The easiest way to reduce poverty is to lower the poverty line. To be categorised indigent, Indians need to live off a third of what the World Bank has set as an international marker: a dollar a day. At Rs 356 a month in the countryside and Rs 539 in towns, the Planning Commission reckons 27.5 per cent of the Indian population was “below the poverty line” in 2004-05. Another government-commissioned report, the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, has found that 77 per cent of the Indian population lived off less than Rs 600 a month in 2004-05. The latest Economic Survey feels that is a trifle harsh, it figures that 60.5 per cent of the people spent less than Rs 20 a day in 2004-05. At Rs 1,155 a month — still below the World Bank benchmark — nearly the entire countryside (90 per cent) and every second townsman (57 per cent) in India lives in poverty.
You can see where this is heading. To liven things up a bit, the Planning Commission merely estimates the extent of poverty in the country, the job of identifying who these people are is left to the states. The Centre releases its social security spending on the basis of the below-poverty-line (BPL) cards the states issue. What odds would you give to BPL cards outnumbering the citizenry in a district? The real surprise is that such instances are not the norm.
The recommendations of yet another committee to look into the feverish politics around these BPL cards threaten to make the situation more volatile. It suggests hauling up the poverty line to Rs 1,000 a month in cities and Rs 700 in villages. The unfortunate fallout would be that half the country’s population would be brandishing the mighty BPL cards. But this can be mitigated by a graded approach to poverty alleviation: those at the bottom of the food chain get more than those slightly higher up. Although his views are not binding, N.C. Saxena, a Supreme Court-appointed food commissioner and the man the government turned to for a fix on how big the problem is, should be heard. His is a voice for raising the poverty line to a level above the ridiculous. If our billionaires are routinely weighed on an international scale, our poor deserve the privilege too.