Ask any chief minister in India to identify the main problem in the schemes of the Union government to benefit those below the poverty line (BPL), and the most likely response will be that the number of people identified as living below the poverty line is far less than the actual figures. The poverty line estimates given by the Planning Commission are in reality a starvation line estimate: Its current estimate of 28% rural poverty is a figure that is treated by state governments with the contempt it deserves. So states circumvent this restriction to use their own estimates of poverty and provide additional subsidies from their own finances.
Photograph: Amit Bhargava / Bloomberg
Estimation of poverty remains a sore point between the states and the Centre; no methodology can be bereft of controversy. The much awaited Suresh Tendulkar committee report is also likely to have its fair share of debate when it is submitted later in October; some of its details were first reported in August. This follows the storm kicked up by the report of the N.C. Saxena committee when the initial draft was publicized in July.
The identification of households who deserve the benefits of state schemes is an exercise carried out every five years through a census survey. Over the last 17 years, three BPL surveys have been conducted in 1992, 1997 and 2002. But as the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 61st round of the consumer expenditure data survey shows, these surveys have failed: Only 39% of the poorest households had been identified as poor and given BPL cards, whereas as many as a quarter of the households that are not poor possessed these cards.
The scramble for BPL cards among the non-poor is understandable: It entitles them to a range of benefits from subsidized food grains to free medical treatment and concessional loans from banks. It is precisely for this reason that the BPL census survey is carried out, so that only those families who deserve these subsidies get it. So why do the surveys fail?
One of the principal reasons for this failure so far has been the faulty, and often bizarre, criteria used for identifying the poor. The 1992 census, for instance, relied entirely on income of the households, and was doomed to fail since income is very difficult to reliably estimate through a census survey. The 1997 survey, however, over-relied on criteria which would exclude people, including income limits, and did not make any attempt to rank the poor.
The 2002 BPL census tried to address the problems of both the earlier rounds but came up with a solution (a 13-point criteria) that ended up being worse than the problem itself. Here, enumerators were expected to record, among other things, the number of clothes owned. It disadvantaged anyone who had a private latrine and did not defecate in the open—undermining the government’s sanitation campaign—or if they sent their children to school.
Estimating the number of poor, which the Tendulkar committee is deliberating on, has a bearing on the larger issue of identifying them: A better estimate would prevent fewer of the actual poor from being excluded from BPL lists. But it would still not deal with inclusion errors where the non-poor get on those lists. That’s the crux of this matter.
It is in this context that the report of the Saxena committee, appointed by the ministry of rural development, assumes significance. This report has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The committee suggested that 50% of the population should be classified as being poor. This has resulted in widespread criticism, mainly from quarters within the Union government, which is staring at an increased subsidy bill.
Yet the Saxena report has made a few path-breaking suggestions that have the potential of transforming the way the poor are identified in this country—the government can choose to ignore these recommendations at its own peril.
First, while earlier surveys have identified criteria to be automatically excluded from possessing BPL cards, the Saxena committee has recommended an automatic inclusion criteria for the most vulnerable sections of society. In other words, homeless people and persons with disability, for instance, would all automatically get BPL cards. While it can be argued that there are many such groups in the country which deserve automatic inclusion, it is indisputable that the groups recommended by the committee are the poorest of the poor.
Second, the report has recommended ranking those households which are not automatically included as BPL, using simple, verifiable and measurable criteria of social and occupational vulnerability—which will not be easy to fudge. This methodology has already been piloted by the Delhi government as part of its ambitious Mission Convergence which has already surveyed 900,000 households with astonishing results.
Third, the report recommends the gram sabha—the assembly of all adults residing in the village—as the final arbiter of who should be included. While it would have been more progressive to have entrusted the panchayats themselves with the entire task of identifying the poor, this is a commendable beginning.
If these recommendations are accepted, there’s some chance that the next BPL survey will do a better job than the last in counting the actual poor.
Biraj Patnaik is principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food. Views expressed here are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org