Despite India’s wonderful, ongoing and very real economic progress, it has a serious problem. The most frenetic of cheerleaders will have to admit that India’s status as a rising global power sits very uncomfortably with its very real levels of poverty. But to fix such a huge problem, one has to first know how bad it is. Without proper empirical data at one’s disposal, poverty will remain and forever be treated as the embarrassing uncle running around the house. Things are more confusing when different sets of poverty statistics float about. Which is why Planning Commission chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia has asked the National Statistical Commission (NSC) to suggest ways to reconcile the varying data available with the various agencies. Mr Ahluwalia has voiced what has always been baffling: there is no single authentic data on poverty. Take 2007: in the last nine months, we have got four reports with major differences. In his letter to the NSC, Mr Ahluwalia has pointed out that the difference between the consumption estimates reported by the National Sample Survey (NSS) and the National Accounts Statistics (NAS) was 5 per cent in the 1950s, 30 per cent in the 1980s and is around 52 per cent today. The NSC has also been asked to deliberate on which National Sample Survey (NSS) estimate is to be used to calculate poverty levels. The NSC will meet next month to figure out how to get out of this numbers maze.
The lack of one set of conclusive data can be a nightmare for a government that harps on inclusive growth and has earmarked one-third of its Eleventh Plan funds for the social sector. Without a clear indication of which areas need how much money, we will not be able to reap the benefits of an up and running economy. Different State agencies work as checks and balances to each other and end up showing a pity picture of governmental performance. One single method will not only help the government implement policies better, but it will also help it measure the success of its programme over a certain period.
While the move towards a single data set is a much-delayed corrective step, the government should also try to move away from estimations based only on consumption patterns and also introduce the expenditure people make on education, health and sanitation as suggested by economists. This way, we get a picture of the quality of life index, which should be the actual parameter of the nation’s well-being. That is, after ensuring that no one in 21 century India goes hungry.