How many poor people are there in this country of 1.2 billion people, the world’s most populous after China? There’s no easy answer, with poverty estimates ranging from single digits by Surjit Bhalla, 26% according to the Lakdawala committee, 37% by the Suresh Tendulkar committee, 42% by the World Bank, 77% by the Arjun Sengupta committee and around 80% by Utsa Patnaik using the calorie measure.
Incidentally, all these estimates are for the same year, 2004-05, and using the same distribution of consumption expenditure from the National Sample Survey Organisation. What changes when poverty is measured differently is not the actual number of poor in the country but the way it’s defined.
Fortunately, some of the confusion created by the multitude of figures has been put to rest after the Planning Commission officially accepted the report of the Tendulkar committee set up to revise poverty estimates.
But why do we have so many estimates? Partly because of the dissatisfaction with the old official poverty estimates based on the Lakdawala committee and the differences in the perception of poverty. There are also the more fundamental questions of what constitutes the poverty line and, in turn, what normative requirements this should meet.
This is an issue that has been debated over the decades in the Indian context. The debate has not only been on what should be the norm, but, lately, also on what its dimensions should be. Things have moved much beyond the usual basic needs of roti, kapda and makaan.
The fact that poverty is multi-dimensional has been long recognized, particularly after the introduction of Human Development Indicators by the United Nations. Yet, three decades of the anchoring of calorie norms also meant that the consumption of 2,400 calories in rural areas and 2,100 in urban areas continued as the definition of poverty for many in the academic community as well as the large majority of activists working for the poor. This was despite the fact that evidence from successive independent nutrition surveys did not correspond to either the spatial pattern or the intertemporal trend of calorie intake.
The Tendulkar committee not only used this opportunity to revise poverty estimates, it also redefined the methodology. While doing away with the calorie anchor, it expanded the normative basket to include health and education as integral parts of the poverty line along with food. It did so not only to account for the multi-dimensional aspect of poverty, but, more importantly, because poverty was no longer only about food in an economy growing at more than 9% per annum.
It was the recognition of the fact that what kept a large majority of the population poor was also the lack of opportunity to participate in the growth process, education and health being the biggest obstacles to access such opportunities. At the same time, it improved the way price indices were used to update poverty lines spatially as well as across states and across rural and urban areas.
With the acceptance of the Tendulkar committee report, some of these confusions have been put to rest. But that does not mean that the issues have disappeared.
Some of the issues that were raised by the debate on poverty continue to remain valid. More so, in a country where the economy is growing at the fastest after China and is at the cusp of joining the league of middle income countries.
For example, the issue of differences in the aggregate private final consumption expenditure from the National Sample Survey and the National Accounts remain an important issue that needs to be resolved. But more importantly, whether the poverty line actually represents the minimum basic requirements is a matter that will continue to be debated. There are those who continue to argue that the present poverty line is close to a destitution line. But even otherwise, while the poverty line has gone beyond the basic needs of food to those which represent access to opportunity such as education and health, there are many dimensions which need to be included.
This is expected in a dynamic country, simply because the normative content of poverty lines is not meant to be fixed in perpetuity. This is a reflection of the country’s stage of development and also represents the aspirations and expectations from the growth that is central to the development of the economy. A growing economy needs these norms to be evaluated continuously in conjunction with the existing reality. Access to opportunities, represented by education and health, are not demands that arise from ethical and moral philosophy only, but also from the existing reality where lack of food no longer represents the only dimension in which such deprivation can be measured.
For those who believe that the country has made immense progress in the last decade, the high level of poverty is not only appalling, it is also not consistent with the larger ambition of being seated with the global powers.
Shared meal: The poverty line has gone beyond the basic needs of food to those which epresent access to opportunity such as education and health. Javeed Shah/Mint
On the other hand, a large number of secondary sources have confirmed the existence of high illiteracy, lack of sanitation and drinking water, housing, malnutrition and so on, which raise questions over the ability of the poverty estimates to reflect the actual level of deprivation.
It is this disconnect between growth and its ability to reduce poverty that underlines the need for a better estimate of poverty.
This is not a question of mere statistics or academic rigour, it is fundamentally about the quality of growth, the nature of polity, and, above all, the ability of the masses to participate and enjoy the growth that the economy has seen in the last decade. Similar recognition, although limited, has been seen in policy paradigms where access to information, employment, education and food are no longer a means of governance but are seen more as a fundamental right, which is essentially part of being a citizen.
The invisibles: High illiteracy, lack of sanitation and drinking water, housing and so on, question the ability of poverty estimates to reflect the actual level of deprivation. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.