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Counting The Poor, Courting Their Votes

Author : million dollars

Submitted : 2010-07-08 04:26:51    Word Count : 601    Popularity:   58

Tags:   poor, elections, votes, negligence

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Calculating, and recalculating, the numbers of those who are below the poverty line in the country has never been easy, and the most recent effort has attracted its share of criticism. As some newspapers have been editorialising, this seems an esoteric exercise, an act of indulgence on the part of economists and experts who have played not only with the figures but with the indices as well.

Fixing the number

For many years, the Planning Commission measured poverty in terms of calorie intake. It took the prices of a basic basket of goods and services essential for well being and calculated how many calories were required for such a basket, differentiating between rural and urban areas. It was in the late 1960s that the concept of the 'poverty line' - or garibi rekha - was introduced, based on the calorie intake. This was later fixed at 2400 calories per head per day in rural areas, and 2100 calories in urban areas. It may not be obvious at first glance why there should be this discrepancy. The reason is that city dwellers have access to resources like water and transport which reduce their need for energy.

Last December, the government announced that only 27 per cent were living below the poverty line in 2004-5, based on National Sample Survey data, which is the most authoritative source for such indices. However, the Planning Commission has now put the figure at 37 per cent, based largely on the Committee on Poverty Estimates headed by Suresh Tendulkar, former Chairman of the National Statistical Commission. While this committee estimated the number of BPL families at 80 million, the Planning Commission has fixed it at 74 million, while its own earlier figure was 65 million.

This estimate will now go before the Empowered Group of Ministers on the Food Security Bill early in May. States are not willing to accept the 74 million cut-off figure because to do so invites a political backlash. BPL cards are literally a lifeline to poor families who use them to obtain benefits under the government's range of poverty alleviation programmes, as well as access to cheap foodgrains under the public distribution system (PDS). The numbers issue is complicated by the fact that the states clearly want to up their figures of BPL families. According to Food Ministry sources, the total estimated by states will exceed 100 million families.

If all this wasn't complicated enough, there is also the issue of whether to issue foodgrains to those above the poverty line. Kerala, for instance, wants to double the entitlement of subsidised rice from 10 kg per family to 20 kg, which will amount to a total bill of Rs.5000 crores for Kerala alone. If this is applicable to other states, the financial consequences are obvious. Earlier, the Planning Commission had ruled out APL families from a scheme for subsidised grain, and limited this to BPL families, because otherwise the government subsidy would rise by 85 per cent.

Perhaps the severest critic of the changes in BPL figures in recent days is Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. In his edit page article titled Big Phoney Lists in the Indian Express on April 29 he states: "The institution of the BPL list has probably become the most potent symbol of the self-defeating approach of the Indian state towards poverty ... Now it has become one of the biggest sources of obfuscation of the challenges of poverty."

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