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Juggling numbers

The debate around the poverty line must be rescued from economics. Harsh Mander writes.

india Updated: Oct 04, 2011 22:55 IST
Harsh Mander

How much money does a poor person need to survive with elementary human dignity? Given the times we live in, it is rare for such a question to figure in the front pages of our newspapers and prime-time television debates. It is even more uncommon that this riddle has come to trouble the middle class conscience.

Popular outrage was spurred when India’s Planning Commission reported to the Supreme Court that if a city dweller earns more than Rs 32 a day, and a villager Rs 26, she is not poor. Such minimalist interpretations of poverty are not new. They have been the staple of planning and budgeting in this country for several decades. Official committees have published voluminous (and mostly incomprehensible) reports that have estimated poverty from national sample surveys of consumption, income and expenditure. Based on these, planners usually declared a certain percentage of the population as poor. Challenges to these estimates remained confined to opaque academic literature.

Of late, poverty estimates have become the subject of heated contestation in the country’s highest court. Ten years ago, in a landmark case in the Supreme Court (SC), People’s Union for Civil Liberties demanded a legally enforceable right to food of all citizens. Over the decade, the SC has passed over 100 orders, steadily expanding the duties of governments to end hunger and malnutrition.

Matters came to a head when the petitioners presented damning evidence of rotting food-grains, demanding that such criminal wastage should halt in a country of immense poverty and hunger. They suggested that these stocks be distributed to all households in 150 poorest districts. The government opposed this, saying State-subsidised food should be targeted only to poor families.

The SC asked the government to explain how it estimates the number of poor households in the country. The Planning Commission replied in its affidavit that R26 and R32 a day for rural and urban households respectively, “ensures the adequacy of actual private expenditure … on food, education and health”. This affidavit was widely reported and ordinary citizens understood, for the first time, how governments estimate poverty in India. National consternation broke loose.

Minimalist poverty lines have been deployed to restrict State expenditures on pensions for the aged, health insurance, subsidised food, social housing, free school uniforms and even free medicines in hospitals. Limiting these to households deemed poor reduced fiscal burden on a range of social protection measures. In their press conference on October 3, 2011, Montek Ahluwalia, deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission and Jairam Ramesh, minister for rural development conceded that these programmes will be delinked from poverty lines in future, a hugely welcome move.

However, the poverty line itself has not been abandoned and its problems remain. Poverty calculations ignore specific social, climatic and other barriers that millions of disadvantaged people face. A homeless person has to spend R2 to defecate, Rs 5 to bathe and Rs 30 to hire a blanket for a night. A disabled person requires a third more money to achieve a life similar to a person without disabilities.

The core disagreement relates to how Tendulkar Committee, on whose report the Planning Commission bases its current estimates, calculates what expenditures are ‘adequate’ for a poor household to live on. Economist Jean Dreze disputes the circular nature of the arguments used to justify its computations. The Committee calculated the median expenditures on food, education and health, or the expenditure such that half the population spends less than this amount.

That these median expenditures are described as ‘adequate’ is problematic. The word used is ‘normative’, implying that the government judges that such low expenditures are adequate for the poor to live on. Herein lies the heart of our opposition. As middle-class aspirations of ‘adequate’ have surged, why is it fine for the poor to subsist on cheap food, poor quality education and almost absent health care?

Discussions around the poverty line must be rescued from the cold economics of a country or a household, and claimed instead by the ethics of justice and rights. In one of the most unequal countries of the world, it is a moral imperative that we acknowledge the equal intrinsic worth of every human being, rich or poor. Both the government and the middle classes must collectively affirm the right of every human being to a decent living standard. Until that happens, let us nurture our new-found outrage.

Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies

The views expressed by the author are personal