Monday, 23 May 2011

POVERTY: India: Unless you are starving you can not be poor

Anuradha Raman

 Nilotpal Baruah

Making Ends Meet The cutoff income (Rs 20 a day) for defining urban poverty won’t get a person a decent meal

In the urban sprawl that is Delhi, as in any other metro in the country, earning no more than Rs 25 per day with a family to support would prove nightmarish. Food and clothes have to be bought, there may be school-going children, colds, fevers or upset stomachs to get treated, someone with a chronic problem needing long-term treatment. Surely, someone living on Rs 25 a day would qualify as poor. But not by the benchmark set by the Planning Commission and the government of India. The urban poor have been defined as earning less than Rs 20 per day, the rural poor as earning Rs 15 per day. Anyone earning even a few rupees more than that does not qualify for a below poverty line (BPL) card and the benefits it confers.

Callous as this may sound, unless you starve and join the swelling ranks of those who live their life on the pavements, begging for a living, you cannot be officially poor. The accompanying chart (above) shows the frugal consumption that can be managed by the ‘officially’ poor. It also indicates that it’s impossible to consume 2,100 calories (the minimum for an adult male in cities) at Rs 20 per day, and 2,400 calories (the minimum for an adult male in villages) at Rs 15 per day. Remember, if a family has to survive on Rs 15 or Rs 20, then what each member consumes will be even lower than what’s indicated in the box. “If the state has its way, you will have to plan in order to be poor,” says Colin Gonsalves, activist and Supreme Court lawyer. “According to the state and the Planning Commission, unless you’re starving, you cannot be poor.”
Last week, the Supreme Court directed the government to take a fresh look at how the poverty line is defined and distribute five million tonnes of foodgrain to the 150 poorest districts. With the Food Security Act still caught in a political quagmire, it has been left to the courts once again to prod the executive into taking the first step towards ensuring that foodgrain reaches the poor.
Additional solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran, who is appearing for the government, says the debate on the poor is being exaggerated by some sections who have been party to every single deliberation on food security. “I think the criticism is unfair as the government is taking steps to make additional allocation of foodgrain to the poor,” he says. “But the states have not lifted the foodgrain to distribute them to their poor.”
Last year, TV footage and media reports showed sackfuls of grain rotting in godowns because it was not distributed. These reports prompted the Supreme Court to intervene. While the states blamed the Centre, the latter tossed the ball back to the states, accusing them of not lifting the stocks on time, rendering the grain unfit for consumption. As rough estimates go, in Punjab and Haryana nearly 61,000 tonnes of foodgrain—which could have fed 120 lakh people for a month—was wasted. It all looked like a cruel joke, for about the same time, the agriculture ministry was talking about record foodgrain procurement in 2010. Even worse was to follow, as the Food Corporation of India suggested the release of foodgrain and an empowered group of ministers rejected the suggestion, leading to speculation that this was because it would have cost the government as much as Rs 5,000 crore in subsidy.
There is, of course, another scary dimension to the food debate, which concerns children. If numbers are anything to go by, the child malnutrition rate in India, according to the National Family Health Survey-3 (2006), is 46 per cent. The under-five mortality rate in India is 74 for every 1,000 births: that’s about 17.8 lakh deaths per year, half of the deaths occurring, that is some 8.8 lakh, due to malnutrition. This roughly translates as 75,000 children dying every month due to malnutrition and an astounding 2,500 child deaths daily. Extrapolating further, more than a hundred children die every hour across the country due to malnutrition.

Rotten Shame File photo of grain spoiling in an FCI godown that set the SC thinking. (Photograph by Prabhjot Singh Gill)

That is why every discussion on social benefits is linked to who constitute the poor. The Alagh committee report of 1979 and the more recent Tendulkar committee report have been used by the government to get a fix on who really is below the poverty line. The estimates are very important for allocation of grain is linked to the number of poor.
Most children’s deaths are due to malnutrition and linked to poverty. One more reason to get poverty figures right.
Till the late 1990s, the public distribution system (PDS) was universal and covered the entire population. It was only after 1997 that the PDS was ‘targeted’ at those below the poverty line. But who are the poor? Three recent panels have come up with figures varying from 36 per cent (Planning Commission, 2004), 37 per cent (the Tendulkar committee, 2004-05) to a high of 77 per cent (the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, 2008-09). According to many, the government, backed by the Planning Commission, is keen on trimming the food bill to cut subsidies. And this can be achieved only if the percentage of poor is kept at a minimum. It is learnt that the Planning Commission wants it fixed at 27 per cent.
Interestingly, some states—West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan—submitted in their affidavits to the Supreme Court last week that the estimates of poverty arrived at by the Centre were far less than the actual numbers on the ground. They have claimed that nearly 35 per cent of the population is poor. It is no surprise then that given the stakes, the Centre is represented by a phalanx of high-profile lawyers, the attorney-general, solicitor-general and three additional solicitors-generals.
The battle, of course, is far from over. As long as deaths due to malnutrition and starvation occur in the country, no government can bask in the claim that India is a shining economy.

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