Wednesday, April 7, 2010

India's unending riddle of poverty

Two interesting news items caught my attention the other day. One contained details of a Supreme Court report released last week that sought to redefine poverty in the country. The report authored by a former Supreme Court Judge, Justice DP Wadhwa, widening the definition of poverty, said that every Indian with an income below Rs. 100.00 per day should be considered as poor and eligible for official subsidies, including 35 kgs of grains for his/her family. Swelling the ranks of the poor, Justice Wadhwa’s benchmark for determination of poverty would add 500 million people to the official tally of around 250 to 300 million poor. The Wadhwa report has the potential of acquiring the status of a statute if it is accepted by the Supreme Court after hearings slated for next month.

One can really have no quarrel with the contention of Justice Wadhwa. In Rs. 3000/- a month a bread-winner can hardly provide shelter, food and healthcare for his/her family, leave alone education of his/her children in these days of high inflationary pressures, especially on the prices of food items. No wonder, therefore, hunger and malnutrition are stalking the country. That, of course, does not bother our politicians and that, precisely, what the second interesting news item I referred to indicates.

For them, the days of the rather unwelcome “austerity”, imposed by the government in September 2009, are over. The economic downturn, apparently, is well and truly behind us with the economy, showing remarkable buoyancy, has taken a high-growth trajectory. Hence, no more travel by “cattle class” by our ministers and bureaucrats. From 1st April 2010 onwards, they all will travel in their entitled class by air which, for ministers and senior bureaucrats, is first class, generally, with a free ticket for a companion thrown in. Viewing the uncalled for imposition as meaningless, many politicians accepted it grudgingly. Some others, who resisted, were made to fall in line.

Earlier, during the period of “austerity”, the ministers gave themselves a handsome gift by way of being able to carry unlimited number of companions in planes by business class. If plain MPs already enjoyed the facility, why should the ministers be denied the same? All this happened when reports of hunger and malnutrition had been sequentially rocking the nation. Likewise, with 60% children suffering from malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh, its legislators recently gave themselves a handsome hike in their pay and allowances. Our fat cat politicians are unable to empathise with the widespread poverty. The eminent agricultural scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, commenting recently on the paradox of grains rotting in godowns when people went hungry, said, “Poverty does not seem to stir our conscience”. The statement is actually directed towards the power-wielders and policy makers who are none other than the politicians and bureaucrats.

Be that as it may, Justice Wadhwa’s is the most recent of numerous past efforts to identify the poor. After sixty years of independence a poverty-stricken country such as ours is yet to identify the poor Indian. The question seems to be so complex that it has defied resolution all these years. Estimating the incidence of poverty in India involves the use of a minimum consumption expenditure, anchored in an average (food) energy adequacy norm of 2,400 and 2,100 kilo calories per capita per day. If one went by the criterion of World Bank – those who survived in less than $ 1 (Rs. 46/-) a day – there would be around 300 million poor Indians. However, a recent report submitted by the committee, set up by the Prime Minister for suggesting new methodologies for measuring poverty, headed by Suresh Tendulkar, an eminent economist, pegged the figure at 370 million. The estimates made by states based on household income further pushes up the figure to 420 million. Further, one recalls that Arjun Sengupta, the then Chairman of National Commission for Enterprise in Unorganised Sector, in his report submitted in 2007 on Conditions of Work & promotion of Livelihood in Unorganised Sector, showed that a staggering 836 million (about 77% of the population) lived on a per capita consumption of less than Rs. 20/- (less than 50 cents) a day. According to him, one was classified as poor – below poverty line (BPL) – if he lived in less than Rs. 9/- (25 cents) a day and others whose per capita consumption was less than Rs.13/- were above the poverty line (APL). Again, the World Bank recently estimated that 80% of Indians lived on less than $ 2/- (Rs. 96/-) a day. While $2/- a day is close to Justice Wadhwa’s estimation, the percentage of poor calculated by the World Bank is about the same as discovered by Arjun Sengupta. Apparently, our exceptionally high economic growth rate has had no impact on the country’s poverty.

So, the conundrum continues. Who is poor and how many like him are there in the country is not really known. And yet, the government spends of mindboggling sums of money on poverty alleviation have had no impact on the incidence of poverty. Allocations of money, grains and other benefits for the poor seem to have disappeared into thin air. The question has now acquired criticality with the proposed Food Security legislation. The amount to be spent on this score would depend on the poverty estimation chosen by the government. With the government not quite sure of the quantum of poverty, its liabilities on the food front could go through the roof once the bill becomes law. With a vague number of identified poor and an inefficient and corrupt public distribution system (PDS), it would be very ambitious of the government to fulfill its future legal obligations.

In the meantime, however, people, especially women and children, in several tribal pockets in Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc, are dying of hunger and malnutrition. While hunger can be tackled by supply of grains, tackling malnutrition is a different ball game. Malnutrition descends from one generation to another as under-nourished mothers go on producing under-nourished children – eventual dregs of Indian society. With unavailability of nutritious diet, the cycle continues, seemingly, unendingly.

Uncared for and helpless, such people need the government’s immediate attention. Forgetting about identification of the poor in cities, towns and villages, the government needs to concentrate on the areas which are struck by hunger and malnutrition. At least these areas and the people are identifiable as “poverty” is writ large over them. And, they are not in multi-millions. Rendering help to them by supply of grains and nutritious diet and ensuring their regular supplies, seemingly, would be more rational than making them dependent on a fraudulent and undependable PDS. And, the ‘really poor’ have no money to buy food, anyway. Besides, educating and advising them for stepping out of chronic poverty by providing means to acquire economic independence will go a long way to reduce their ranks. No legislation is required for ensuring them food security as precisely this is what the government is meant for.

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