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Of an India behind the new poverty ratio

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Mural titled 'In the name of development', at Jawaharlal Nahru University, New Delhi

Mural titled ‘In the name of development’, at Jawaharlal Nahru University, New Delhi

New poverty claims from the government of India are being interpreted as (a) proof that the economic liberalisation is working, (b) that the ruling coalition has begun its preparation for the 2014 general election by claiming the largest percentage reduction of poverty ever, (c) that the ruling coalition by lowering the poverty line (and therefore the number of Indians identified as poor) will slash its social subsidies outlay, (d) that the way India measures poverty is desperately in need of repair, if not altogether in need of renewal.

The new state poverty lines table (see below for xls link)

The new state poverty lines table (see below for xls link)

India’s English-language media (in particular the financial and business press) has either repeated what the Planning Commission has released, or has reported reactions to the latest claim from opposition parties. Here is a selection:

“The proportion of people living below poverty line (BPL) has came down from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12 — a decline of 15.3 percentage points in a period that roughly coincides with the first eight years of the United Progressive Alliance.”
“The sharp drop was attributed to the high real growth in recent years, which raised the consumption capacity. The number of India’s poor fell to less than a quarter of its population in 2011-12, giving the government a reason to cheer amid the recent raft of disappointing macro economic data.”
“Over the last decade, poverty has witnessed a consistent decline with the levels dropping from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10. The number of poor is now estimated at 269.3 million, of which 216.5 million reside in rural India.”
“One theory is that this is the outcome of the trickle-down impact of the record growth witnessed in the first decade of the new millennium.”
“The BJP slammed the figures as a ‘political gimmick’ and a ‘conspiracy’ of the Congress to deprive the poor of the benefits of government schemes while CPI(M) said it amounted to ‘adding salt to the wounds of the poor’.”

It was only last year, in 2012 June, that the Planning Commission constituted an ‘expert group’ chaired by a former head of the Reserve Bank of India to “review the methodology for the measurement of poverty”. In the hoary tradition of Indian bureaucratese, this expert group is now “deliberating on this issue” (said the Planning Commission) and is expected to submit its report by the middle of 2014.

What is the main substance of the new claim? The note from the Planning Commission (titled ‘Press Note on Poverty Estimates, 2011-12’ and dated July 2013) has stated that the “percentage of persons below the poverty line in 2011-12 has been estimated as 25.7% in rural areas, 13.7% in urban areas and 21.9% for the country as a whole”. [A spreadsheet with the new statewise rural and urban poverty lines is available here.]

Government-friendly infographics from a financial newspaper

Government-friendly infographics from a financial newspaper

Thereafter the myth of the descending poverty line is outlined: that in 2004-05 the respective poverty ratios for the rural and urban areas were 41.8% and 25.7% and 37.2% for the country; that in 1993-94 the ratios were 50.1% in rural areas, 31.8% in urban areas and 45.3% for the country. And, in triumphant tones, that hence the 407 million Indians below the poverty line in 2004-05 had by 2011-12 dwindled dramatically to 270 million – a reduction of 137 million persons over a short seven years! And that indeed, it is all the more significant that for the last eight years it is the UPA (that is, the Congress) that has ruled India. So flows the polemic.

In the eagerness to find ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ and a ‘national’ poverty line, the tales of the deciles of the NSS surveys, referred to only fleetingly, are of importance (for the 43rd, 50th, 55th, 61st, 66th and 68th rounds, all of which we hope are being studied by the Rangarajan expert group). The deciles in the 68th round tell us that in rural India, the average monthly expenditure per person of Rs 153 on cereals would buy 7.3 kg of rice or 8.5 kg of wheat, and that the Rs 40 spent per person on pulses would buy 0.85 kg of pulses, both monthly measures (outside the fair price shop) being well under (13.8 kg and 1.2 kg respectively) the recommended dietary allowances.