So, where have all the poor gone?

Published: January 4, 2010 - 18:43 Updated: January 4, 2010 - 18:45

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is proud of the political economy of liberalisation. "There is no evidence that the new economic policies have had an adverse effect on the poor," he said in Bhubaneswar on December 27, Sunday. He is emphatic that economic reforms have brought down the number below the poverty line. "Ideally, facts are quite clear. The percentage (of people) below poverty line has not increased. In fact, the population below poverty line has declined after economic reforms, at least at the same rate as it was before."

So, if the prime minister is correct, is the Suresh Tendulkar committee report recently submitted to the Planning Commission, wrong?

According to the report, below the poverty line percentage is not 27-28 per cent as last stated officially, but 37-38 per cent. The report categorically states that 41.8 per cent of people in rural India live below the poverty line as against 25.7 per cent in urban India. The officially accepted level for rural poverty was 28.3 per cent. Besides, in the UNDP human development index based on the quality of life, India stands at 134 among 182 nations.

The committee has done a paradigm shift on the concept of poverty line in terms of money spent per person per month. From Rs 356.30 a month, this has increased to Rs 446.68 in rural areas. In urban areas it has risen from Rs 538.60 to Rs 578.80. So what's the big deal in terms of the political economy of 'upliftment'?

As is the norm, the Centre would hitherto measure poverty by measuring the calorie intake. But the Tendulkar committee has marked a new methodology, moving towards a larger definition that includes spending on food, education, health, and clothing.

In 1993-94, rural India had 50.1 per cent of Indians living below the poverty line and urban areas had 31.8 per cent. The total below poverty line population was as high as 45.3 per cent. Tendulkar is categorical that the flawed official method helped the government suppress the real picture by projecting low figures on poverty, and it could actually be much more.

Indeed, among Rightwing economists and exerts in the pink papers, there are these hysterical bouts to dabble with dubious dots to prove that poverty is on the decline in India and that people are flourishing, spending, having a gala time.

So why is the prime minister making it all seem so rosy? And has he not read the Arjun Sengupta report submitted during his own tenure by National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector with Sengupta as its chairman?

An overwhelming 836 million live on a per capita consumption of less than Rs 20 a day, that is, almost 77 per cent of Indians. These are the stunning findings of Sengupta, an eminent economist, in the report on the 'Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihood in the Unorganised Sector'. The report is based on government data from 1993-94 and 2004-05.

The preface of the report read: "One of the major highlights of this report is the existence and quantification of unorganised or informal workers, defined as those who do not have employment, work and social security. These workers are engaged not only in the unorganised sector but in the organised sector as well. This universe of informal workers now constitutes 92 per cent of the total workforce. We have also highlighted, based on an empirical measurement, the high congruence between this segment of the workforce and 77 per cent of the population with a per capita daily consumption of upto Rs 20 (in 2004-05) whom we have called "poor and vulnerable". The number of persons belonging to this group increased from 811 million in 1999-00 to 836 million in 2004-05."

But what is the great leap forward for the extreme poor? Their per capita consumption has gone up from Rs 9 to just about Rs 12, an increase of Rs 3!

Look at the blurred lines of this manufactured consent. An Indian is classified as absolutely poor if the per capita consumption is less than Rs 9 a day. However, if the per capita consumption is Rs 13 a day, then this Indian is now proudly lifted above the poverty line, like a game in an artificially hallucinatory zone of hyperbole.

Indeed, from his busy schedule, the prime minister can take a creative detour. He can simply stop his VIP convoy at the Nizamuddin Bridge towards east Delhi, and walk across bang opposite the Commonwealth Games Village. He can then witness for himself his prophetic words spoken on Sunday. Indeed, he can see the rows of dilapidated tin shacks where the poorest of the poor who are 'building the games' have been 'kept'. A scholar that he is, he will then find the sweet revelation, the bitter realism, the commonwealth of the broken dreams of Indian democracy.


This story is from print issue of HardNews