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Reading Between the Poverty Lines

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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.

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									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.



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, as an exercise 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 1776 for urban and 1999 for rural, per person per day)
compares well with the revised calorie norms of 1770 per person per day set by the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) for India. 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 1770 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 physical 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 1776 calories per day or dig NREGA trenches at 1999 calories per day, consuming
those respective diets day in day out? It would be an ideal world if that were to happen. The tragedy is
that today we live in one 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 the 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 care to consider the FAO's own warning? The recommended daily dietary intake in India should
rather be that which has been devised by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for
maintaining health and consistent body weight, i.e. 2425 calories (sedentary work) to 3800 calories
(heavy work) for men a

								
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