A new government study has found that nearly one out of three persons in India's villages - or about 32% of rural population - lives in abject poverty with income barely enough to buy even basic essentials.
The figure is considerably higher than that projected by the planning commission in a report last week and confirms India's dubious distinction as the place of hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people despite being counted as an emerging global economic giant.
A rural development ministry-commissioned socio-economic (SEC) analysis has concluded that 248 million people live in "deprivation" - a class of people who just about manage to eke out a day-to-day subsistence living.
Planning commission estimates, on the other hand, released last week showed that there were 216 million people in rural areas below the poverty line, which defines as poor a person whose ability to spend is less than Rs. 27.2 a day.
The figure is 32 million less than the number of rural people the SEC study - prepared by a panel headed by planning commission member Abhijit Sen - found to be extremely poor. The category includes destitute families, manual scavengers and beggars among others.
The SEC study findings can be politically tricky for the UPA government in an election year. The planning commission's figures had shown a 15 percentage point drop in India's overall poverty levels, with 137 million people estimated to have moved out of poverty between 2004-05 and 2011-12.
As opposed to the planning commission, the SEC analysis used an "exclusion-inclusion" method to do a headcount of the poor and deprived.
"The SEC data analysis has an advantage. It categorises population on the basis of deprivation levels, helping the government priortise schemes meant for the most-deprived," Sen told HT.
A family that owned a landline phone or a three-room house with concrete walls and roof was automatically excluded from the list of poor people. There were several such threshold indicators that kept a family out of the poor and deprived headcount.
Likewise, there were five automatic inclusion parameters to count a family as poor - such as a household without shelter or one belonging to a primitive tribal group.
The remaining rural households were marked on seven "deprivation" indicators. For instance, a household headed by a woman with no working-age man was listed as a deprived household.
"A person meeting two of the seven deprivation indicators after applying exclusion-and-inclusion parameters can be considered poor as per the government's definition," Sen said.
The Sen-panel findings have collated data of about 800 million people or about two-thirds of India's population.
It will meet on Monday to finalise the report for the rural development ministry. The study was commissioned in 2011 for better targeting of India's anti-poverty programmes involving an annual budget of nearly Rs. 200,000 crore.
The urban poverty alleviation ministry is carrying out a similar exercise to count the poor among India's city dwellers.
"The extent of deprivation is a reality now," said Himanshu, assistant professor of economics in the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and member of the Sen committee.