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Millennium Post

UPA romancing with poverty

Why make so much fuss about India’s poor and the government’s so-called poverty alleviation programmes? Under the Planning Commission definition, even rag pickers may not qualify to be identified as ‘poor.’ It isn’t easy to define poverty, leave alone attaching an income benchmark to it, in a highly complex and predominantly impoverished society such as India and the sundry nature of jobs that the poor – urban or rural – are forced to take up to stay alive. In fact, the poor are those who earn to stay alive and not live in the true sense of the term. The poor are those who would do any menial job that earns him or her and the dependents, if any, at least two ordinary full meals a day, a shed above head and something to wear to hide their shame. Anything beyond these, including a tiny dug-up area with three sides covered by plastic sheets, leaves or thatched walls for use as independent toilet, may be considered luxury to him or her. In urban areas, it is often a common sight that a good number of the poor poop on the sidewalk daily before sunrise. In rural areas, they often walk distance to use open fields, bushes, forests and water bodies to ease themselves. However, none of them would fit into the Planning Commission box strictly meant for the poor.

Barring child workers who generally make around Rs 35-50, after selling labour for over 12 hours a day, most adult male or female minions engaged in jobs such as rag-pickers, head-loaders, rickshaw-pullers, cart-pushers, farm-hands, cobblers, shoe-shine boys, hawkers, tea-boys, full and part-time domestic helps, cleaners, peons and bearers in small establishments and gardeners among other low-paid trades earn Rs 100-140 a day. Generally, they live in shanties under extreme unhygienic conditions and are forced to part with good amount of income on fighting diseases and ailments which are most common around such dwellings forcing many to be frequently out of work and income. Almost all of them are forced to repay some sundry loans every month. With minimum fare in public transport in most places being Rs 6 for a single trip, what they are often left with is pittance. With age, they look more famished and undernourished. A ceaseless fight for existence marks their daily routine. If these people are not poor, what are they?

Ironically, these poor urban and rural destitute, who comprise nearly 60 per cent of the population, have kept our democratic system alive. These helpless victims of social injustice and governmental neglect are the real source of power of our politicians who rule the nation. They form an overwhelming section of voters in our electoral system – in gram panchayat, municipality, state legislature and Lok Sabha Elections – where average voting rate rarely exceeds 70 per cent. Over the years, they have become a pet subject of hair-splitting intellectual debate and governmental research to broad-brand their economic status. The subjects at issue are on predictable lines: what percentage of them should be placed at ‘below the poverty line’ (BPL) and what percentage ‘above the poverty line’ (APL)? And, what should be the criterion and the colour of pencil to demarcate the two sensitive lines?

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that to those globe-trotting, high-living, glasshouse economists in the Planning Commission and honourable members of the union cabinet highly concerned about fixing right poverty yardsticks for BPL and APL, not all these urban or rural people passing their days in despicable conditions and continuously struggling to stay alive deserve to be branded as poor. In fact, going by their statistical measure stick, there is hardly anyone in the country, including beggars, who would qualify to be poor. Most beggars – rural or urban – earn over Rs 35-50, daily, exceeding the Planning Commission’s poverty benchmark.

Recent public statements by senior Congressmen and public representatives claimed that the cost of an ordinary working-class full meal varies from as low as Rs 2 in Delhi, Rs 6 in Lucknow to Rs 12 in Mumbai. Given the fact that the average daily income of an able-bodied rural and urban worker is being around Rs 120, these politicians may feel that few deserve to be branded as truly poor. And, one can certainly find some liberal justification in the Planning Commission’s latest poverty estimates for the country showing a sharp decline in the incidence of poverty by 7.3 per cent over the past five years while stating that anyone with a daily consumption expenditure of Rs 28.35 and Rs 22.42 in urban and rural areas respectively is above the poverty line.

Can consumption expenditure shrink with higher retail price inflation? Logically, ‘no’. But, highly qualified and merited government economists think such a contradictory position is absolutely possible. This could explain the Planning Commission’s affidavit in the Supreme Court in October in which the BPL cap was pegged at an expenditure of Rs 32 in urban areas and Rs 26 in rural locations by an individual at the going rate of inflation in 2010-2011. The food and other wage goods inflation rates have spiraled since. But, the BPL expenditure benchmark is brought down.

Government economists claim rural poverty has declined by eight percentage points, from 41.8 to 33.8 per cent, and urban poverty by 4.8 per cent, from 25.7 per cent to 20.9 per cent. At the national level, anyone in the rural areas earning Rs 672.8 per month or Rs 22.42 per day and Rs 859.6 per month or Rs 28.35 per day in the urban area is above the poverty line. The total number of BPL population is 35.46 crore as against 40.72 crore in 2004-2005. In rural areas, the number fell from 32.58 crore five years ago to 27.82 crore and the urban BPL number dropped from 8.14 crore to 7.64 crore during this period.

The latest National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) expenditure data shows that 90 per cent of rural Indians spend less than Rs 70 per day, while 90 per cent of urban Indians spend less than Rs 154 per day. Logically, they must be earning that much per day to cover their expenditure. Then, why is this fuss over the government concern for ‘food security’ for 67 per cent of the country’s population when an ordinary full meal can be had for Rs 2 or Rs 12? At such prices, expenditure on food by 90 per cent of the population would vary roughly from 1.5 per cent to three per cent of their daily spend. Going by the statements by knowledgeable senior Congress leaders and statistical presentations by government economists and NSSO, at least 90 per cent Indians would appear to be capable of taking care of their own food security unless those learned men are poking fun at India’s poor. Pitifully, politicians have always been playing the poor as pawns before the polls. IPA
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