Kaun Banega BPL :Planning Commission’s Poverty of Sensitivity

Following national outrage against the Planning Commission’s Rs 26/Rs32 poverty line, the UPA Government went for some damage control. It was announced that the Planning Commission poverty lines would not be used to fix PDS allocation caps. But has the UPA Government’s policy towards poverty and the poor really undergone any change?  
In effect, the Planning Commission and Government’s position now is as follows: the poverty line remains the same; but PDS beneficiaries will not be limited to those below this line. The Tendulkar Committee recommendations (based on which the poverty line has been calculated) had estimated around 33% of the total population to be poor; the PDS will, according to the Planning Commission, cover around 41% of the total population in the ‘priority’ category, and 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population in the ‘non-priority’ category. A Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) conducted by the Rural Development Ministry is underway to determine who is eligible for the priority category. (The census criteria for gauging deprivation are deeply flawed: see ‘Making a Mockery of Poverty’, Liberation July 2011). 
Montek’s Musings     
The UPA Government was forced to step back from the Planning Commission’s affidavit which had fixed the benchmark for poverty identification at Rs 26 in rural areas and Rs 32 in urban areas. But Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia has defended that poverty line many times since then. Montek is hurt and injured that the PC’s poverty line has been misrepresented and misunderstood. 
“The fact is that Rs 4,824 per month for a family (of five persons) to define poverty is not comfortable but it is not all that ridiculous from Indian conditions,” said Montek in a letter to Attorney General Vahanvati who is to represent the PC in the Supreme Court in the right to food case.
The Tendulkar Committee’s poverty line, updated for 2011 prices, came to Rs 3,905 for a family of five in rural areas and Rs 4,824 in urban areas. Montek said the problem began because the media converted the figure into daily per capita figures, “which makes it appear very low.”

India 67th in hunger list of 81 countries

India stands at the 67th spot among 81 nations listed (in the decreasing order) by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in its recently released global hunger index (GHI) report 2011. GHI is calculated considering two factors apart from child malnourishment: child mortality rate and the proportion of the population considered calorie deficient. IFPRI reports that the low socioeconomic and health status of women has been pushing the child malnourishment figure up. According to the report, Bangladesh, India, and Timor-Leste have the highest prevalence of underweight in children younger than five – the figure is more than 40 percent in all three countries.

In other words, Montek felt that the monthly family allowance figure was not so stark and shocking (i.e its ‘appearance’ would not shock polite society). Why, Montek feels, did the social activists and media have to be uncooperative and unreasonable enough to unpack this figure and break it down into its component parts, exposing just how meagre and pitifully inadequate it was?!
Montek also said that Rs 26/Rs. 32 per day seemed like a ‘cruel joke’ only if they were mistakenly taken to apply for a family, not an individual. In other words, Rs 26/32 per person per day is still an acceptable benchmark for poverty according to Montek!
‘Adequacy’ and ‘Severe Stress’
Montek’s press release “emphasised that the Tendulkar poverty line is not meant to be an acceptable level of living for the aam aadmi. This is clearly a level below which families are under severe stress, which is the basis of giving them exceptional support as embedded in various poverty amelioration policies including subsidised food and other facilities. The level is low and therefore families slightly above the poverty line are also vulnerable.”
But this is not what the Planning Commission’s affidavit and the Tendulkar Committee report had argued not long ago. The PC’s affidavit in the Supreme Court had said that the Tendulkar Committee’s “recommended poverty lines ensure the adequacy of actual private expenditure near the poverty lines on food, education and health.” How come what was an ‘adequate’ amount for food, education and health just the other day according to the PC, is now admitted by the same PC to be a level of ‘severe stress’ a couple of weeks later? Clearly, the PC and its experts lied in terming a painfully low amount to be ‘adequate’ – and only when people refused to swallow that outrageous lie, they were forced to rephrase and modify their stance.   
Why Defend the Same Poverty Line?
Montek’s excuses and explanations cannot hide the real intention of the UPA Government’s ‘planners.’ Mr. Montek, no one misunderstood the Planning Commission to be saying that those living below Rs 26/Rs32 were living comfortably; or that those amounts were stretched to cater to a family, not a person. What outraged people, is that according to your Planning Commission’s affidavit, all those above this extremely low line were considered ‘not poor’! 

70 percent families in rural Bihar routinely go hungry
Around seventy per cent of rural households in Bihar are routinely forced to skip meals due to high levels of poverty, a new study has revealed.
The study by the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi was conducted to assess the effectiveness of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in nine states.
Seventy per cent of the total rural populace interviewed during the study said they had gone to beds with empty stomach several times in the past. 1,200 poor families were interviewed, many of whom said they had not eaten pulses, fruits, eggs or meat for several weeks.

The hunger levels in some other states were as follows, according to this study: 7 per cent in Uttar Pradesh; 16 per cent in Andhra Pradesh; 17 per cent in Chhattisgarh, 9 per cent in Orissa; 26 per cent in Jharkhand; 36 per cent in Rajasthan.

A ‘poverty line’ is a benchmark to separate the poor from the non-poor. How should it be computed? One method was to fix an accepted nutritional standard of food (say, a certain number of calories), and then say that those whose purchasing power is unable to afford this minimum are poor. This method has many problems, since of course, the number of calories does not guarantee adequate nutrition (i.e one may get all one’s calories from rice, but be unable to afford vegetables, milk and other nutritional requirements necessary for good health).
Another way is to fix the normative minimum standards of dignified living – including all nutritional requirements, cooking fuel, education, health, transport, housing, clothing, water, electricity, sanitation, spending on life-cycle rituals (marriages, funerals etc) and so on. Those whose purchasing power is unable to support this minimum standard of living would be considered poor.
The PC affidavit stresses that the Tendulkar Committee consciously delinked poverty from calorie intake norms, and therefore came up with a more generous poverty line. But whatever methodology was used by the PC ‘experts,’ Montek is now having to admit that their ‘poverty line’ of Rs 26/Rs 32 per person per day does not represent the ability to meet minimum calorie norms; far less food, education and health norms; and even less so a truly dignified standard of living. It is merely a level at which people live in ‘severe stress’ – and even Montek admits that those above this line too live in stress! If those below and even above this benchmark are unable to meet basic needs of survival, let alone dignified living, why is Montek continuing to defend this benchmark as a ‘poverty line’?
The PC strategy seems to be to ‘test the waters’ and see how low a poverty line people are willing to swallow. With the Rs 26/Rs 32 line they suppressed the poverty line to below subsistence. That line – especially when used as a benchmark to decide who would qualify for food subsidies – was such that even apologists for the Government could not defend it. So now the PC allows that even families “slightly above the poverty line” may need food subsidies and other social welfare measures. There is to be no radical alteration of the methods of identifying and supporting the poor. The same shameful poverty line will just be relaxed “slightly” to allow coverage of a small extra segment of the population!
When the Tendulkar Committee said that in their estimation, 37% of the population was poor, there was little outrage. The ‘expert’ estimation must be broadly correct, was the general feeling – and anyway it was higher than the existing official poverty line which said 32% of the population was poor.  Under some questioning by the Supreme Court, the PC spelt out how the Tendulkar Committee had arrived at this estimation. It stood revealed that 37% of the population stood below the Rs 26/Rs 32 benchmark – those above this benchmark had not been recognised as poor. Seen in this light, the government’s method of calculating poverty lines stood exposed as morally unacceptable – and therefore politically costly. The emperor, it was clear, had no clothes. The Government’s ‘concern for the food security of the poor’ stood stripped naked.

Norms for Minimum Wage and Dignified Existence
According to the 15th ILC, in calculating the minimum wage:
•         The standard working class family is assumed to include two adults and two children.
•         Minimum food requirement to be taken as a balanced diet of 2,700 calories per day per consumption unit;
•         Clothing requirement to be based on per capita consumption of 18 yards per annum, which gives 72 yards per annum for the average worker’s family;
•         For housing, the rent corresponding to the minimum area provided for under the government’s industrial housing schemes should be taken; fuel, lighting and other items of expenditure should constitute 20 per cent of the total minimum wage.

Upholding these norms in the Unichoy vs State of Kerala verdict in 1961, the Supreme Court in the Reptakos Brett Vs Workmen verdict in 1991 added another norm: 25% of the total minimum wage, to cover children’s education, medical treatment, recreation, festivals and ceremonies.

Just to make us forget that inconvenient glimpse of the callousness of poverty estimates, the Government now says, we’re willing to be generous enough to allow 41% of the people into the BPL club.
If it is truly shameful for a society to ask people to survive on Rs 26/Rs 32 per person per day, will it change matters if that figure is modified somewhat so that it seems a little less shameful? Will it really help matters to haggle to raise the levels of accepted poor from 37% to 41% of the population?
The outrage over the Rs 26/Rs 32 poverty lines should be taken to its logical conclusion. We need to pose the whole poverty question in a completely different way. The Government is asking, “How can we minimise the number of people we officially recognise as poor (and thereby suppress the expenditure on subsidies)?” Instead we need to ask, “What is a dignified standard of living? What do we need to do to ensure that all people are able to maintain this minimum standard of dignified existence (not subsistence survival)?”
Norms for a Dignified Life
Article 43 of India’s Constitution lays down that “(t)he state shall endeavour to secure by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities”.
Way back in 1957, the norms evolved by the Indian Labour Conference had stated that minimum wages should be enough to cover all basic needs of a worker’s family, including food, clothing, shelter and other amenities. The Supreme Court upheld these norms and expanded them in 1991. (see Box)  
In India, the broad masses of people certainly do not enjoy this constitutionally defined norm of work, wages, and standard of living. With effect from April 1, 2011 the National Floor Level of Minimum Wage stands at Rs 115 per day. Is this in any way adequate to meet a “decent standard of life” as implied by the Constitution and spelled out by the ILC and Supreme Court? Further, large numbers of workers are actually paid far below the notified minimum wages. And these ‘minimum’ wages and poverty benchmarks need to be seen in the context of the soaring inflation and rise in prices of food and other essentials.
The NCEUS (Arjun Sengupta) report had stated that nearly 80% of India’s people – mostly unorganised workers – were living in a highly vulnerable condition, spending less than Rs 20 a day. The poverty and struggle of survival of the vast majority of our people is visible to the naked eye – unless that eye is covered by the blinkers of class prejudice.

The very least a government can do to correct this appalling state of affairs, can be to upgrade minimum wage norms, and extend coverage of PDS and other social services to all except the topmost layer of society – i.e the upper middle class and the rich. And we don’t want to hear that stale excuse of ‘fund crunch.’ As we’ve said before, get back the black money stashed abroad, and put a stop to the doles to corporations – and there will be plenty to spare to ensure a dignified life for all Indian citizens.