Gimmick with figures

The government likes to show as few people as possible under BPL because it seeks to target its welfare spending only to the 'poor'.

The government likes to show as few people as possible under  BPL because it seeks to target its welfare spending only to the ‘poor’.

The opinions of economists do not converge on the poverty trends in the country. Some are peeved at the very suggestion that the poor are becoming poorer (see Alok Ray’s article, ‘The debate continues’, in Deccan Herald, November 13, 2013). They have their own strong arguments and data to prove their point. There are others who are highly critical of this view and show the poverty has been deepening year after year. They, too, show clinching evidence and make a very strong analysis of the data gathered. 

Although these expert analyses are not intelligible to lay minds, the common experience and the simple facts and figures coming from other sources including from government and international agencies make them know that the official data on poverty are terribly flawed.

Look at the Planning Commission’s estimates of poverty, found in its press note dated July 22, 2013. Based on Suresh Tendulkar’s methodology, only 21.9 per cent of the population numbering 269.3 million, are below poverty line in 2010-11, a 15.3 per cent fall (or 137.8 million fewer poor) in seven years since 2004-05.

Not going much into the details, a person with the income, less than Rs.816 per month if living in rural area and Rs.1,000 per month if  in urban areas, is considered poor. People with the incomes above that level are not. 

But a recent report of the World Bank says as high as 53 per cent of Indians – about 640 million - do not have a latrine of their own. Then, doesn’t it suggest that 370 million (640 minus 270) among those defecate in the open are not poor? 

 Census 2011 gave more details: 53.1 per cent households did not have a latrine facility in their premises and all those 47 per cent households who had that luxury did not have a water closet in their latrines; only 36 per cent of them had.


There are similar other data which shows that a large number of people above government poverty line suffer from many deprivations. UNICEF’s finding shows 48 per cent of the children being stunted in growth due to chronic under nutrition. Doesn’t this suggest millions of ‘non-poor’ in this country are not able to adequately feed their children?

The National Family Health Survey-3 (2005-06) found 78.9 per cent of the children in the age group 6-35 months and 56.2 per cent of the married women in the age group 15-49 years were anaemic. This indicates millions of people over and above the official number of poverty line are suffering from anaemia caused by nutritional deficiency. 

Then many so called rich do not have concrete structures to live in as per census data. Only 29 per cent of the houses have concrete roof and the rest of them have other material like grass, thatch, mud, tiles etc. So some of those above poverty line must definitely be living in the huts.

Similarly, only 47.5 per cent of the houses are built with burnt bricks and rest of them have mud, stone or grass walls. Only 10.8 per cent of them have mosaic or floor-tiles and 46.5 per cent just have the mud flooring. In remaining houses cement, stone or other material is used. Likewise, 3.9 per cent of the houses have no rooms at all while 37.1 per cent have single room in them.

Only 32 per cent of the people are lucky to use tap water from treated source and  47 per cent of the household have some source within their premises. The list of misery is endless. As many as 375 million people use kerosene for lighting purpose. Some 508 million people do not have bathing facility at their homes while 49 nine per cent of the households do not have drainage facility. Only 56 per cent of the households have a kitchen in their home. Only 28.5 per cent households use LPG for cooking; rest of the people – that is more than 70 per cent  of the people – use fire wood, cow dung cakes etc for cooking purpose. Only five per cent households have cars and 21 per cent have two wheelers – motor cycles, scooters and mopeds. 

All this suggests that the official data does not show the real face of the poverty. There is a need to look at other sources to find the truth. Fortunately there are alternative estimates. Arjun Sengupta committee of 2009 said as high as 77 per cent of the people were below poverty line. The World Bank data suggest that 32.7 per cent or 400 million people are living on less than $1.25 a day in 2010 and 68.7 per cent or 841 million get less than $ 2 a day and 992 million live on less than $ 2.5 a day.

It is, therefore clear, that the government likes to show as few people as possible below poverty line because it seeks to target its welfare spending – food, health, education and the like – only to the ‘poor’. If more people climb above poverty line its fiscal burden would proportionately get reduced. So, it wants to play the gimmick of seeking to lower the poverty line itself when it fails to push the people above that line. This is why we see some of the officially defined rich living in the huts and defecating in the open. After all, it doesn’t behove a true welfare state to do all this fudging!

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