Home / Opinion / Views /  Charcha 2022: Ending ultra-poverty in India

Extreme poverty, as per the International Poverty Line, was expected to affect between 9.1% and 9.4% of the world’s population in 2020, according to The World Bank Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report. The term ‘Ultra Poverty’ itself was coined by researcher Michael Lipton and defines the ultra poor as those who spend 80 percent of their total expenditures on food and cannot attain 80 percent of their standard caloric needs. They are variously referred to as ‘extreme poor’, ‘ultra-poor’, ‘poorest of the poor’ and, often, interchangeably.

The ultra-poor have many significant differences from the poor. The households living in ultra-poverty are tied to unpredictable availability of wage labour, own few or no assets of even a non-durable nature, have limited livelihood prospects and are socially, economically, and geographically isolated. They tend to be food insecure, living on less than 2 meals a day. Malnutrition exacerbates illnesses that further drain resources, leading to borrowings from exploitative moneylenders. There are several government safety net programs, and large-scale government livelihood programs that are targeted at the poor, however, many of these programs do not reach the ultra-poor and the most vulnerable. They are also often out of reach for market-based solutions.

For policymakers and practitioners in India, the question remains on how to identify and size the ultra-poor in a country with such diverse contexts of marginality. The most recent frame of reference remains the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) data focussed on looking at multiple deprivations. SECC 2011 captured data on the socio-economic status of 17.97 crore rural households of which 0.16 Cr. (0.91%) households are identified as poorest of the poor and were automatically included on the basis of the number of deprivations faced by them. The challenge with using the SECC 2011 data is its datedness against the inevitable population growth and shifts that have taken place over the last decade. What does the reality on the ground tell us?

Government programs for the poorest of the poor (PoP) have evolved context specific strategies for targeting and identifying the ultra-poor. Bihar, through its State Rural Livelihood Mission, is implementing the ‘Satat Jivikoparjan Yojana’ program to graduate 2 lakh households out of ultra- poverty; these households being identified as toddy tapper families, women-headed households from Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes and single women-headed households. In Jharkhand, the special project UDAAN works with Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) who are characterised by declining or stagnant population, as undertaking pre-agricultural activities and largely dependent on forest-based livelihoods, with very low levels of literacy and living in remote and scattered geographies. Governments of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have targeted the poorest of the poor through convergence programs like the Attapadi program with the Irula and Muruga tribal and Kurumba PVTG communities, and the Unnathi program that continues to serve the PoP among the SC/ST community. Similar efforts are being made with Vantangia and Sawariya communities, in Uttar Pradesh. Learnings from all these interventions have reinforced the need for a special strategy for addressing the issues of the ultra-poor communities on account of their particular and multidimensional deprivations, as also the need to involve the community- based organisations for the final vetting of the identified households. What is remarkable in these projects is the identification of these communities/households as ultra-poor by the rest of the rural communities, who are themselves also experiencing vulnerability in their own context. They speak strongly of the need for special support for groups like the elderly and abandoned, destitute and orphans and families with disabled members as the sole earning members of the household. What can this special support entail?

The graduation approach is a tested and evidence driven approach to ‘graduate’ the poorest of poor out of ultra-poverty based on the premise that special multifaceted and sequenced interventions are required before these households can join any large-scale savings and credit based or market-oriented livelihoods programs. The program is centred on intense hand holding of the identified households through motivated and well-trained field cadres. It includes a consumption grant to provide ‘breathing space’ for the household to learn livelihoods activities, a ‘big push’ livelihood grant (either for agriculture, livestock, a small enterprise, or a combination), household-level enterprise planning and development support, access to rights and entitlements, access to food and nutritional security, health and education services and support through special institutions to address the unique challenges of the poorest of the poor. Most recently, the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) has initiated work with PVTGs and other ST/SC communities using the graduation approach in the 3 districts of Palamu, East Singhbhum and Godda, with the technical support of The/Nudge Institute. The program will be evaluated extensively for impact, effectiveness, and durability over the next 3 years and subsequently scaled-up. Building on these experiences, with the endgame of eliminating ultra-poverty in India, would undeniably contribute towards India’s journey in becoming a developed country.

Nita Kejrewal is joint secretary, ministry of rural development. This topic was discussed at ‘Charcha 2022’, organised by The/Nudge Institute, a convening of policy, business and civil society leaders. Mint was the event’s media partner.

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