Nearly one of three people in India’s villages—or about 31.2% of the rural population—is poor with an income hardly enough to buy even the bare essentials, a new government study has found.
The study—Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011—released on Friday is the first comprehensive exercise to estimate India’s rural poverty levels, concluding that the primary breadwinner in three of four households in rural India earns less than Rs 5,000 a month.
Worse, in more than half the cases (91.6 million or 51.8% of the total number of rural families), the main income earners barely manage to keep their kitchen fires burning by working as manual or casual labourers.
While the study has not officially defined any poverty estimate, rural development ministry sources confirmed that an analysis of the findings shows that 31.2% of India’s rural households can be called poor.
That would imply about 275 million people in rural areas live in “deprivation”—a state of being where people struggle to eke out a day-to-day subsistence living.
In 2002, a similar census had estimated India’s rural poverty at 36% of the population translating to 267 million, meaning that in 10 years between 2002 and 2011 only eight million people moved out of poverty. The UPA was in power for eight of those years.
Former Planning Commission Secretary NC Saxena, who has defined criteria for identifying the rural poor, contested the latest study’s findings. “We had asked for validation of data at a meeting of the gram sabha (a body of villagers) but it was not done,” he said.
That said, the SECC study’s findings confirm India’s dubious distinction as home to hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people despite being counted as an emerging global economic giant.
The SECC data analysis has an advantage. It categorises the population on deprivation levels and will help the government prioritise schemes meant for the most deprived.
The study also analyses data from a caste-wise breakdown of population for the first time since 1931. However, the former UPA Cabinet had decided to hold back the public release of disaggregated caste-wise data, given the social sensitivities involved. The NDA government has maintained the position.
Among states, Madhya Pradesh has emerged as the poorest with 24% poor households followed by Chhattisgarh (21%) and Bihar (19%).
While living standards have grown rapidly in India's towns and cities in the last two decades, the census highlighted how many of the poorest districts were lagging far behind despite years of welfare programmes and state-funded entitlement handouts.
"This will give us a measure of the progress made by different sections and help with future policy planning," Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said at a press conference to mark the launch of the survey conducted in 2011.
As opposed to the erstwhile Planning Commission’s consumption and calorie intake-based estimates, the SECC analysis uses an “exclusion-inclusion” method to do a headcount of the poor.
A family that owns a land-line phone or a three-room house with concrete walls and roof is 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—for instance, a household without shelter or from a primitive tribal group.
The remaining rural households were marked on seven "deprivation" indicators such as 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 can be considered poor as per the government’s definition.