New Delhi: A panel appointed by the rural development ministry has recommended a radical makeover of the criteria used to identify below the poverty line (BPL) families, and revamp the system of redistributing benefits of poverty alleviation programmes.
The suggested overhaul would automatically exclude “transparently powerful” rural households from the list of existing beneficiaries just as it would include destitute households, families with even one member suffering from disability, mental illness, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS, single women and their dependants, and primitive tribespeople.
While the weeding out will mean taking away benefits from some who don’t deserve them, experts believe the BPL list will be expanded, resulting in higher spending on poverty alleviation than ever before.
However, the committee also proposed that within those poor families that are included as BPL, a graded approach be adopted to ensure that the benefits of subsidized government programmes flow to those families “who need these services the most”. Implicit in this is the assumption that resources are limited and there is a need to calibrate the benefits to ensure they accrue only to the neediest.
BPL is used to indicate the economically underprivileged and identify households in need of help. It differs from state to state and between urban and rural areas.
The recommendations, if accepted, could overhaul delivery of government subsidies and melds with the ethos of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to tone up efficiencies in government spending. The panel was appointed in August and its draft was readied by June.
Mint, which reviewed a copy of the report, could not immediately ascertain whether it had been submitted to the rural development ministry.
The BPL list is the key to poverty alleviation. Not only is it a prerequisite to access alleviation programmes piloted by the rural development ministry, several other ministries use it to channel benefits such as access to cheap foodgrains from the public distribution system, subsidized health insurance and scholarships.
It is estimated that about 530 million people, almost half the country’s population, are at present eligible for BPL benefits. The committee fears that though the estimate may be correct, the list of beneficiaries was prone to gross errors of inclusion and exclusion.
The highly sought-after BPL card is also a subject of grave concern to policy planners because of its perceived misuse involving large sums of money.
The number of BPL families is determined at the national and state level by the Planning Commission based on surveys conducted every five years by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).
Based on the 61st round of NSSO, the Planning Commission estimated that 28.30% of rural households were BPL. However, state governments do not restrict allotment of benefits to the commission’s estimates and end up issuing substantially more BPL cards.
The poverty panel is seeking to streamline poverty identification norms and restrict benefits. The criteria identified for automatic exclusion include having one family member working in the formal economy, families that have double the district average of agricultural land per household, owning a motorized two-wheeler, owning a borewell or mechanized farm equipment, and income-tax payers.
According to Y.K. Alagh, economist and former Union minister, the principle of exclusion is fairly sound: “Those who have land, consumer goods and so on are considered rich. But how do you categorize influential people if these assets are not there?”
Alagh has in the past done a similar survey for Gujarat. “But those days, it was easier to work out targeted section than these days as assets are far more widespread and used by larger section of society.”
The panel has recommended changes to the criteria that seek to empower social groupings such as single women and primitive tribal clans.?Some experts fear even the new criteria could be used subjectively.
According to R.S. Srivastava, a professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, it is very difficult to come up with transparent criteria to identify the real BPL families.
“The question is, while there can be various ways to carry on the survey, it will be done by some government functionary who has to maintain objectivity and be accountable for choosing or not choosing. This itself is a difficult task.”