Kathe Majra, Haryana : Satya Devi of Kathe Majra village is what official records would normally classify as someone living below the poverty line (BPL). Along with her husband and five children, she lives in a two-room tenement that has no toilet and a make-shift kitchen in the same room the family retires to every night.

But there is a catch: the 2004 BPL census excluded her family. As a result, neither does she have a BPL card entitling the family to subsidized foodgrains nor does her home bear the BPL stamp.

According to existing estimates, of the 230-odd households in Kathe Majra, 33 are included in the existing BPL list. Haryana is one of India’s richest states and its 2008-09 annual per capita income of 67,891 is almost double the national average of 37,490.

On 15 September a survey team, on behalf of the rural development ministry, interviewed Satya Devi and her family afresh. Not only did the team record all the poverty attributes, Devi was, in a nearly hour-long interview, also asked to identify five relatively wealthy people. One of them was Pradeep Kumar, who not only owned agricultural land, but lived in a five-room home and owned a range of consumer durables such as a television set,?refrigerator,?an air cooler and a washing machine.

Loading video...

Over four days to 16 September, the survey team covered the entire village without disclosing their intent: doing a pilot survey ahead of designing what the rural development ministry claims to be the first-of-a-kind BPL survey. Villagers were merely told it was a “government survey" and the local administration was taken into confidence to facilitate greater cooperation.

Similar efforts are also under way in other parts of the country and cover even homeless households; it will include four villages in every agro-climatic region of the country (as is the normal practice with the National Sample Survey), in addition to covering two poorest and richest districts in the country.

Social safety: (clockwise from left) Satya Devi of Kathe Majra village being quizzed by the survey team; Kusum, whose house in the village was reduced to rubble following the rains, has applied for a house under the government’s rural housing programme for BPL families—the Indira Awaas Yojana; an investigator marking a house after conducting the survey; Lalita, a BPL card holder, stands at the doorstep of her house with the BPL mark outside. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“The entire purpose of this exercise is to correct the inaccuracies and discrepancies in the current BPL list where some of the poor have been excluded and some rich have been included," said B.K. Sinha, secretary, rural development.

“This is the starting point of all rural development schemes and is hence, very crucial. This is the first time a pilot exercise of this scale is being conducted for this purpose."

The need

In both of its terms in power at the Centre, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has made inclusiveness a key facet of its development strategy. Accordingly, it has stepped up development spending, launching its marquee Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in February 2006, which now costs the central exchequer around 40,000 crore every year.

Given its fiscal constraints, the government is now being forced to curb spending increases, increasing pressure on it to ensure that such programmes are better targeted. And it was discovered that intended beneficiaries were being excluded from schemes aimed at the poor.

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

The committee maintained that while the estimate of 530 million poor may be correct, the list of beneficiaries was prone to gross errors of inclusion and exclusion.

This is evident in Kathe Majra. Among a cluster of huts in a scheduled caste (SC)-dominated neighbourhood, where all households seemingly have similar living conditions, some families have been included in the existing BPL list while others have been left out.

“We have a BPL card since we are very poor and work as daily wage earners. The card does benefit us since we can buy cheap grains," said Roshni Devi, who lives in the cluster and belongs to the SC community.

But her neighbour, who did not want to be identified, claimed her family—although equally poor—had been denied a BPL card because of contradictory political affiliations.

Given this context, it was not surprising that the rural development ministry decided to revisit the methodology of the BPL census that is due to be carried out in April 2011. The pilot project in Kathe Majra is a preliminary exercise to arrive at the appropriate methodology for the final BPL census.

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

The BPL card is key to obtaining a stream of benefits under the government’s poverty alleviation programmes as well as gain access to cheap foodgrains from the Public Distribution System,?subsidized health insurance and scholarships.

The process

In Kathe Majra, the presence of strangers in visibly poorer sections of the village made some of the residents anxious. “Have you come here to make a list of people for ration cards?" a young man asked Mint.

Awareness of the benefits of a BPL card was high in the village even as most people with a card were ignorant of the benefits of the MGNREGS. This village has never seen any work being planned or implemented under this scheme, which promises 100 days of manual work to one member of each rural household. For the poor in a village deprived of the benefits of even this social safety scheme, having a BPL card is even more important.

“We have a BPL card and it is of great help since it helps me buy cheap rations, oil, gas, etc. We can also get access to some government schemes with it," said Kusum, who uses only one name.

Kusum, whose house in the village was reduced to rubble following torrential rain this year, has applied for a house under the government’s rural housing programme for BPL families—the Indira Awaas Yojana.

According to Sinha, the key focus is to ensure that people such as Kusum are included during the BPL census process. Consequently, the pilot exercise is happening in two phases. In the first phase, the survey team will collect and enter the data. In the second phase, a team representing the rural development ministry will carry out a participatory rural appraisal to enlist the views of the local population.

‘More than cooperative’

The states have been enlisted as stakeholders in the project and entrusted with the task of appointing the survey teams.

In Haryana, the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, a Chandigarh-based autonomous research institute, is the agency overseeing the task.

The investigators in Kathe Majra say the villagers are being “more than cooperative" while offering information, especially since they are unaware of the purpose of the survey.

“If they know the purpose, there is a possibility of them giving fake information," said Kuldeep Singh, the coordinator for the census in that area.

“We are trying to check as much as we can in terms of the information they are giving and their assets, etc. But we are not forcing them either since that might make them uncomfortable and wary," said Karamveer Sharma, an investigator for the census.

The questions range from queries about the respondents’ sources of income and past and present employment details to government schemes they have access to, their savings, tax history, housing characteristics as well as their asset ownership (land, vehicles, livestock, household utility items and personal luxury goods).

The rural development ministry expects 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 in April and finish it by October 2011.