If numbers are anything to go by, the second incarnation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is likely to notch an unenviable record: an upward march in the number of poor in India.
In August, the ministry of rural development set up an expert group to advise it on conducting a census of persons below poverty line (BPL). That committee has now penned a draft report on the subject. Many, if not most, of the committee’s non-official members have in the past lobbied hard for massive social sector spending by the government. So it is hardly surprising that their recommendations are anything but radical. The committee feels the percentage of rural population that lives below the poverty line is far higher than the Planning Commission figure of 28.3%.
It “strongly” recommends that the number of people entitled to BPL status should be drastically revised upwards to at least 50%.
This cannot be mere statistical quibbling: A big increase in the number of poor in any country is a political matter. It raises interesting questions. Was the UPA-I’s record so unenviable that five years of its rule has made more people poor than any recent interval of our history? More remarkably, how did the UPA succeed at the hustings with such a disastrous record? Or is there a more prosaic explanation to India’s grim poverty numbers: a bureaucratic turf war, one between the Planning Commission and the ministry—abetted, of course, by kind-hearted experts?
The committee has a new approach to identifying the rural poor. It recommends a threefold process: a) identify the “few” who should be automatically excluded, b) ensure that the poorest and the most vulnerable are automatically included and c) grade the rest of the identified poor so that programme delivery can be targeted at those who need help the most. All three proposals are fraught with serious consequences. Exclusion will require political will that does not exist in India. Automatic inclusion into the BPL list will greatly magnify corrupt practices, apart from permanently denting our public finances. As to the grading of the poor, it will only defeat programmes meant for them by creating a new officialdom. Our experts should know better.
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