An associate professor at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, Anirudh Krishna joined academics after 14 years in the Indian Administrative Services. At Duke, he leads a five-year collaborative project in the US, India, Kenya, Uganda and Peru on pathways in and out of poverty, and is writing a book on the findings. Krishna spoke to Mint on the problems associated with measuring poverty. Edited excerpts.
Why does the official measurement need to change?
The way in which poverty is currently measured is as a stock. No effort is made to measure separately how many fall into poverty and how many come out. Between 2004 and 2009, if the number of poor people reduces in India by 10%, we don’t know if 20% went out of poverty and 10% fell in, or if 15% went out and 5% fell in. These are not equivalent situations, but are treated so because of the current way of measuring poverty. The reasons why people fall into poverty are very different from why people get out of poverty. So, we need two different sets of poverty policies... Several new methodologies exist to calculate this, and one of them can be implemented.
Did your surveys show any common problem?
Most of the reasons for falling in (poverty) are common... health for instance, while some are location-specific. I have suggested that poverty monitoring stations, just like weather-monitoring stations, be set up at carefully chosen locations. Policies should be framed only after knowing the reasons. This is also why a large part of the money spent on anti-poverty programmes are not having the impact that we want.
What kind of reasons did you find?
We did three separate studies in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. In all these diverse states, the single reason for falling into poverty was health — large health care expenses, frequent illnesses, and injuries. Even where there is supposed to be, in theory, a free public health care system available to all, poor people don’t get it, and spend huge amounts to get private care... There are also reasons such as unaffordable dowry or last rites expenses. In parts of Andhra it has been irrigation failure or, in Rajasthan, drought.
Did you find persistent poverty or poverty traps?
More than two-thirds of the people surveyed remained poor even after 10-20 years.
Aren’t the anti-poverty schemes working then?
Yes and no. The most important of these are job-oriented, like the employment guarantee scheme. They help make conditions of poverty more bearable... But I didn’t find many people who had got such assistance, or came out of poverty using it. So, I go back to my argument that the reasons that are taking people out of poverty are to be amplified and, then, anti-poverty schemes designed.