Definitions of BPL and food security
An obstacle race for the poor

Radhika Menon

What is the magical figure that can ensure that the poor survive in India? Rs 446.68? Rs 578.80? 2100 calories? 2400 calories? 25 kilograms of grain? Or Rs 90 a kilogram for dal? As a soup of figures get made, the Manmohan Singh’s government has created an obstacle race for the poor so that they can compete to prove their poverty.
The government has been always reluctant to agree on the who the poor are (even when it is starkly apparent) because it would contradict its claims of growth. Yet, it is an accepted fact within the Ministries and the States that official poverty figures are far below the existing levels. But neo-liberal economics and politics of the UPA government has meant redefining not only who the poor are, but also redefining welfare measures.
The estimation of poverty in the country is currently made by the Planning Commission both at the national and the state level. This is based on the Consumer expenditure carried out by National Sample Survey Organization. The Planning Commission had earlier in the year given out a figure of 28.3 percent of rural households as being Below Poverty Line, based on 2004-05 figures. This estimate had been made on the basis of the recommendations made by the Expert Group (on Estimation of Proportion and Number of Poor) led by Professor Lakdawala and accepted in 1997 by the Government of India. The figures generated by the suggested methodology however has provided more controversies than welfare as it has kept out large sections of the needy poor from the ambit of schemes for BPL.
The controversies surrounding the figures forced the current government to constitute an expert group to identify the methodology for conducting a survey of BPL households eligible for the Ministry of Rural Development’s schemes. The expert group headed by N.C. Saxena submitted its report in August 2009 and came up with figures that have proved inconvenient for a government which has been in denial mode. It estimated that 50 percent of the rural poor households are living below poverty line based on a calorie intake of 2100 necessary for healthy living in urban areas and a cereal intake of 12.25 kg, which is is still less than what the top 50 percent of the population consumes. It also acknowledges that this is less than the most likely figure of 80 percent of the households, had calculations been made on the basis of calorie intake of 2400, which was what was considered as essential for healthy living in rural areas.
The Saxena Report states that the number of food deficit people is double the number of officially declared poor within the country. It has noted that that the monetary cut-off line for BPL fixed by the Planning Commission – as per the Lakdawala Report’s recommendations – after adjusting for inflation, is much lower than what exists in reality, thus excluding people desperately in need of subsidized food and other benefits. Similarly, it finds that while poverty figures had been reduced over the years, there has been no decline in the number of people consuming less calories than required for healthy living. The deprivation of the rural poor is evident from studies on cereal consumption which show that the bottom 10 percent of rural population actually consumes less cereals compared to the top 10 percent of the population. This, inspite the fact that the rich have a variety of food which is more nutritious besides not being dependent on grain alone for their calories and being less engaged in less physical activity and heavy labour. The rural poor are also increasingly spending on other heads like education and health at the cost of reducing their food intake.
While the higher figures are more in line with what people’s organizations have been saying about poverty all these years, and also closer to other health indicators on poverty, the Saxena Report indicates that the government had wanted it to cap poverty by increasing it at the most by 20 percent (p11). Such a measure reveals the sheer arbitrariness that guides government policy on the crucial question of survival of the poor. This is appalling also because another expert group, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, headed by Arjun Sengupta in 2007 had found that 836 million people in the country – 77 percent of the population – lived on less than Rs 20 a day. It is also no secret that the United Nations Development Index has placed India at a rank of 132, below Bhutan! And that the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research has placed Indian at the 65th position from amongst 88 developing countries!
In the hurry to withdraw the State from welfare measures, the government which swears by the Constitution, abandoned the Constitutional Obligations of the Directive Principles of State Policy besides compromising citizens’ Right to Life. It has done so by restricting universal entitlement, shrinking it to fit narrower and narrower sections in the name of poverty alleviation through the targeted approach. The BPL surveys and studies have been primarily used to redefine ‘the poor’ and reduce their numbers. Thus, when the Saxena report came out in August 2009, with the still inconvenient figure of 50 per cent, the government adopted the ploy of waiting for the report of another Expert Group.
Subsequently another report was released in November 2009, by an expert group led by Suresh Tendulkar for estimating poverty, which has found the all-India rural headcount ratio to be 41.8 percent and urban poverty to be 25.7 percent. These figures are closer to the World Bank figures on poverty within India. States like Bihar have a rural poverty reference line of 55.7 percent and Orissa of 60.8 percent. Bihar also has the highest urban poverty at 43.7 percent. The committee has also revised the poverty line in terms of money spent per person per month. From Rs 356.30 a month, this has been increased to Rs 446.68 in rural areas and for urban areas this has increased from Rs 538.60 to Rs 578.8. It has also recommended considering the expenditure on food as well as education, health, and clothing. While the move to incorporate various dimensions of poverty is a step ahead, there are other issues here. The daily expenditure comes to Rs 15 per capita in rural areas and Rs 19 in urban areas, lower than the Rs 20 mark of the World Bank marked as international poverty line. The monthly per capita figure to be above poverty line is appallingly minuscule in the current context of skyrocketing prices, recession-led unemployment and distress migration. A family of four living in Delhi, earning Rs 2400 would be deemed above the poverty line but given the context of their lives, the children would be going to school, dal prices hover at Rs 90 a kilogram and even travel of less than 10 kilometers daily by public transport bus costs nothing less then Rs 20 daily for a to and fro journey per person. Thus the abandonment of calorie as an indicator is indeed very arbitrary and not in keeping with nutritional studies.
Yet even the Tendulkar Committee calculation would require the Government to acknowledge that 37.2 percent of the population is BPL and to allocate an additional Rs 37000 crores for food subsidy. The Department of Food and Public Distribution under Sharad Pawar circulated the Draft Guidelines on (Criteria) for identifying the BPL households even before the full version of Tendulkar Committee was out. Pawar in fact warned that if states were to have their way, the BPL population would be as (unacceptably, he implied) high as 80-85% of India’s total population. Earlier in the year the Planning Commission had complained that only 6.1 crore households are eligible for BPL criteria, while the states have distributed 10.68 crore cards.
The elusiveness of BPL is sought to be implanted on the Right to Food Bill proposed by the government. As prices of essential items and unemployment rise, the UPA government has formulated a a band-aid for the bleeding wound of its creation through the ‘Proposed National Food Security Act – a Concept Note’ circulated by the Ministry of Food and Public Distribution among State Governments. It declares that the Central Government alone will have the prerogative to fix the numbers of BPL households and has asked the States to put a cap on the number of Below Poverty Line (BPL) beneficiaries under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The Bill seeks to make it mandatory for the lists to be reviewed annually. It also seeks to replace the existing schemes with the proposed law. The NREGA which subsumed other programmes without an increase in the allocations also did something similar. In July 1997 when the PDS was replaced with TPDS, the government had promised 35kg grain at subsidized rates to the BPL through Antyodaya Anna Yojana but now through the Bill, only 25 kg grain will be provided at Rs 3. Notably some state governments are giving grain at Rs 2 a kg. The UPA government is thus planning to snatch away what little people already have.
The game of excluding the poor from the poverty lists by arbitrary fixing of BPL ceiling from the Centre must end. A simple method of calculating poverty should be adopted, ensuring the automatic inclusion of various vulnerable sections. Instead of pushing for targeted approach which is only a ploy for the government to retreat from its social responsibilities, what is called for is universal entitlements of food through the PDS (not only grain but also cooking oil, fuel and kerosene, pulses and other proteins). Along with universalisation, schemes like Annapoorna Yojana with special provisions for BPL families must continue and it must be ensured that at least 10 percent of the people in each panchayat, living in extreme cases of hunger are provided grain free of cost, not merely subsidised grain, as they are unable to purchase even this. Multi dimensionality of poverty calls for ensuring that access to education, health and food must be universal, augmented with special provisions for those with special needs. All the cries on inadequacy of sources by the government is a sham as corporate revenue waivers indicate. The tax waivers and concessions provided in the budget of 2009 (revenues foregone) by UPA amounts to a total of Rs 4,18,095 crore. Thus, it is only the poor alone who are being subjected to jargon jugglery and 'target' practice.