Sunday, 25 March 2012

Indian Government's Poverty Line: Rs. 28 per day

Trying—and failing—to live on the govt’s definition of ‘not poor’

Dietetics Of Poverty
  • Three cups of tea, adding up to about 150 calories
  • Two slices of bread (100 calories)
  • Two pieces of kulcha with chhole (about 425 calories)
  • Bread and tea hardly contain any nutrients. Milk may provide some calcium.
  • Near-starvation diets, with hardly any vitamins or minerals, can lead to a breakdown of muscles and weight loss over a period of time.
It is 10 am now and the dust-haze tormenting Delhi for the last couple of days seems to have lifted to reveal a bright, sunny day. I am thinking food. I have never starved for food, but I’m trying. The extraordinary change proposed by the Planning Commission in terms of what constitutes the poverty line has prodded me into living on Rs 28.65 for a day. (Looking at it from a monthly point of view—Rs 859.60 for one individual—doesn’t really make it look any less scarier.)

How far will this take me in the urban sprawl of Delhi? Besides being hungry, I am angry. Just the day before, on March 20, the Planning Commission had startled every right-thinking person by coming up with some astounding figures on how poverty levels had actually reduced in the last five years, attributing this miracle to the economic policies of the UPA government, which has always scored high on rhetoric about concern for the aam aadmi.

I set out to fend for myself on the limits of destitution that defines the poor, according to our venerable Planning Commission. This poverty line is often a lifeline for the poor as it determines who is entitled to a house, toilet, and rice and wheat from the neighbourhood fair price shop.
I am certainly not poor. I am just trying to survive on a few rupees for one day. I live in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, in what is called the National Capital Region. My home is 31 km from my office in Safdarjung Enclave. Someone who lives on that amount would probably live on the streets close to their place of work, perhaps a begging corner.

In the throes of a real estate boom, Indirapuram is host to a huge migrant population from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. These people, labourers mostly, have made their home on the streets, in the shadow of the glitzy malls and shiny condominiums that dot the place. I discover that labourers living in makeshift homes, cooking their food out in the open, are too rich to qualify as poor. For they earn close to Rs 100 a day, more than three times over the limit.
Angry and hungry, on the morning of March 21, I set off after having a breakfast of two slices of bread (Rs 2) with pickle paste slapped on. This is a luxury, the neighbourhood chaiwala tells me. He is always grumbling about the rising prices of milk (Rs 29 a litre) and sugar (Rs 40 per kg), and charges Rs 5 for one plastic cup of tea. The day has just begun. I decide to walk 2 km to the nearest bus-stand to save on rupees.


Those earning Rs 100 per day, such as masons, plumbers, construction workers, are too rich to be counted as poor.

I discover that in the suburbs, getting the right bus is nothing short of a miracle, as everyone drives cars and there’s hardly any public transport. But before I take off on generalities, back to my predicament. Some rickshawalas try to tempt me to take a Rs 5 ride for two kilometres. They say that on a good day, they may make Rs 150. I realise that they are far too rich compared to me. 

I have to take the bus, as it’s the cheapest option. I walk those kilometres to the stand. Bus No. 543 will take me close to my office. The ticket from Ghazipur to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where I disembark, costs Rs 15. I have already spent Rs 22.

My fellow traveller, Pilana, who describes himself as a nomad and who makes Rs 70 a day selling rings, is going to Gurgaon in search of new markets and superstitious people looking for a change in fortune. He has spent Rs 60 for the bus tickets of his family of four. I realise with a tinge of sadness that this guy’s rings haven’t changed his luck.

Hunger by now is gnawing, overriding thought, emotion and sentiment. What can I eat for Rs 7? The Outlook office serves free tea. The dhabas near the office provide meals for Rs 20. At 1.30 pm, I finally decide to have chhole-kulche—a plate costs Rs 15, up from Rs 12 some six months ago. My decision is made easy by the fact that it is the cheapest option. I borrow from a photographer colleague and eat my princely meal. Still quite hungry, tired and fed up, I sit down to write this story. I barely survived half a day to tell this tale. Even the poorest among the poor cannot survive on this figure. That would leave the destitute of India permanently hungry.
In all, my total calorific consumption was 677, and nutritionist Veena Shatrugna from the National Institute of Nutrition says that a 63 kg adult female like me needs a minimum of 1,285 calories provided she doesn’t work. That’s the bare minimum required to keep the body together and survive without collapsing. I could have stayed at home and cooked lunch, but the poor hardly have the luxury of not working—even to survive.

The only thought that comes to mind is that a human being can only starve on that new “poverty line” figure. If someone has children, they will be severely malnourished, with retarded mental and physical development. I also know that beggars earn more than this amount. The migrant labourers who leave their homes and families do not qualify. So who really are India’s poor? Are there some bonded labourers in some corner who are forced to work and given this amount that then entitles them to some benefits from the government? How bad does the human condition have to be before the government condescends to help you?

Swaminathan Aiyar defends Rs 28 as the right figure for poverty in the Times of India

The government is corrupt and incompetent. People are, quite rightly, sceptical of its integrity. But it has not fudged the poverty data to exaggerate the fall in poverty, as alleged by innumerable politicians and TV anchors.

I have long criticized government statistics as too often being misleading or plain wrong. But those critics of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, who claim he has “rigged” the poverty line downward, are more wrong than any statistical department.

The commission is surely guilty of gross incompetence. It said in an affidavit to the Supreme Court last year that the poverty line for 2009-10 was Rs 32 per day in urban and Rs 26 in rural areas. Barely six months later, it now says those were merely back-of-the-envelope estimates, and that detailed state-wise data on inflation now show that the poverty line was actually Rs 28.65 in urban and Rs 22.40 per day in rural areas. The Commission may think it’s okay to release provisional data and later revise them, but it was truly daft to submit a figure to the Supreme Court which it knew could be wide off the mark. If it was unsure of its figures, why did it not tell the Supreme Court to wait for the hard data?

When the initial poverty line estimate of Rs 32/day in urban areas came out last year, TV anchors and politicians screamed that nobody could live on so little. Last week’s downward revision of the poverty line rural areas has produced an even greater howl of outrage. The outrage is entirely justified on the ground of Planning Commission incompetence. But it is quite unjustified on the ground of fudging. Abhijit Sen, the Planning Commission’s left-wing member-economist, would never tolerate fudging to exaggerate the fall in poverty, and he has certified the accuracy of the new poverty line.
Let’s do a reality check on what the standard dal-roti diet costs the poor. Opposition politicians, NGOs ,and TV anchors have challenged Montek to show one can live on Rs 28.65 per day, at a time when a litre of milk costs Rs 37 and six bananas may cost up to Rs 30. They have castigated Montek for sitting in an ivory tower, totally out of touch with ordinary folk and reality.

Sorry, but the facts show otherwise. Those out of touch with reality and prices are the critics, not Montek. Politicians and TV anchors are well-off, and consume tandoori chicken and fried fish plus milk and fruit. But poor folk live essentially on dal-roti.

Any housewife will tell you that wheat costs up to Rs 20 per kilo and chana dal up to Rs 45 per kilo. A standard daily calorie intake of 2,000 calories can be met by 400 gm of wheat (1,600 calories, cost Rs 8) and 100 gm of chana dal (400 calories, cost Rs 4.50). The total cost comes to just Rs 12.50.
Labourers doing hard physical work may need 3,000 calories/day, but even that implies just Rs 18.75 worth of dal-roti, well below official poverty lines.

The World Bank has a global poverty line of $1.25 terms, adjusted for low prices in poor countries through purchasing power parity (PPP). The leftist star of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof Himanshu, estimated last year that the PPP dollar was worth Rs 19. So, the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 translates into Rs 23.75 per day. This is slightly above the government’s rural poverty line of Rs 22.40 but far below the urban Rs 28.95, and roughly equal to the all-India average poverty line of Rs 24.25.

The World Bank poverty line has been accepted globally for decades, so it is somewhat ridiculous for Indian critics to suddenly declare—quite erroneously—that people cannot live on so little. The harsh reality is that hundreds of millions across the globe are living on half as much. That is a tragedy. But it does demonstrate that neither the World Bank nor Montek Ahluwalia is setting poverty lines below starvation level.

The Planning Commission says the proportion of poor Indians has fallen from 37.2 % in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10. Sceptics say the fall is too sharp to be true. I would argue the very opposite—that the fall in poverty is actually even sharper than indicated by the 2009-10 survey. That year was a terrible drought year, and this would have artificially inflated the poverty rate.

Another NSSO survey is being done in 2011-12, and i am willing to bet that this will show a big fall in poverty over 2009-10—because the 2011 monsoon was normal. Any takers?

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