The poverty debate refuses to die down. Stung by public uproar, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia has decided to revisit the poverty line of Rs 32 a day for urban areas and Rs 26 for the rural areas. Newspaper reports say the Planning Commission may consider redefining the poverty line, at a meeting scheduled on Oct 3. Planning Commission member Mihir Shah has been quoted in Business Standard as saying: "The Rs 32 poverty line to determine who is poor and who is not poor will go".
Another Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen has been strongly advocating for the removal of caps in BPL surveys. "The moment the caps are removed, the poverty line would become redundant as a means of deciding funds given to States for BPL schemes like food distribution. The poverty line would then be something like GDP estimates." [Plan panel to eat its words on poverty definition, Business Standard, Oct 1, 2011. http://bit.ly/pfiHBj].
Well, even if the BPL caps are removed, I don't think the primary issue of what constitutes the poverty line will disappear. It is a bogus estimate that has been deliberately made by economists for over 50 years now. It is not based on common sense, and as I said earlier it is nothing short of a crime that mainline economists have been merrily perpetuating against millions of poor in the country.
Still more amusing is the effort to seek media attention over the faulty poverty line. After the Right to Food campaign suddenly woke up and wrote a memorandum to Montek Singh Ahluwalia (they had never questioned the contours of the poverty line), I got an invite by a TV channel yesterday to be on a show where two members of the National Advisory Council were also to participate. I inquired about the subject that we were to discuss, and I was told it is about an open letter they had written to Mr Ahluwalia challenging him to live on Rs 32 a day.
I was amused, and told the journalist that I would have loved to be on the show but I was far away driving in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Nevertheless, when I looked at the newspapers a day later, I felt sad. Why do activists have to try these tricks to stay in the news columns? Why can't Right to Food campaign raise some fundamental issues of the inability of the State to reach food to the poor and needy that are so relevant in the debate on hunger? Anyway, take a look at this report: Live on Rs 32 a day: Aruna to Montek. IBNlive, Sept 30. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/r8JQCM.
Enough has been said and written about the guffaw on poverty estimates. There is no denying that the poverty estimates are completely flawed. You cannot live on Rs 32 a day. As I have been repeatedly saying for several years now, you can't even raise a pet dog in the amount the Planning Commission wants us to believe that a human being can be fed adequately. And don't forget, the food component of the Rs 32 cut-off is only Rs 18. So the question that Right to Food campaign should have asked Plan panel members is to explain the basis for treating this (the food component) as 'normatively adequate'.
It is true that Rs 18 a day for food expenses would only qualify the poor to be living in abject hunger.
That brings me to another relevant and related question. Some of the activists named by the media in its headlines were also on the forefront of the MNREGA campaign. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which recently completed five years of its existence, has been providing 100 days assured income to at least one member of the poor and marginalised families. For a moment, ignore the issue of rampant corruption and how much the MNREGA funds reach the real beneficiaries. I would like to challenge the distinguished activists to live for 365 days on an income they receive for 100 days. If the poor can be expected to survive for a whole year on an income they get for 100 days, why can't other sections of the society also be comfortable with 100 days payment every year?
Will the activists demonstrate the relevance of 100 days assured employment in a year? If the poor are expected to be doing other things for the remaining 265 days, we can also allow you the same benefit. But please show us if you can live for a year on just 100 days employment?