Who are the poor, and how many?

Who are the poor, and how many?

Rajiv Gandhi once remarked that only 15% of our subsidies reach the poor. That number may have changed a bit over the years, but the famous adage has continued to symbolize the state of our public service delivery, particularly those that are targeted towards the poor.

Not much seems to have changed in the last two decades even though the system of public delivery has moved away from one of universal entitlement—when the comment was made—to the recent experiments of targeting subsidies and public services to poor.

The previous three censuses in 1992, 1997 and 2002 resulted in large errors of exclusion (many deserving poor were left out of the beneficiary list) and inclusion (many non-poor were included in the list). Unfortunately, the ubiquitous BPL card also has come to symbolize the evil of leakage and corruption in public service delivery.

The recently submitted N.C. Saxena committee report is an effort to improve upon the methodology to identify the poor for the fourth census. The Saxena committee has submitted its report and proposed a new method to identify the poor. The committee has suggested new poverty estimates to be used with BPL census. It has recommended that the percentage of people entitled to BPL status be revised upwards nationally to at least 50% and the distribution of the poor across states should be in proportion to the poor according to the present poverty estimates of states given by the Planning Commission.

While the criticism of the present Planning Commission poverty estimates by the committee was legitimate and valid, its recommendations have only added to the confusion on poverty estimates. This wasnot only beyond its mandate— since a separate committee chaired by Suresh Tendulkar is already examining this issue—its recommendations are ad hoc, arbitrary and without justification.

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The committee recommends that the distribution of beneficiaries across districts should be made using the existing criteria of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population and agricultural productivity. It has also suggested that the distribution of beneficiaries across blocks within a district be made on the basis of four parameters of female literacy, irrigation, roads and non-farm workers.

The problem is that most of these parameters are only available in the population census, which implies that for the proposed BPL census of 2009-10, the parameters will be of the 2001 census, which is nearly a decade old and practically irrelevant for the present survey.

On the criterion of identifying the poor, the Saxena committee has recommended a three-stage process. The first step is an exclusion criterion to exclude some visibly rich households based on land or asset ownership, the availability of a regular job, payment of income tax and so on.

The second step is an inclusion criterion to include vulnerable categories such as the destitute, primitive tribal groups, single women, disabled, households headed by minors, homeless households, the most discriminated dalit groups and households where a member is a bonded labour.

Finally, a survey is proposed of all the remaining families to rank the households on a scale of 0-10 points, based on caste, religion, employment, literacy, and suffering from debilitating illness, such as tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV/AIDS.

Those with the highest points would be included first, followed by those with the next highest score and so on, until the number reaches the ceiling to be identified by the panchayat (village council).

As far as these recommendations are concerned, there is certainly an improvement over the previous method since most of these indicators are easily identifiable, verifiable and transparent.

Nonetheless, the question remains regarding their suitability in capturing the poor as also on the weights given to each indicator. Nor has the committee provided any clear-cut method to resolve any conflict between the exclusion and inclusion criteria.

Given that BPL census has come to symbolize corruption and leakage in public service delivery in rural areas, it would have been reassuring if the committee had provided justification for using these and not others as the identifying criteria either using secondary data or had undertaken some pilot study to study the suitability of these indicators.

In the absence of these, these are only as good as the committee’s recommendations on revision of poverty estimates. In the interest of the poor, it is urgently required that these be tested on the field on a pilot basis before they are accepted by the government. Otherwise, this will be another missed opportunity to make public services available to the poor despite the good intentions of the committee.

Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at farmtruths@livemint.com