New Delhi: Following his claim that the government was willing to rethink on the present caps on poverty, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh has appointed an advisory group to suggest possible modifications in an ongoing census to identify the country’s poor.
The group, led by Planning Commission member and economist Abhijit Sen, will aim to address concerns over the contentious contours of the caste census.
“I have given them a week’s time,” Ramesh said. “They will look at the criteria, the questionnaire and tell us if we need to modify something...whether there is any incompatibility between the criteria and the questions.”
Members of the advisory group made presentations to ministry officials at the first meeting on 16 August.
The ongoing socio-economic survey, which began in June and has so far been carried out only in Tripura, is being conducted by the ministry in rural areas. The survey, which is to be completed by December, takes caste into account for the first time since 1931.
The census will be conducted by the urban development ministry in urban areas.
The ministries will conduct the census and help identify below the poverty line (BPL) households within the limits set by the Planning Commission. The exercise will, therefore, determine who will be eligible for benefits and who won’t, an outcome that could be controversial. This could pose a serious political problem as it would mean excluding some households from poverty benefits.
While the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body, estimates the number of poor in the country, the ministry of rural development identifies them. 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, launched in 1992, 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, the Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana and the Total Sanitation Campaign. This list is also used by other ministries and state governments for similar welfare measures.
“The first meeting was simply stock-taking of the census,” Sen said. “The point is we can’t postpone or hold up the census, but we can tweak it in states where it hasn’t been conducted since it is still very initial days. We can look into both the operational side as well as in terms of the questions asked.”
This year, the BPL census will rank households according to poverty levels so as to implement the Planning Commission’s cut-off. The urban poverty census will be carried out for the first time. Ahead of this year’s census, the government had appointed the N.C. 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.
Hence, after automatically including and excluding households based on socio-economic parameters, the government will rank the remaining households based on a deprivation criteria. The “seven deprivation criteria” evolved 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.
“This (the issue of caps) is in a sense beyond the mandate of the rural development ministry. The cap is something that sets a limit on the amount of money the government of India is willing to put out and, hence, is not within the rural development ministry’s purview,” Sen said. “So the group can’t really look at that... But we can redo the definition of items, that is quite possible.”
The ministry, meanwhile, says it is not really choosing among the poor since all it is doing is ranking households and it is ultimately the state governments that will use the Planning Commission caps to estimate poverty levels. In an interview to Mint published on 19 August, Ramesh, meanwhile, indicated that there was a possibility of revisiting the caps set by the Planning Commission. But any modifications, according to Ramesh, would not hamper the ongoing census.
“The point is the survey has to go on…but we can make some changes,” Ramesh said. “The conduct of the survey is not dependent on automatic exclusion, inclusion since all that comes later.”