A new committee set up by the rural development ministry aims to correct the egregious criteria that have hitherto determined who constitutes the poor.
Does it matter how you identify the poorest if ultimately they get less than Rs 15 a day? The government, which spends over Rs 100,000 crore in various poverty alleviation schemes for them, needs to know who or how many the intended beneficiaries are.
An expert committee set up by the rural development ministry is reworking the criteria for identifying the poor. While it may not be so bad to survive on less than Rs 15 a day, what is worse is to officially condemn the poor to illiteracy and poor living conditions, as the present criteria for identifying the poor do.
The existing criteria are the worst comment possible on the insensitivity of bureaucrats towards poverty. As per the 13-point criteria to identify those who earn less than Rs 1 5 a day (devised by the rural development ministry in 2002 for the BPL Census then), anyone who is literate, has a pucca house, or has access to drinking water/toilets, is not poor. It even counts the clothes each person has.
In fact, the identification was programmed to prove the success of the government’s poverty eradication schemes, rather than actually reach out to those who need help. So if anyone has a roof over his head, he is excluded. If he has been to school, he is excluded. If he has access to a toilet, he is out. The negative message that this sends out to the rural poor across the country is that if they do not happen to meet any of these criteria, they will be rewarded with BPL cards. One can only say it’s a blessing the committee did not include criteria like people eating ants and leaves.
The present identification committee, headed again by a former secretary of the ministry, has begun discussions on changing these egregious criteria. While some members suggest modifications, others want them to be completely rooted out. The criteria have done more damage to the country’s development than anything else, says economist and member of the panel, Santosh Mehrotra.
The first BPL Census conducted in 1992 for the Eighth Plan was based on income, viz Rs 11,000 per family per annum. The second BPL Census was undertaken in 1997 for the Ninth Plan and was based on consumption. Expenditure details on food, clothing and other basic amenities were collected, and people with more than two hectares of land, a pucca house and consumer durables were excluded. In 2002, the rural development ministry which conducts the census devised a third method after finetuning the second, resulting in the disastrous 13-point criteria.
Will the new method turn the clock back to identifying the poor on the basis of income rather than consumption and living conditions? Committee members say that the idea of income-based identification has been found a failure and can never make a comeback. It has to be exclusion criteria which are verifiable and observable. For instance, members are looking at excluding families that have a member working in the formal sector. Again, the disabled, widows and the landless are obvious choices for beneficiaries.
When the government has implemented a programme of cash transfer to students in Orissa, and may soon come up with more target groups, education and literacy cannot be penalised with exclusion from the minimum benefits of possessing a BPL card. Again, with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme targeted to reach at least four crore of the poorest this year — giving them a few, if not 100, days of assured paid work — income also cannot be a criterion.
6 months ago