Poverty of Sense

The farce that is the poverty line - dodgy calculations, assumptions and a total disconnect with ground reality.

ByBiraj Swain
Poverty of Sense
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The circus is back in town with an obscenely low poverty line and tall claims of poverty eradication. The Planning Commission has claimed poverty is at a record low of 22%, a first for India. And that poverty has declined by 15% since 2004-5. They have also defined that anyone who’s living and spending cost is more than Rs 33 in urban India and Rs 27 in rural India isn’t poor.

This at a time when:

  1. The last National Family Health Survey[1], 2004-5, claimed child malnutrition at 48% which was further aggravated by the Hunger and Malnutrition (HunGAMA) report at 58.8% for the poorest 100 districts. That the HunGAMA report was launched by the Prime Minister himself is worth mentioning.
  2. The census re-analysis by various experts pegs the exodus of farmers from farming at the rate of 2000/day.
  3. The Planning Commission’s own Institute of Applied Manpower and Research (the final word on employment numbers) says the manufacturing sector has shrunk and the service sector hasn’t worked any wonders in regard to job creation.
  4. Public investments in key sectors like agriculture, health, education and infrastructure have been shrinking.
  5. The Global Hunger Index ranks India as alarming and certain states of India as worse than conflict-ridden countries like Chad, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
  6. Food inflation in India has become an enduring enigma. The double digit food inflation has even surpassed inflation in emerging economies, BRICS (Brazil Russia India China and South Africa) block.
  7. The National Nutrition Monitoring Board claims over 37% of adult Indians have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18.5. (The World Health Organisation recommends any country with 40% adult population with BMI of less than 18.5 is famine afflicted). By those standards India has stable famine condition.

But we have managed to reduce poverty like never before. But this numerical, statistical jugglery has more than just cynical political dividends in mind. The grand narrative is grotesque insensitivity and a con job played out on Indians year after year.

Caloric definition of poverty: Going, going, gone…

Back in 1958, experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research calculated the minimum energy required by Indians to function in a productive and healthy manner. Taking the climate and the prevalent height of Indians into consideration, the stated dietary energy requirements were recommended at:

It is pertinent to mention that calorie as a sole criteria is minimalist in the first place. And India’s malnutrition burden is screaming evidence of that.

But when the Lakdawala Committee drew the first poverty line in 1974, while linking poverty with caloric requirements, they pegged it not at the threshold of the poor i.e. manual labourers who toil in the sun, but at the sedentary rate of 2100 for urban India and 2400 for rural India. To give credit where due though, the same committee also mentioned these as the non-negotiable amounts of energy/food guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and also recommended to revise it upwards as the economic prosperity of the country takes place.

However, when the Tendulkar Committee was constituted by the Planning Commission, it gave its poverty estimates and a method for poverty calculation by de-coupling poverty from caloric consumption. They arrived at an elaborate basket of goods consumed by the poor and relied on heavy recall by the poor during the survey exercise with recent and not-so-recent timelines. Also known as mixed recall period. Of course, the basket had food as a key component and the same food consumption manifested itself in the ultra-conservative avatar of 1800 calories. And Shri Tendulkar justified the same by invoking Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) recommendations and stating how the Indian consumption standards, though prima facie very low, are still better than FAO numbers.

So over 51 years (1958-2009), the manual labourers’ and “poors” person’s diet has shrunk on paper for statistical jugglery and economic spin-doctoring from 3900 calories to 1800 calories. The malnutrition burden of India makes Sub-Saharan Africa look developed in front of us!

If the benchmark is so low, then as long as you are alive – even if starving – will make you non-poor.

Counting the Poor: Committees, Commissions and Omissions:

Other than the original author, the Lakdawala Committee, and the recent-most currently valid author Tendulkar Committee, there have been numerous Committees in between too:

  • Arjun Sengupta Committee which informed us that 77% of Indians lived on less than Rs 20 a day and were really poor.
  • Justice Wadhwa Commission, which, as part of its engagement on the Right to Food litigation, commented that anyone earning less than Rs 100 needs to be considered poor.
  • NC Saxena Committee which suggested the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and the need for a broader, inclusive definition – as a result of which, the Socio Economic Caste Census is underway.
  • The committee under the chairmanship of our ex-federal banker, the governor of Reserve Bank of India, C Rangarajan which is currently grappling with the existential challenge of defining poverty and formulating a method to count the poor.

But way more important than any of the above committees, are the two young professionals who conducted a self-experiment of living on Rs 100 a day and went on to live on the official poverty line of Rs 32 and ended up losing 8 kgs of body weight. The Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy told them on record that the poverty line cannot be less than Rs 150 a day www.rs100aday.com!

All madness, no method

The brilliance of a science like Economics, which complicates and confuses with false assumptions, faulty reportage and semantics is that people who attempt to de-mystify it or make sense of it, are dubbed sub-par or plain naïve. It is no wonder then that the definition of the poor and the methods of counting them have defied logic. In 1983, the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 38th round asked a question on two square meals to the survey participants. It abandoned the same in the 55th round i.e. 1999-2000. What replaced the two square meals’ question was the consumer price index-linked amount. The manner in which food expenditure is under-represented in the consumer price index (for that matter even in the wholesale price index) calls for a separate study altogether.

A direct survey on food consumption re-surfaced in 2004, the 61st NSSO round, which also threw up that brilliant number of Rs 16 for the poor and if you spent Rs 93, you were rich.

Post Tendulkar, there is an extremely complicated method with an elaborate questionnaire which forces survey participants to use their memory to answer the question – quite similar to witnesses in the Indian criminal jurisprudence system. Now why is an elaborate process, precisely meant for keeping track of the poor, so complicated and inaccessible? Coincidence or design?

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics and…Economics? Vandalising the elite sciences

Alleviating poverty and hunger isn’t just important for political pyrotechnics but for absolute logical reasons, i.e. the gold standard, the best indicator for a functioning policy, programme, political manifesto and governance and the world-view that scripts those policies, programmes and manifesto et al. A better standard hasn’t yet been evolved.

If it is about poverty, doesn’t common sense suggest the poor need to be part of the exercise, both for determining the definition and suggesting the method of counting them? Naah, the superior set of economists and statisticians obsessing with their minutiae and weightage would consider that absolute blasphemy. It’s almost like swindling investment bankers. From US to UK to Asia, across shores and continents, the fat cats in various banks have been indicted for taking the most complex product to target and con the simplest of investors. The same theatrics plays out in India, year after year, though in macro-economics and public policy.

If it is all about the lived and the living experience of the poor and the marginalised, then where are they in this debate? Setting the terms or rules of the debate or being talked about and talked at? Unfortunately, it is the latter.

This at time when:

  • The world has come to recognise the multi-dimensional nature of poverty, we are still in the grips of economists and statisticians.
  • The 12th Five Year Plan itself recognises the limits of colonial, regressive indicators and calls for new accessible indicators and new set of data, statistics and narrative in agriculture and beyond.
  • The same Food and Agriculture Organisation is partnering with poll-pundits like Gallup to include the hungry in defining hunger.
  • There is uproar against the capture of the communities’ narrative by the privileged.
  • The same media, which celebrated the two software engineers Tushar Vashisht and Mathew Cherian who survived on Rs 100 to Rs 32 a day, have forgotten them in 2013 when the same poverty line farce is being played out.

If journalism is the public good as Chitra Subramaniam Duella reminds us, then perhaps the same media can begin with populating their Op-Eds and studio debates with the poor and the voices of the poor and break the strangle-hold of economists and statisticians. People don’t eat assumptions and poverty is not quelled with weightages and inscrutable methods. Perhaps vandalising the hegemony of these two sciences and questioning their assumptions and methods would be a good beginning. Media is best placed to force the agenda for democratising poverty metrics, pluralising the methods’ discourse – and its time the media rose up to the challenge.

Here’s to the day when the poor will be defining poverty in Planning Commission, populating television studios in panel discussions where deprivation is on the agenda and dictating Op-Eds in leading national dailies.


[1] The independent comprehensive survey measuring family health and access to services like vaccination, healthcare, water sanitation et al. It is the most trusted survey on malnutrition.

References:

  • Bajpai, Vikas and Swain, Biraj, Every Hungry Belly Counts, Governance Now, March 19, 2013
  • Bajpai, Vikas and Swain, Biraj, The State of Food Insecurity Report 2012 and the enigma of achieving Millennium Development Goals, Global Journal of Medicine and Public Health, Volume 2, Issue 3, July 2013 http://www.gjmedph.org/uploads/R2-Vo2No3.pdf
  • Chandrasekhar, C P, Food Price Levels and Volatility: Sources, Impact and Implications, IDS Bulletin, Special Issue 1, Wiley Blackwell, July 2012
  • Chandrasekhar, C P, Not a benign market: An analysis of food price inflation and volatility, Unpublished, October 2012
  • Mander, Harsh, Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger, Penguin Books, 2012
  • M, Kumaran and Swain, Biraj, Of False Premises, Faulty Reportage and Declining Hunger: Unravelling the Enigma, MacroScan, January 30, 2013
  • Nandan, Tirthesh, India afflicted by a stable famine condition, Governance Now, January 4, 2012
  • Smith, SE, Tarantino: A familiar story of minorities chained, The Guardian, January 7, 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/07/tarantino-minorities-chained-django-congo
  • Swain, Biraj and Kumaran, M, Who do ICDS and PDS Exclude and What can be Done to Change This?, IDS Bulletin, Special Issue 1, Wiley Blackwell, July 2012
  • www.rs100aday.com
  • Desai, Bhupat M et al (2013), Agriculture Policy Strategy Instruments and Implementation: A Review and Road Ahead, Volume XLVI, No 53, Economic and Political Weekly

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