Jul 20, 2013
The algebra of poverty. Juggling statistics, India now claims reduction in poverty
There is excitement in the air. I mean in the air waves. For the past two days I have been hearing the TV anchors and the Congress spokespersons repeatedly emphasizing on the latest miracle that they claim has been achieved. Poverty has come down by 15 per cent between 2004-05 and 2011-12.
For a country which loves miracles, this is certainly big.
National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data shows that the percentage of population below the poverty line has come down from 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 22 per cent in 2011-12. Planning Commission has last year (in Mar 2012) announced that poverty percentage has come down by 7.3 per cent, which means from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 29.8 per cent in 2009-2010. And now finally, the data for the eight years the UPA has remained in power shows a magical decline in poverty by 15 per cent.
Interestingly, the reduction in poverty is being flaunted at a time when the Planning Commission is still not sure about the new poverty line. Writing in the Hindustan Times, Chetan Chauhan says: "The politics of poverty is at play with the Planning Commission claiming that the number of poor came down from 29.8i per cent in 2004-05 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12, but failed to specify the poverty line (No of poor dips, but who is poor remains unclear. Hindustan Times, July 19, 2013. http://bit.ly/15TFG6J)".
Isn't it therefore interesting as well as curious to know how did the Planning Commission arrive at this magical figure when it has junked its earlier methodology of computing poverty at Rs 32 for the urban and Rs 28 for the rural areas. There was a big uproar in the country when the Supreme Court had questioned a very low poverty line. But as the news report said: "The commission’s deputy chairperson Montek Singh on Thursday avoided queries on the new estimates. The poverty number would come down whatever methodology is employed,” he said. If this is the way poverty is calculated I am sure you will agree that we need to revisit the entire methodology and the claims being made on the reduction of poverty.
This reminds me of another interesting fact that I had shared at a number of platforms. Soon after the economic reforms were unleashed in 1991, the then deputy chairman of Planning Commission Pranab Mukherjee (who is now the President of India) had brought down poverty from 37 per cent to 19 per cent in one go. I don't know why the present deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia has not tried to surpass his predecessor. Statistical jugglery could have helped him to reduce poverty not only by 15 per cent, but a more drastic 50 per cent. By doing that, he would have done the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) a big service and at the same time justified the need to continue economic reforms.
In any case, poverty reduction is a miracle considering that inflation as measured through consumer price index (CPI) had remained in the vicinity of 10 per cent for several years now, and at a time when the UPA-II has launched a massive right-based Food Security programme to reach 67 per cent of the population. If only 22 per cent of the population is poor I see no reason why the government should be providing legal food entitlements to 67 per cent of the population.
India's poverty line is amongst the most stringent in the world. Planning Commission can certainly bring down poverty whenever it wishes by simply lowering the poverty line slab. This is what I had said earlier in one of my articles: The Algebra of Poverty (Hindu Business Line, Jan 2, 2002. http://bit.ly/1992e6w). You thought we have learnt something from the past? Well, you can see it for yourself.