Ministry for merging BPL, caste censuses

Ministry for merging BPL, caste censuses

New Delhi: In a move that might put the Union government in conflict with the states, the ministry of rural development has recommended merging the census to identify below poverty line (BPL) families with the caste census to accelerate the process of determining the number of poor, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The caste census, conducted by the Registrar General of India, or RGI, is due to begin on 1 July.

The ministry of rural development has proposed “clubbing the BPL census with the caste census to expedite the entire process", said the person, who did not want to be identified. Two other persons familiar with the development confirmed there was such a proposal.

Also Read | Keeping count (PDF)

“There is a proposal of having the BPL merged with the caste census. As far as the Planning Commission is concerned, we don’t have a view whether it should be merged with the caste census," said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

While the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body, estimates the level of poverty, the census to identify BPL households is conducted by the rural development ministry. The ministry had decided to revisit the existing method of conducting the census and undertook a pilot project across the country in August-September. The procedure for the pilot was arrived at after consultation with state governments that had been allowed to suggest the criteria for identification to overcome the limitations of a “one-size-fits-all" approach.

It was the first time that a pilot project was undertaken ahead of the BPL census. The project was expected to help the ministry determine the procedure for conducting the main BPL census. The census is due to be launched in April, and the ministry hopes to conclude it by October.

The census, aimed at covering all of rural India, is part of the government’s efforts for better targeting of subsidies meant to benefit the poor.

If the BPL census is indeed merged with the caste census, it would minimize the role of states, causing a direct conflict with the Centre. For this, and other reasons, experts are opposing the suggestion.

“There are talks about this but no final decision has been taken yet. I am not in favour of merging the two since this is neither in the interest of the census nor rural development," said N.C. Saxena, a National Advisory Council member and former rural development secretary and member-secretary, Planning Commission.

“It will make it difficult for those conducting the census to get accurate information from people because once they know this information will also be used to determine whether they are poor or not, they would be reluctant to share correct information... It will also hamper the poverty census," he added.

Saxena said the proposal would undermine the states since they would have no say in deciding the procedure and parameters if the BPL census is merged with the caste census.

Union rural development minister C.P. Joshi, however, said he had no such information.

The BPL card is used to obtain benefits under the government’s poverty alleviation programmes as well as to gain access to cheap foodgrains from the public distribution system, subsidized health insurance and scholarships. The crucial proposed food security Act would also be based on the determination of the number of poor by the BPL census.

The pilot tested all the parameters to identify the poor and it also sought to cover all eventualities by including four villages in every agro-climatic region of the country (as is the practice with the National Sample Survey). Further, villages in the two poorest and richest districts were covered.

The rural development ministry had expected to conclude processing the data gleaned from the pilot survey in the next few months so as to be able to start the BPL census next year.

The Planning Commission’s estimate puts the number of BPL families at 62.5 million, while state governments say the number is closer to 107 million.

A high-level expert group appointed by the Planning Commission and chaired by Suresh Tendulkar, former chairman of the National Statistical Commission, submitted its report on poverty estimates to the Planning Commission last year.

It estimates the number of rural poor in 2004-05 at 42% of the rural population, as opposed to the existing estimate of 28.5%.

Ahluwalia confirmed that the Planning Commission had accepted the Tendulkar report on poverty. “The report is there on the Planing Commission website as well," he added.

A panel set up under Saxena to review the way BPL numbers are estimated reported last year that only two in five officially identified as poor by the Planning Commission possessed either a BPL or an Antyodaya card. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana provides foodgrains at highly subsidized prices to the poorest of the poor.