New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned the rationale of the below the poverty line (BPL) classification and accordingly the government’s decision to restrict benefits of poverty alleviation programmes to only those that fall within this cap.
By doing so, it joined an ongoing contentious debate on estimating poverty on the one hand and identifying the poor on the other. While the official estimate of poverty levels in rural areas is 42%, the actual number of poor identified is far higher, with variations across states. The difference is significant because poverty levels are being linked to benefits under various government programmes and the proposed food security legislation.
The apex court has given the government until 4 April to respond. It was hearing a public interest litigation filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which wants the government’s threshold of Rs12 and Rs17 (rural and urban daily spending, respectively) to be increased so as to include a greater section of the population for food subsidies. The government’s threshold was introduced in 2004-05 and revisited in 2009, but kept the same.
A bench comprising justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma criticized the government’s criteria for identifying the poorest among the poor, and said: “We fail to understand the rationale and justification for the cap fixed by the Planning Commission.”
The Planning Commission has, based on the Tendulkar committee’s recommendations, pegged rural poverty at 42%, and accordingly restricts payouts on poverty alleviation programmes. The poor are identified through a BPL census, normally conducted by the government every five years.
The bench’s observations could be a setback to the rural development ministry, which is poised to accept the official caps and use the forthcoming BPL census to categorize the poor according to the degree of poverty. Mint had reported on 22 March that the ministry was willing to proceed despite the fact that the formula of selection it was adopting to stack the households had an error rate as high as 50%, which means that for every person rightfully included in the poverty list, another would be excluded.
The discrepancies arise because the official estimates of poverty are based on consumption, while the BPL census uses socio-economic characteristics such as household assets as consumption is impossible to measure.
The government limits the number of BPL citizens on the basis of a daily per capita expenditure of Rs12 in rural areas and Rs17 in urban areas on a recommendation from the Planning Commission.
“Do you think that in 2011 Rs12 and Rs17 a day is enough? Given today’s rate of inflation, when the government of India has had to revise salaries four times in two years, is this realistic? Should you not redraw your line?” the court asked the government’s counsel.
Minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution K.V. Thomas said the government will study what the court has said.
“We have not gone through the court order. The government will give its response to the court,” Thomas said.
The court’s observations on the eve of the launch of the campaign for elections in four key states could force the government to be proactive to avoid any politically inconvenient censure on Monday when the case is taken up again.
Harsh Mander, a member of the National Advisory Council, said the order has far-reaching effects as the methodology had already been questioned by academicians and activists.
“The (poverty) estimate of the government is based on assumptions. But if you are linking (it to) people’s access to public services, it’s problematic,” he said. “The estimates goes against the logic when it is related to the access of vulnerable people to whole range of public services, including food and healthcare.”
The debate was recently enjoined by Abhijit Sen, member, Planning Commission, in a piece published in the Economic and Political Weekly, where he had opposed targeting of the poor and instead made out a strong case for universalization of the public distribution system (PDS) as the most feasible way to ensure food security.
There is a discrepancy between the poverty estimates of the Central government and the states, with the latter’s numbers exceeding that of the Planning Commission. The commission estimates there are 62.5 million BPL families, but state governments say the number is closer to 107 million. If the states wish to cover their own BPL population in PDS, they have to bear the cost of the foodgrain over and above the estimate of the Central government.
The discrepancies have been a major hurdle in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s proposed flagship food security programme.
In addition to the cap, the court criticized the UPA government for not moving fast on the computerization of PDS .
The justice Wadhwa committee has placed 18 reports before the apex court, all of which ask for digitizing of the system. The reports say that there is pilferage and corruption at nearly every level in the Food Corporation of India-run programme.
“When you’re running the world’s largest public distribution system, it has to be computerized. It has to be done in weeks and months, not months and years. At every stage you must know what stock you have,” said the court, while recording in its order that the computerization project has to be expedited.
The government’s latest affidavit of 28 March says that a smart card-based delivery of PDS has been implemented in three districts each of Delhi, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. However, the petitioners argued that at this rate, the entire country’s PDS would be computerized only after a decade.
Sanjiv Shankaran contributed to this story.