Playing with numbers, and lives

The Planning Commission, headed by the prime minister, has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court quantifying the daily poverty line for an adult as Rs 26 in rural, and Rs 32 in urban India. At today's relentlessly increasing prices, Rs 26 will not get a manual worker even one nutritious meal a day leave alone the 2,400 calories he is required to eat to enable him to work, according to ICMR standards. Some years ago, in the tribal areas of Udaipur in Rajasthan, studies on the impact of drought on deprivation levels showed that members of tribal families had to take turns to eat, and at times an adult ate only once in two or even three days. This is the hunger standard that the Planning Commission wants to impose throughout the country that if you and your children eat more than once a day you cannot be considered poor.

Estimates of poverty are useful as broad indicators which can help governments formulate and monitor policies. This is how they were used in India till the 1990s, but changed with the introduction of the inherently anti-poor system of targeting as a core plank in the so-called economic reform policies. This necessitated the identification of the poor in very concrete terms, family to family, since henceforth a growing number of poverty alleviation programs would be restricted to only those officially recognised as being poor. In the years that followed, crucial government programmes like food subsidies, health, housing, bank loans, pensions, help to children and adolescent girls have all become targeted. Thus it becomes all the more obligatory for the government to have a transparent and just system of poverty estimation and identification.

Instead what we have is an utterly fraudulent, non-transparent and arbitrary system, presided over by the Planning Commission, which has usurped all powers to decide the criteria and estimates of poverty. In the last decade there have been repeated criticisms recorded in the reports of parliamentary standing committees, from state governments, political parties, activists and thoughtful economists, but to little avail.

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