Census to identify BPL households deferred

Census to identify BPL households deferred

New Delhi: A new census to identify below poverty line, or BPL, families has been deferred by at least a year, putting on hold crucial legislation such as the National Food Security Bill and some other social welfare schemes envisaged by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

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The decision was taken when an expert committee, set up by the rural development ministry, met on Tuesday to suggest a revised method for identifying BPL families, two people familiar with the matter said. The census, which had been slated to begin later this month, is now likely to start in April 2011.

“The ministry of rural development heard everyone during the meeting and based on all the suggestions, they are likely to decide on what the final approach will be in BPL identification within another three weeks or so," said panel member N.C. Saxena, who had earlier chaired the committee and whose report setting out the criteria for identifying BPL families was part of the discussions.

“We would first launch pilot projects, which are likely to finish only by October-November this year, when the Census of India would have begun. So the BPL census will happen only next year," Saxena said.

The meeting of the panel, set up to ascertain the number of poor so that poverty alleviation schemes can be targeted more closely at them, was chaired by secretary of rural development B.K. Sinha.

“Our mandate is to devise a methodology to estimate the poor and we have started that process," Sinha said. “We discussed various issues in the meeting, including the different methodology suggestions. We will conduct some pre-tests and the BPL census will come only after that."

The meeting discussed two broad methodologies for identifying BPL households—one suggested by the expert group under Saxena and the other suggested by economist Jean Dreze.

“We will begin a pilot project with both these models, which will also include suggestions from the state government," said another person familiar with the matter, who did not want to be identified. “The broad thinking is that states can add or drop one or two indicators (given the limitations of a one-size-fits-all approach)."

The Saxena panel 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.

The alternative methodology, suggested by Dreze, also adopts an “exclusion approach" which will do away with poverty caps to construct an enlarged BPL list. There is also a direct inclusion criterion to avoid errors of exclusion. This method does not recommend a grading of households, as that could become arbitrary and lacking in transparency.

With the BPL census being delayed, a key programme likely to be put on hold is the proposed National Food Security Bill, which aims to provide every BPL family 25 kg of rice or wheat every month at Rs3 per kg.

BPL information also forms the basis of various welfare programmes of the Central government, such as the public distribution system, 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.

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 Plan panel’s estimate puts the number of BPL families at 62.5 million, while state governments say this number is closer to 107 million. The rural development ministry had set up the Saxena committee to review the methodology of the census and resolve the conflicting estimates.

In a report submitted to the Prime Minister in November, a panel headed by economist Suresh Tendulkar had estimated that four out of every 10 people in rural areas are poor. A 2004-05 estimate had put the figure at three out of every 10.

Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint. Graphic by Paras Jain / Mint