On a hot midsummer afternoon in May, I joined an unusual protest outside India's Planning Commission in New Delhi. The protesters displayed placards, raised slogans, but also brought boxes as 'gifts' for members of the apex planning body. The gifts were refused and the protesters dispersed by the police after a mild altercation.
According to the report of the expert group appointed by the plan panel, chaired by Suresh Tendulkar, to estimate levels of poverty in India, a person is poor if she spends, at 2004-05 prices, less than Rs 20 a day in cities, or Rs 16 in rural India. At today's prices, this means that a person is not poor if she is able to pay out more than Rs 23 in a village or Rs 29 rupees a day in a city.
The 'gifts' that the protestors from the Right to Food Campaign carried were cardboard boxes filled with what could be bought for R29 a day in Delhi, the ceiling to qualify in the government's definition of poverty. One box had two bus tickets of Rs 15 each, the cost of travel to and from work. This would leave nothing for food or any other essentials. Another box contained half a pencil, 25 grams of rajma beans, four pieces of okra, 25 grams of flour and one arm of a shirt. In another were stuffed 50 grams of masoor dal, half a shirt for a child, beans for one meal and 50 grams of washing powder. One more box had half a soap bar, half a banana, five pieces of okra, half a notebook and half a toothbrush.
The placards were more stark: 'Poor person allowed to eat only half a katori of dal everyday'; 'Fruits poor people can eat every month — two bananas; two shirts and two pants — all that a poor person can buy every year — what about warm clothes?'; 'Poor family allowed to spend on conveyance — Rs 50 per month. If commuting by bus, minimum daily fare — Rs 10'.
This creative protest illuminated the absurd assumptions on which official poverty lines are fixed. Tendulkar's report claims its poverty line is derived from official household expenditure surveys "validated by checking the adequacy of actual private expenditure per capita near the poverty lines on food, education and health and by comparing them with normative expenditures consistent with nutritional, educational and health outcomes". But I find it hard to comprehend what kind of validation would arrive at a poverty threshold which normatively allows the poor so little.
I work with streetchildren in Delhi. A young boy recycling plastic and other waste earns an average of Rs 120 a day. This is four times higher than the official poverty line. In the eyes of our learned planners, the homeless child is positively wealthy. But he sleeps under the open sky or on the railway platform, he is routinely thrashed by policemen and sexually abused by older men, he often scrounges for food in rubbish heaps, he has to pay each time he bathes or defecates in a public toilet, he is barred from health care in public hospitals and no school will open its doors for him.
Poverty has many dimensions. Its economic aspects include low income, poor consumption including of food, few assets such as land and household goods and low-paid, uncertain and casual livelihoods. But it also manifests in poor access to public services like clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education. It involves social discrimination and devaluation, such as of gender, caste and religious identity and political powerlessness. But planners estimating poverty include only those elements which can be counted — economic dimensions such as consumption and household expenditure. Even estimating these involves many unrealistic assumptions, normatively condemning the poor to bleak deprived lives, on standards which would be inconceivable for the middle classes. It is as though the rich and poor live on different planets.
What is deeply worrying is that applying even these absolutely rock-bottom indicators of poverty — more starvation line than poverty line — the expert group estimates that more than a third of our people are poor. If the government adopts more humane poverty line thresholds, such as the internationally accepted $2 a day (adjusted for purchasing power parity), it is likely that the numbers would be closer to 74%, as estimated by the World Bank.
If official estimates of poverty were just of academic interest, their vision of what life is acceptable for India's poor would be troubling enough. But the government in recent decades has used these highly depressed estimates of poverty to limit access to social services — such as subsidised food, free medical care, social security pensions for the aged, and cheap housing — to people the government identifies as poor. The problem is compounded by the government's inability to identify not just how many people are poor but who actually is poor, and official studies indicate that 60% of the impoverished are left out of government lists of the 'poor'.
An enormous chasm separates planners and economists, and indeed the middle classes, from the lived realities of impoverished people in India. Unless this is bridged, they will continue to assume that poor people can live with dignity at the price of two bus tickets each day.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.