste data while releasing broad economic data. The survey means little without caste-wise segregation of the economic status data. Is the government under pressure to not disclose the caste information? There are media reports alleging that bjp’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is not in support of any caste-driven welfare programme. Meanwhile, with Assembly polls due in Bihar later this year, bjp may not like to hand over an explosive political weapon to opponents in the states known for their identity politics.
Secondly, the survey was undertaken to allow states to use the data to define their own parameters for declaring a person or a household poor. When the survey report was released, both the Union finance and rural development ministers did not say anything on how the data would be used.In recent times, states have been given fiscal autonomy to draft their own welfare programmes. If at all the states are going to use the survey data for identifying bpl households, will the Centre accept this as it involves proportionate money? If the Union government leaves the use of data to the states, we will most likely have a new list of bpl households in the future to claim entitlements to welfare programmes. Most of India’s poorest states are under nda’s rule. This may trigger internal conflict as the Centre often does not accept the states’ estimate of bpl households.
Thirdly, who will determine the poverty line? Until now, the erstwhile Planning Commission used to define the line based on consumption expenditure data of the National Sample Survey Office. There is no clarity on whether this practice will be stopped as another body—niti Aayog—has replaced the Planning Commission. The new body has set up a taskforce to deliberate on poverty estimation. That the government’s confusion over the poverty line will continue is clear from a recent media statement of Arvind Panagariya, vice-chairperson of niti Aayog. “I do not think the conventional poverty analysis based on the expenditure surveys loses its significance in any way, but given what we have from the Socio Economic and Caste Census, we do need to think whether we additionally need a separate official poverty line based on expenditure surveys.At the moment, this is an open question with which we will be grappling as we carry forward the work of the taskforce,” Panagariya told the media.
It could be nda’s upa moment if the former repeats the latter’s history.
TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE