New Delhi : India has embarked on an exerciseto identify the poor that will in reality end up choosing who will be eligible for benefits and who won’t, an outcome that could be controversial.
The Union cabinet on Thursday approved the launch in June of a census to identify those living below the poverty line (BPL), both in urban and rural areas, and simultaneously enumerate the population based on caste for the first time since 1931.
Yet, the government has indicated that beneficiaries of schemes targeted at BPL households would be those identified as poor by the Planning Commission.
This means that some poor, as identified in the census, will be excluded from the purview of such schemes.
The cabinet also approved a ranking formula based on deprivation criteria to ascertain who among the poor will be excluded.
Some of the state governments were quick to condemn the move of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Warning of food riots, Sushil Modi, deputy chief minister and finance minister of Bihar, told Mint: “Planning Commission in consultation with the rural development ministry capping the number and state governments being asked to do the BPL survey is contradictory. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-ruled states have decided we would not conduct surveys if they cap the numbers. Because last time the Plan panel’s estimate was 6.5 million households and the (Bihar) state’s survey had more than one crore.”
The cabinet’s decision may entail higher spending by states that are likely to stick to the broader definition of the poor given their own political compulsions—they will end up spending on benefits for those poor in the census list excluded on account of the Planning Commission’s definition.
While the Planning Commission estimates the number of poor in the country, the ministry of rural development identifies the poor. The processes used by the two are different: the Planning Commission estimates poverty based on consumption, while the BPL census uses socio-economic characteristics such as household assets.
The BPL census is conducted every five years to identify poor households eligible for benefits under the government’s various social welfare programmes such as the Indira Awaas Yojana, Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana and the Total Sanitation Campaign. This list is also used by other ministries and state governments for similar welfare measures.
“Fixing a cap on the number of poor families entitled for subsidized food is the most unscientific way to fight poverty. The idea of a BPL census is to identify the actual poor so that they can be brought above the poverty line (through welfare schemes). We don’t want to reduce the number of poor by changing the goal post,” said N. Baijendra Kumar, spokesperson for the Chhattisgarh government.
Kumar added that his state already provides subsidized foodgrain to around 3.7 million households, almost one million more than the Planning Commission’s estimate of poor households in Chhattisgarh.
Indeed, Thursday’s cabinet meeting, which discussed the BPL census at length, saw ministers expressing reservations on it, according to a Union minister who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A.K. Antony, Union defence minister who was earlier Kerala’s chief minister, opposed the idea of the Planning Commission independently fixing a ceiling on the number of poor households, added this person. Antony could not be immediately reached for confirmation or comment.
States have long argued the Planning Commission’s estimate understates the number of poor.
The decision to choose between the poor has its roots in fiscal prudence and comes as India transitions to a society of entitlements, with both the Central and the state governments increasing spending on welfare measures.
In 2009-10, roughly 6% of the Union government’s total expenditure of Rs 10.2 trillion was earmarked towards welfare schemes aimed at the poor.
Separately, the Planning Commission on 10 May told the Supreme Court through an affidavit that its ceiling exists because subsidies in India are targeted. It serves as a yardstick to determine allocation of subsidies to states by the Central government, it explained. States such as Tamil Nadu offer subsidies aimed at poor people to a percentage of the population greater than the Planning Commission’s estimate by directly paying the part of the Bill not covered by the Central government.
The BPL census, which is designed and supervised by the rural development and urban poverty alleviation ministries, will rank households according to poverty levels so as to implement the Planning Commission’s cut-off. The urban poverty census is being carried out for the first time.
The BPL census was launched for the first time in 1992. Ahead of this year’s census, the government had appointed the Saxena panel to suggest a methodology for identifying the poor. The committee distributed rural households into three categories: those that have to be compulsorily excluded; those that have to be compulsorily included; and those that fall in-between. In the last category, it recommended a ranking so as to restrict the benefits and prevent a fiscal overrun.
Adopting this methodology, the UPA has evolved seven deprivation criteria, which include those households with no adult members between ages of 16 and 59, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households, and landless households dependent on manual, casual labour.
Other than a debate over the Planning Commission’s cap, the cabinet wanted the rural development ministry to water down the households classified as “well off”, or those who will be automatically excluded from the census, the same minister added.
The cabinet’s discussions took place in the context of the proposed food security legislation, which is expected to be the flagship project of the UPA’s second stint in office, the minister said.
“With Sonia Gandhi (Congress chief) keen on legal entitlement in the Food Security Act, the cabinet advised that the BPL census should emphasize on inclusion.”