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Arundhati Roy : Reviving a discredited statistic

Arundhati Roy : Reviving a discredited statistic
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First Published: Thu, Sep 01 2011. 04 05 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Sep 01 2011. 04 05 PM IST
Arundhati Roy is at it again, ranting against the Jan Lokpal Bill -- her enraged anarchism (and wild conspiracy theories) expressed, as always, with outstanding linguistic flourishes. The Jan Lokpal Bill was being covertly financed by international capital and Western ogres like the World Bank and Ford Foundation, it would grind the common Indian even more brutally into the dust, and finally that she was not really interested in corruption as long as the merest hint of justice was denied to vast swathes of the Indian people.
One can argue at length about these claims, but what bothers me is that she has resuscitated a poverty statistic for India that has long been discredited; that 830 million people in India (77% of the population) live on less than Rs 20 a day. The figure comes from the 2006 Arjun Sengupta Committee Report on Unorganised Labour.
Now, everyone knows that Indians, for a variety of reasons, routinely underreport their income. One only needs to compare the “reported” consumption data from our national surveys with the data from the National Accounts Survey. The reported data is less than 50% (yes, that’s right ) of the National Accounts data. For decades, economists have accepted this fact of life, and have been pumping up the reported numbers to match the actual undeniable figures, to get an actual sense of poverty in India. The late Sengupta did not do this, and, as a noted economist told me, Sengupta ”misused National Sample Survey (NSS) data to pull a dirty trick”.
Against this backdrop, consider just two numbers. In the latest NSS, less than 2% of households said that they do not have two square meals a day (this, in a scenario where underreporting of income and consumption is the norm). And that, as of July 2011, there were more than 600 million GSM cellphone connections in India.
In 2010, India’s per capita GDP was $1265, which translates to about Rs 156 per day (taking $1=Rs 45). If, out of a 1.2 billion population, 830 million live on Rs 20 a day (and obviously they are not in a position to save any money), then the rest 370 million are earning Rs 461 per day. The average size of an Indian family is five. So we have 74 million families earning on an average nearly Rs 8.5 lakh a year! That sounds as credible as the Sengupta poverty figure.
Poverty calculations in India have always been a murky area. None of the figures are accepted universally, but some are so clearly off the mark that they are only trotted out periodically to fit specific agendas.
And Arundhati, naturally, would not trust any figure that does not meet her ideological anguish. Thus, for her, 77% it is. So what if no one with even a slightly greater interest in facts than dogma agrees.
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First Published: Thu, Sep 01 2011. 04 05 PM IST