Quantification of Poverty helps preserve status quo and protect existing hierarchies
This is the second post in a two part series. Read the first post here.
Responding to pressure that the poverty line should be delinked from poverty alleviation programmes, the ministry of rural development introduced the Socio Economic and Caste Census in 2011. The SECC was not to replace the poverty line, but was to provide ‘information regarding the socio economic condition, and education status of various castes and sections of the population’ and ‘enable households to be ranked on their socio economic status’ to identifying families that live below the poverty line.
Withholding the Census Data
The Census results were released in 2015, after a delay of over three years. What is striking is that till date both the socio-economic indicators of various caste groups nor urban data have not been released. The only information available is data on SC and ST households among the rural households in each state.
Two inferences may be drawn. First, urban data has been withheld to conceal the alarming urban rural inequality in India. Second, the caste data has been withheld as it exposes uncomfortable truths about the socioeconomic condition of marginalised social groups like Muslims and the large numbers of other backward classes, who are estimated to be around 54% of the population in 1931. It may also be seen as an attempt to suppress data about the upper class dominance in government employment. In fact, when the UPA proposed such a census, it was heavily opposed by the RSS, arguing that such a move may rekindle the caste system that had ceased to exist.
Whatever may be the contents, withholding such data highlights an equally pressing problem of government interference in official statistics and the interplay between politics and statistics. The government has interfered in the past as well, by withholding the release of data on the state of malnutrition collected through the Rapid Survey on Children and delaying round 3 of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). It has been suggested that the data contained information about Gujarat`s poor performance for instance, in the Public Distribution System which the BJP has an interest in hiding. The problem is not unique to the present government. The UPA remained silent over the SECC and scrapped the NFHS-4 completely instead of using the data for better policy interventions. While one cannot attribute all statistical failures to the politicisation of data collection, politics definitely played a role, with successive governments showing not only lower poverty rates but also controlling the content of the data as is the case of the SECC.
Poverty Measurement and Government Policies
Government policies that target the poor also serve as important battlegrounds for the politics of poverty measurement to play out. While the purpose of the poverty line was merely to monitor the poverty numbers and ascertain whether government policies were successful in reducing the number of people below the line, in the 1990`s, the poverty line became a tool to limit the number of people who were entitled to benefits under various schemes. Lowering the poverty line would mean that governments needed to cover fewer citizens under the various schemes and could appear more successful.
India`s public distribution system is an example of one of the largest welfare programmes that made available essential food items at rates that were only a fraction of the market rates to those exclusively below the poverty line. Under political pressure, the UPA government delinked most schemes from the poverty line during their second term. Yet, in practice, several schemes continue to rely on the poverty line the fact ignoring the fact that the line was set at the level of bare existence and disentitled those above the line who may move below the line at any point of time from availing of BPL cards although their position was no different from those below the line. For example, pension schemes for the old were available to those who spent less than Rs 11 in rural areas per day and less than Rs 17 in urban areas per day amounting to a poverty ratio of 28% instead of 36%, which was the cut off for distributing food grains under the public distribution system. Thus, although 1.86 crore people were eligible, only 1.28 crore qualified for the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Even in 2012, only 1.46 of the 2.28 crore eligible people could avail of the scheme.
Poverty Estimates and Centre-State Allocations
Another aspect of political disagreement is the difference in poverty estimates between the centre and states and the allocation of funds for various schemes. States are tasked with identifying the poor and distributing Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. However, the Planning Commission (NITI Aayog) decides the poverty line based on consumption expenditure independent of state poverty line and extends central funds to the state only to the percentage that it considers poor based on its official poverty line. States are then required to bear the additional expenses for the extra individuals themselves but are often unable to do so. State governments have often argued that the centre has been too restrictive in estimating the poverty line failing to take into consideration state level variations in socio economic conditions. The Planning Commission itself noted that state governments had issued 29 million more BPL cards than would have been issued if the official poverty line was followed. This has also encouraged patronage politics in decentralised states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh issuing more BPL cards than less decentralised states.
One cannot conclude that the problems with the measurement of poverty are exclusive to the Tendulkar line. While the Rangarajan line is higher in terms of estimates of absolute poverty, it is interesting to note that the rate of poverty reduction computed using the two lines and the decline in rural urban poverty rations is largely similar, 8.1% using the former and 8.7% using the latter. The fact that the Rangarajan line indicates a marginally higher rate of poverty reduction makes it apparent that while responding to the criticism that the old line was too low, the government was careful to ensure that changes to the form does not interfere with its ability to fit into existing bureaucratic and state programmes that seek to preserve the power hierarchies between the rich and the poor. Whatever be the method of determining the poverty line, at a mere Rs 32 or Rs 46, it is nothing more than a destitution line. Yet, it will never be called a destitution line. Narratives matter and the way debates over poverty are framed furthers the process of impoverishment by ensuring that the question that is asked is not how much should be allocated to lift people out of poverty but how many households can a fixed budgetary allocation cover. This justifies low government spending on health, education and other factors that determine an individual’ s capability to move up
Despite the many debates about poverty lines being artificially constructed, successive governments continue to rely on it as in instrument of political power although constituted outside the political process. Its long term survival has depended on policymakers and others defending them as useful. What then is the relevance of poverty data when the poverty line has been delinked from most programmes that target beneficiaries? I have argued that they help preserve status quo and protect existing hierarchies, hiding the impoverishment of the poor. Having been accepted as useful in economic and political discussions as the best available way of quantifying poverty, they allow political decisions to claim a scientific basis, and thereby becoming resistant to change.
Mrinali Komandur is a 4th year student at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
Image Source: The Hindu