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Poverty debate: Beyond definitions

Time to make debate meaningful by focusing on results

T N Ninan  |  New Delhi 

T N Ninan

Every time the government comes out with numbers showing lower levels of poverty, critics pre-empt any tom-tomming that the government might be tempted to indulge in. They point with derision to the low cut-off used to separate those counted as officially poor, from the rest. The late Suresh Tendulkar, who redefined the line some years ago, has come in for unfair criticism - because he actually raised the poverty line substantially. The result was that what was 27 per cent poor in 2004-05 under the old definition became 37 per cent using Tendulkar's definition. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pours scorn on the Tendulkar poverty line, used the old (lower) line to report poverty levels when it was in office, so its current outrage is synthetic. As for the government, it naturally finds it hard to argue against common sense, and to insist that if you have monthly family income of more than Rs 4,000 in rural areas and Rs 5,000 in urban areas, then you are not poor. So it says C Rangarajan is working out a new poverty line. But there is nothing to say that the Opposition will not pounce on a Rangarajan level too as being inadequate; the fact is that you can have as many poverty lines as the number of commentators on the subject.

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What the government could do quite easily is to point out that the Tendulkar definition of extreme poverty closely mirrors the poverty line used by 189 members of the United Nations to set the first of eight Millennium Development Goals - which is, to halve the level of poverty between 1990 and 2015 (something which, please note, India has already achieved). The definition of poverty used to set this goal is $1.25 per day. That would be about Rs 75 per day in a straight conversion to rupees at current exchange rates, but works out to about Rs 30 when you take purchasing power parity into account, as you are supposed to. As it happens, the Tendulkar line for rural areas in 2011-12 was Rs 27, and in urban areas Rs 33. So any criticism of the Tendulkar definition of extreme poverty runs smack into what is the internationally accepted definition. For some strange reason, the government finds it hard to point this out.

Still, there is merit to the argument that monthly household income of Rs 5,000 is a rather basic definition of poverty in contemporary urban India. This is where the second internationally accepted level for benchmarking poverty comes in useful - income of $2 per day. For a five-member family in India, this would work out to about Rs 8,000 per month - which would satisfy most observers as a more or less adequate cut-off line for measuring poverty (outside of the two main metros, where the figure may need to be higher). The point is that there is no need for any hard statistical grind by our homegrown experts. International benchmarks for defining poverty exist, they are universally accepted, and can be used without cavil.

The Amartya Sen-Jagdish Bhagwati debate over growth and/or broader indicators of progress, raging these past several days, can also be addressed by pronouncing periodically on India's progress with regard to the other Millennium Development Goals - attaining universal primary education, reducing by two-thirds the child mortality rate, reducing by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio, halting and reversing the spread of major diseases like malaria and HIV-AIDS, halving the proportion of population without sustainable access to safe drinking water, reducing carbon emissions (per capita and per dollar of GDP), and the like. We need to get beyond the first-hurdle debate on definitions and objectives, and focus on actual achievements/failures.

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First Published: Fri, July 26 2013. 22:50 IST