We can’t rid India of the tyranny of the poverty line without a struggle

Biraj Patnaik, a right to food activist and principal adviser, Office of Commissioners to the Supreme Court in the right to food case, tells Mukesh Ranjan that the government should avoid being distracted by the concept of the poverty line

* How do you view the Planning Commission’s new definition of the poverty line, namely, daily per capita expenditure of Rs 28 in urban areas and Rs 22 in rural areas?
I have no problem with the Planning Commission or the government coming up with a definition of the poverty line. Unfortunately, the problem that we are facing now is that the poverty line is used (since 1996) as a cut-off in the estimation of the poor who will become eligible for government welfare schemes, and also for inter-state allocation of Central resources.

These new figures are not new but merely an adjustment of the “Tendulkar Committee line” for 2009-10 using the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data. The Planning Commission has not gone ahead and further reduced the existing per capita per day consumption on the basis of a new formula, as is being made out in some sections of the media.

Of course, having a “minimalist starvation line”, like the one that the Planning Commission has come up with for targeting benefits to people, is outright perverse; hence the public outrage that was also reflected in Parliament. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission does not seem to have learnt a lesson from the public outrage in October last year when Rs 32 per day was suggested.

It is the arrogance of a group of economists who think that public opinion, and indeed that of the courts, should be treated with contempt.

* Contradictory statements have come from the deputy chairman of the plan body and the minister of state for planning on whether the new poverty estimate should be linked to welfare entitlements for the poor.
I am not very optimistic that this government will delink entitlements from the proposed poverty line, which people are mocking. This is born out of experience. Therefore, public pressure is necessary. When the National Food Security Bill was placed before Parliament, to our utter disappointment the same Tendulkar caps (plus 10 per cent) found their way into the bill. It was an outright betrayal that, sadly, continued the faulty thinking that the National Advisory Council had gifted this legislation with. This reflects the true intent of the present regime.

On policy flip-flop, and contradictory statements emanating from Yojana Bhavan, I don’t think we should attribute to malice what can so easily be attributable to sheer ineptitude. If truth be told, it is not that the Planning Commission is a body of complete idiots, as some members within it are striving to prove. Yet, they are collectively doing a great disservice to the institution. Never before has Yojana Bhavan been an object of such public derision. That saddens me immensely.

Today, the Planning Commission is at war with itself. Institutional incoherence on critical issues is merely a symptom of a larger malaise. There is an urgent need for the plan panel to collectively reflect on its mistakes, learn lessons from them, fix accountability and try to re-establish its credibility in the public eye. It is way too important an institution to be whittled down. It is our duty as citizens to reclaim it for the poor from the corporate interests it is now perceived to represent.

* How do you see the government’s decision — announced recently following the ruckus on the new poverty line —to constitute a new expert group to look into the methodology of determining the number of poor people in the country?
If we move towards a system of universal state provisioning of basic rights (we have already done this for education and rural employment, and the same is under active consideration for universal healthcare), it should not matter what committee is set up and what the new estimates are going to be. But since ambiguity persists, this move to set up yet another committee can be easily interpreted as a cynical, ad hoc measure to bail the government out from the tight spot it finds itself in, in Parliament.

* Do you think the government succumbed to popular pressure to junk the poverty estimates’ announcement by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, which he had made just two days before the new expert group was constituted?
I suspect the last word has still not been said on this. I am not very hopeful at this stage that without sustained struggle politically, we can rid this country of the tyranny of the poverty line. Having said that, I am optimistic that sustained public opinion and efforts of the Supreme Court offer a very realistic chance of delinking entitlements from the official poverty line.

* Are you satisfied with the data on poverty collected by the NSSO ? Even Dr Ahluwalia has acknowledged discrepancies in the consumer expenditure data shown in the NSSO’s National Accounts.
I don’t think that the deputy chairperson has questioned the quality of the NSSO data.
It is a very robust set of data and I don’t see an alternative to it emerging in the near future. What he has indeed highlighted is the difference in some expenditure heads between the NSSO data and the National Accounts. This has been known for quite some time now. It is for economists and planners who work closely with these data sets to resolve this over time. I think by questioning the NSSO data we are doing the statistical machinery of India a great disservice. If we do not have faith in any institution, any data, any official body, then the roadmap ahead will only lead us to a fascist psyche, and that is something we must be cautious of.

* What, according to you, would be the right approach or methodology to determine the number of poor people in the country?
In my view, whatever approach we follow, we should not use it for targeting the poor. If the government, for whatever reason, cannot move towards a regime of universal coverage for all rights (legal and extra legal entitlements), it should use an exclusion approach to identification. Rather than spending its energies on identifying the poor, it would be way easier for it to identify the “rich” and exclude them from the entitlements meant for the poor. This approach was suggested by Kirit Parikh, a former member of the Planning Commission, in the context of the Food Security Bill.

Subsequently, Jean Dreze and other eminent economists have also endorsed it. I think that would be a step forward in the right direction.

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