Let’s not count the poor (seriously)
As someone recently commented on a Kafila post, we live in a post-fact world where there are no facts. Everyone believes what they want to. So depending on your ideology, poverty in India has reduced or increased. But such is the debate on poverty that the definition of poverty itself is subject to debate. How poor do you have to be, so that the government will say you are poor? This poverty debate has been on around the same lines for about ten years now, with the economic left arguing that India isn’t shining, and the economic centre-right arguing that millions of people have been lifted out of poverty by India’s super-successful economic growth. The debate will go on forever, there will be no certainty in numbers, and perhaps there shouldn’t be – perhaps counting the poor cheapens the issue of poverty. Counting the poor leads us to ask, what about the only -slightly-better-than-the-poor? Counting the poor leads us to compare poverty numbers and give us relief. Ah, only 30% Indian poor now, as opposed to 50% in such and such decade, nice! Great job India! No, this is not what the poor deserve, whether they are 30% or 50%. Perhaps we should stop counting the poor.
The Planning Commission says 5 crore Indians have been lifted out of poverty.
…poverty across the country declined by 7.3 percentage points from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10. In absolute terms, there were 35.5 crore poor people in 2009-10 against 40.7 crore five years earlier.
This led to some hard chest-thumping on the internet and elsewhere yesterday. But the Times of India reveals the Planning Commission reached these figures by simply lowering the poverty benchmark – again!
The new estimates are based on a poverty line that averages Rs 672.8 per month (Rs 22.43 per day) in rural areas and Rs 859.6 per month (Rs 28.65 per day) in urban areas for 2009-10. In a state like Delhi, the urban poverty line translates to Rs 34.67 per person per day.
In the Supreme Court, the government had submitted that the updated poverty line was likely to be Rs 26 per day in rural areas and Rs 32 per day in the towns in June 2011. [Read the full article]
At this rate the Planning Commission will one day make he poverty benchmark in the negative, if that was possible.
Here’s a better benchmark of poverty figures, if we really need them. The mobile phone is today a necessity and when you travel in rural India you realise only the very poor don’t have a mobile phone. Recently, the 2011 Census of India (more trustworthy an organisation than the Planning Commission any day) revealed that 63.2% households (not individuals) have a phone, mobile or landline. Which means 36.8% people are too poor to have a mobile phone, a basic necessity today after roti, kapda makaan (food, clothes and housing).
By contrast, 53.1% households do not have a toilet – for the simple reason that it costs much more to build a toilet than to buy a mobile phone. Which is a comment on the opacity of poverty figures – forget the technical definitions, forget the ‘below’ and ‘above’ poverty line ration cards. In popular parlance, poverty figures give the impression that there are people who are poor and then there are people who are not poor.
So you could say nearly 37% Indian households are poor, not 30%, as the Planning Commission would have us believe. But then 53% Indian households don’t even have a toilet – so those among them who can afford a phone, what use being thought of as non-poor?
It is because of the farcical nature of the debate over growth and poverty figures in India that we have a situation that despite high GDP growth rate in the much-celebrated state of Bihar, the official poverty decline there has been negligible and the state has been granted an increase in the number of people it can classify as poor.
End the farce. Forget poverty numbers, have universal PDS. Those who can afford better quality rice will not buy Rs. 2 a kg rice from a government ration shop. Just as you don’t ask people whether they have a Below Poverty Line ration card before giving them free healthcare, you don’t need to count them to give them subsidised foodgrain. That is essential to make sure that while poor Indians try to come out of poverty, they have food to eat. We should worry less about counting the poor and far more about delivering the services than can alleviate poverty.
And then let’s count how many Indians earn how much. Here’s a graphic from, again, the Times of India, that shows that only 1.2% of Indians have a household income (not individual income) of more than Rs 30,000 a month, and less than 10% have a household income of more than Rs. 10,000 a month. Thanks to Madhukar Shukla for pointing me towards this graphic.