(This is a post by Jacob Kuncheria. Cheri, as he is known to friends, works for Reuters in Delhi and is interested in development issues, Satyajit Ray films and Hindustani music.)
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has suddenly woken up to the gross underestimation of poverty in India. In Rajya Sabha on Thursday Murli Manohar Joshi asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if the current definition of poverty in India was not a joke on the poor and whether this was not a means to mask the extent of poverty. A noble sentiment indeed, but let the record also show the BJP made no effort to improve upon the faulty schema of identifying the poor when it ruled between 1999 and 2004.Worse, that government, of which Joshi was a cabinet minister, presided over a major fudging of poverty measurement, tweaking the process of data collection to falsely show poverty had fallen under its regime.
It is certainly true that the official poverty estimates in India do not indicate the true extent of deprivation in the country. The poverty line is the cost of the cheapest foods that can supply the barest minimum of energy a person needs. Currently, if a villager earns over 12.26 rupees a day, or an urban citizen earns over 18.36 rupees daily, she is above the poverty line. That sum would not buy a McDonald’s burger even at their happy price menu, to make a rather cruel comparison.
Man cannot live on calories alone, he needs proteins and vitamins and minerals too, but the standard does not see the need to incorporate that. If a person sold her cow, her pots and pans or her land to make buy food, the income increase would actually push her above the poverty line. To add pain, the norm does not concern itself with the question of whether the supposedly un-poor actually eat the food supposedly purchasable at that income.
Studies have shown that the lack of state-provided health care, housing and education lead poor households to spend an increasing amount of their income on private providers. This reduces food consumption, and invariably, the deprivation is pronounced in women, girls and children. It is no wonder India is home to 40 percent of malnourished children, and its record is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. The amount of anaemic women and girls and the ensuing high rate of maternal mortalities, among other damning health statistics clearly point to the inadequacy of the measure. Hence, the poverty line is not just a line under which one is poor. Rather, it is an indicator which says: if you earn below this, it’s a miracle you’re alive.
THE BJP’s “MIRACLE”
Now to the BJP and poverty. The estimation of how many people are poor is done by measuring household income, which is the subject of a survey conducted every five years. Households are quizzed on their spending in the month, and a rise in this indicates increased income. If more households spend more, it means the number of the poor as a percentage of the total population has fallen.
In the 59th round of this survey in 2003, when the BJP was in power and painting rosy images of India Shining, an additional question on weekly spending was asked of households. A minor change, but when posed right before the question on monthly spending, led the respondent to quadruple the weekly answer to give the monthly figure. This number was clearly incorrect, for there are weekly variations in income and consumption, given the fact most of India’s poor have no fixed jobs or wages.The data that emerged gave an inflated consumption number, indicating incomes had risen under the BJP’s rule and the government had been successful in fighting poverty.
The easiest way of ending famine, it seems, is expunging the word from the language itself! And the poor have no idea of their great fortune, they know not how many tears are being shed in their name.