How Much Poor Is Poor: Even Beggars Are Not Poor Enough!
By Shahidur Rashid Talukdar
19 May, 2011
How much poor is poor enough? If you ask this question to the Planning Commission of India, you might be highly disappointed at the response. Many of India ‘s poor die out of hunger and because they don’t have acceptable housing. Some of India ‘s poor even live in makeshift homes on train station platforms, an example of the 78 million Indians who lack proper housing facilities. Still, according to the Indian Planning Commission’s criteria on what classifies as a poor person, many of these individuals may not be considered poor enough to be considered as living below poverty line (BPL).
Poverty is a widespread and well-acknowledged problem in India . To know how poor India is you need simply to look at the people and the places around and you will have good grasp of the situation. However, when it comes to the government accounts, the abjectness of the poverty situation seems to be grossly underestimated and even ignored in many circumstances.
Reacting to a petition by Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties , the Supreme Court of India recently asked the Planning Commission to fix the problem. "You ( India ) are a powerful economy” the court said. “Yet, starvation deaths are taking place in many parts of the country. What a stark contradiction in our approach. How can there be two Indias ?" The court also challenged the Commissions approach to estimating poverty level among the masses. As the Economic Times reported , “The Supreme Court slammed the Planning Commission, asking its Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia to explain how the percentage of people living below poverty line (BPL) fixed at 36 percent and how has their purchasing power remained unchanged since 1991.”
Responding to the apex court’s queries, the Planning Commission disclosed its criteria for determining a poor . According to the Commission, an urban Indian spending more than Rs 578 a month ($13) – roughly Rs 20 (less than 50 cents) a day would exceed its limit for the poverty line. The figures are even lower for rural India . If a villager spends more than 15 rupees a day on the entire gamut of basic needs including food, clothing, and shelter – the villager cannot be termed as poor enough and will not be entitled to receive benefits meant for poor
Based on these consumption levels, the commission has declared that only 41.8 percent of the rural population is poor and a mere 25.7 percent of the urban Indians need food, shelter and social benefits from the government. These criteria for persons living below poverty line (BPL) explain very well how half of India may starve to death but the Government may say India is not poor. By these measures, most beggars will find it difficult to make it to the list of poor people.
The Planning Commission’s criteria of daily spending of less than 50 cents as an indicator for poverty not only shows their lack of concern for people but also shows their unawareness about the cost of living in the country. How can a person afford a nutrition content of 2400 calories , a minimum requirement for the rural India , from a meager 15 rupees (about 35 cents)?
This criterion grossly underestimates or rather ignores other expenses like housing, clothing, and medication. Where in Urban India one can find housing for less than Rs 600 ($ 14) given the rent of an average house is no less than Rs 3000 ($ 65) a month? The Planning Commission fails to account for the very basic amenities of life for the poor. This is highly disappointing, as the criteria for deciding BPL fail to capture the cost of bare minimum amenities for survival.
If we push the criterion up to the international standard spending of $ 1.25 (PPP adjusted) a day, the Planning Commission estimates about 45% of the Indian population is extremely poor. If the daily income per head is $ 2 then the family is described as poor and about 80 percent of Indian Population is poor by this criterion.
Comparing these figures with the developed nations, we can understand the relevance of the BPL criteria. United States , for instance, has hardly anyone living below this spending level of a dollar or two per day. The USA follows its own national poverty line, an income over $26000 a year for a family of 5, which is well above the international line of $ 1.25 a day.
So what can one think of the Planning Commission’s stand: Is it sheer ignorance of the reality or a calculated strategic measure? If the level of poverty can’t be reduced, lower the criteria to such an extent that most of the poverty will remain underestimated and hence unreported and ultimately, the problem will be ignored or at least it will not draw as much attention as it otherwise would.
But not everyone is as ignorant as the planning Commission’s statisticians. The Supreme Court once again has noticed the inadequacy of the criteria for measuring the BPL level. The Court has directed the commission to re-evaluate its criteria for measuring poverty across the nation.
Thanks to the Supreme Court for intervening in this case. Otherwise, poor people would be dying hungry and shelter-less, while the Planning Commission would say they are not poor enough!
Shahidur Rashid Talukdar is a PhD student in Economics at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX. He may be reached at contact. He blogs at: / .
The good food guide for India’s poor, and other nuggets
DNA / Patralekha Chatterjee / Monday, May 23, 2011 2:11 IST
The Planning Commission’s revelations about the life and times of India’s poor threaten my domestic peace. Tulsi, my cook, revered by friends and family, has just announced that she is leaving. My loss is the Planning Commission’s gain. She is joining its communications department.
“Should not the poor get some of that money that is spent in studying them? Besides, it is mighty unfair that at a time when high petrol and food prices are straining family budgets, shopping secrets of those teetering on the edge of poverty are not being shared,” she declared last week.
It all started with the buzz around counting India’s poor. There were animated discussions at home about the Planning Commission, the august body which defines the poverty line in the country on the basis of spending. One of its expert committees has recommended that a total monthly expenditure of Rs578.80 per person, or less than Rs20 per day per person, as the cut-off point for urban poverty, based on a national survey. This includes expenditure on some 24 items including food, education and health.
Snatches of overheard conversation got Tulsi thinking. As a cook and someone who has to feed five family members and a houseguest who refuses to leave, she wants to know, and tell, the story behind those figures.
To put the record straight — Tulsi is not among Delhi’s poorest of the poor. And yet, she can afford only ‘rejected’ vegetables at discounted prices at the end of the day. With this, her monthly food bill hovers between Rs5,000 and Rs7,000. Tulsi would like to know where you can buy vegetables, fruits, cooking oil, even footwear and clothes, at the rates that the experts have catalogued.
Semi-rotting tomatoes sell at Rs5 per kilo, Tulsi discovered. Even if a person were to live on semi-rotting vegetables, his/her monthly bill for veggies will still be way above Rs36.60 which the Planning Commission says isthe cap to be eligible for social benefits for the poor.
Many experts argue that the government simply cannot afford to dole out social benefits to so many poor people any more. The Supreme Court disagrees, and has ordered the government to distribute five million tonnes of food grains to the poorest districts of the country.
New surveys to count the poor are in the pipeline and some hope there will be a new poverty line.
Meanwhile, Tulsi is doing her homework. After joining the nation’s planners, she intends to ferret out their list of real estate agents. She would like to know how a city dweller in India today can rent a place, and have some leftovers for conveyance, for Rs30.68 a month. In Delhi, even a cowshed (without its original occupants) is hired out at a minimum of Rs1,000 per month.
The pavement offers possibilities but converting a patch into one’s family home would necessarily involve a deal with law enforcement agencies.Such ‘deals’ are indexed to the rate of inflation and thus chances of making one at Rs30.68 a month are slim.
Tulsi would also like to be taken on a guided tour of shops where you can get a pair of slippers within Rs6, the monthly cap for footwear for the urban poor. Back in rural Satna in Madhya Pradesh, where she comes from, Tulsi bought a hardy pair made out of car tyres for Rs10. That was 15 years ago.
As an aspiring communications professional, Tulsi is naturally excited by out-of-the-box ideas to deal with the poor who are, quite often, very hungry. Examples abound. A few years ago, a principal secretary in the Bihar government wanted to promote rat meat to deal with food shortages.
There were twin advantages to his proposal, he pointed out.First, catching and eating rats would save about half of the state’s food grain stocks. Second, by eating this protein-enriched food, poor, landless and illiterate farmers, mostly among the Musahar community, would be improving their lot.
Nothing wrong with rat meat as antidote to hunger, experts may say. After all, the Chinese love bird’s nest soup. Cambodians relish cricket, the insect. Mexican gourmets swear by ant larvae or escamoles. And lobsters, the rich man’s delicacy, was once the poor man’s food in North America.
Tulsi has got her future mapped out — a cook, a communicator, and next, a chronicler of good food for the poor, fusing expert-speak with her everyday experience.
Patralekha Chatterjee is a Delhi-based writer.
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