New Delhi: The stage is set for the launch of the census to identify families below the poverty line (BPL) after all the stakeholders signed off on the pilot project covering 90,000 villages to be started next month.

Poverty focus: Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

It is the first time that a pilot project is being undertaken ahead of the BPL census to be launched in April 2011. The census, which will cover all of rural India, is significant as it is part of the government’s efforts to push for inclusion through better targeting of subsidies.

Progress on the census had been delayed because the state governments had raised objections, particularly with respect to the choice of parameters to identify the poor.

At a meeting convened by the rural development ministry on Tuesday, representatives of the Central and state governments approved a plan that will conduct a census of 260 villages across the country. The pilot will, besides testing all the parameters to identify the poor, also explore integration with the government’s ambitious unique identity (UID) project or Aadhaar.

“This is in the background of the recommendations of the N.C. Saxena committee which were circulated to the various states and also includes the suggestions received from (economist) Jean Dreze... The pilot project is basically to test the questionnaire," said Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen, who attended the meeting.

By seeking to integrate the process with the UID programme, the government wants to minimize leakages and ensure targeting. It is, however, potentially controversial as it could lead to the exclusion of people from the existing BPL list.

The BPL card is used to obtain benefits under the government’s poverty alleviation programmes as well as gain access to cheap foodgrains from the public distribution system (PDS), subsidized health insurance and scholarships.

Specifically, the card is a precondition to availing of facilities of social welfare programmes such as the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (national health insurance scheme) and the Indira Awaas Yojana (a housing scheme for the rural poor), as well as various state government programmes.

The pilot survey “will provide an all-India comparison and also provide some flexibility to the states for the BPL census", Sen said. “Some criteria are mindlessly included in the census which leads to absurd results like in the last BPL census. The survey will help to see if some recommendations could actually be used at the ground level."

The government has already earmarked funds for the census by providing for Rs300 crore in the Budget for 2010-11. More funds are expected to be allotted in next year’s budget.

The pilot project seeks to cover all eventualities and will include four villages in every agro-climatic region of the country (as is the normal practice with the National Sample Survey). Further, villages in the two poorest and richest districts will be covered. Also, the pilot will, with the help of the Public Health Foundation of India, seek to identify malnutrition levels, which can be used to qualitatively identify the poorest.

While India’s apex planning body, the Planning Commission, estimates the level of poverty, the census to identify BPL households is undertaken by the rural development ministry. The ministry carries out a census based on 13 socio-economic parameters to identify BPL families.

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.

The rural development ministry had set up a committee under former Planning Commission secretary Saxena to review the methodology of the census and resolve the conflicting estimates.

The Saxena panel’s methodology takes a three-pronged approach: to identify those who are to be excluded, to ensure that poor and vulnerable sections are automatically included, then grade these households and find out the poorest among them.

According to people close to the development who did not want to be identified, the pilot projects will conduct a census of the entire village to identify the poor and check whether the criteria laid out in the Saxena panel report as well as additional ones, some of which have been proposed by the states, lead to a match with estimates.

All indicators suggested by the Saxena panel will be tested by the pilot project to determine what would be the most suitable methodology for the BPL census. By covering the entire rural population, the census is expected to be one of the biggest registrars for the UID project, which seeks to create a national identity for every Indian citizen.

An expert, however, believes linking the two might not serve the purpose.

“The BPL list is often not very accurate. People who are truly poor sometimes get left out," said Vijay Mahajan, chairman of Hyderabad-based Basix group, which works to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor. “These errors are very well known, so to use the BPL list as a source for UID is just compounding the same mistakes all over again."

Asit Ranjan Mishra and Karen Leigh contributed to this story.