The New Poverty Line: A Dangerous Misclassification

Posted on March 28, 2012 in Society

By Anshul Kumar Pandey:

It has always been a mystery to me, how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.” -Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp.129

What may have been a mystery to the Mahatma has become an act of daily parlance for the Dr. Manmohan Singh-led Planning Commission, an agency responsible for framing the policies and the ‘developmental’ framework for India’s teeming millions. In a move that shocked people across the political and economic spectrum, the Planning Commission, in data released on March 20, proclaimed that 5 million Indians have been lifted out of poverty in between the period 2004-05 and 2009-10. How did this happen? It did not happen by implementation of Social welfare schemes or better efficiency in targeting the beneficiaries of Public Distribution System, but by one stroke of statistical genius which wiped off those 5 wretched millions overnight from the list of those who could avail benefits of the schemes run by the government for the poor, simply because in the eyes of the Planning Commission, they were no longer poor!

Is this poor enough for you, Planning Commission?

The Times of India, while reporting the story, chronicled the process through which this pre-meditated humiliation of India’s poorest of the poor was brought about:

The new estimates are based on a poverty line that averages Rs 672.8 per month (Rs 22.43 per day) in rural areas and Rs 859.6 per month (Rs 28.65 per day) in urban areas for 2009-10. In a state like Delhi, the urban poverty line translates to Rs 34.67 per person per day. In the Supreme Court, the government had submitted that the updated poverty line was likely to be Rs 26 per day in rural areas and Rs 32 per day in the towns in June 2011.” (Times of India, March 20, 2012)

If we were to round off figures, the poverty estimates for the rural and urban areas come out to be Rs. 22 and Rs. 29 respectively. And this, as the TOI article points out, is even lower than the figures submitted to the Hon’ble Supreme Court by the government in an affidavit dated June 2011.

For me, this means two things. Firstly, the current government is so ensconced in its own halo of intellectual arrogance, that it has taken the poor of this country for granted, choosing to serve only a select few — those who qualify the rigorous criteria of being ‘technically’ poor in this country. The government of our country is very fond of setting up criteria for this and that, but is equally fond of doing absolutely nothing for those who, after all, manage to qualify. These ‘beneficiaries’ of social welfare schemes, officially christened as the people Below Poverty Line (BPL), have to daily undergo that humiliating process of carefully documenting and meticulously putting together the proof of their deprivation and exclusion from the economic benefits of the society which thumps its chest in the name of 7 per cent growth and claims of being an ‘emerging superpower’ (Ironically, a recent London School of Economics report authored by eminent economists and intellectuals across the globe pointed out that India can never be a superpower, no matter whether its emerging or submerging).

Secondly, such an attitude clearly bespoke volumes about the government’s intention in managing the public affairs. Even after scores of scams, which came out of nowhere and resembled the debris which falls from the sky after the destruction of a colossus, I still had that little bit of optimism and patience that is inherent in every Indian. Maybe this government will get its act together now, maybe it will realize after the resounding defeat in the recently-concluded State Assembly Elections that it is moving on the wrong track, maybe it will stop shifting its goal post and will correct its agenda, maybe this and maybe that. However, now it has become clear and transparent, beyond any possibility of doubt, that this government does not intend to serve its poor. For them, the prosperity and growth of the country lies in the hands of the materially-sedated middle class and tuxedo-clad corporate class which complement each other as the former consumes uninterruptedly and the latter packages the things to be consumed (of course, production is left to the poor working class, isn’t it?). The poor are just appendages — people who have been somehow left out of the developmental process even after the much touted neo-liberal policies, which have sucked and exploited them to the last drop of their blood, to the last figment of their clothing, the last morsel of their food and to the last thought of their imagination. Their valleys have been sold, their water has been contaminated, their soil has been eroded, their air has been polluted and their land has been snatched away from them for the ‘ambitious developmental agenda’ that this government has embarked upon since assuming power.

Now, their lives are being priced.

How much should you live on for the government, to realize that they have some responsibility towards you? How little should you consume for those in power to really look at you in pity and reluctantly do something for you? How many more days should you suffer humiliation and neglect for the rulers to realize that you are not a cross to bear — as the country trundles along its skewed path of ‘development’, but you are, in fact, citizens who have to be treated as equals and taken care of?

And yet, as new developments inform me, India’s first female President has proved to be the costliest so far, with the state spending Rs 205 crore on her foreign trips. She is due to retire in July, but before that, another trip to South Africa is being said to be on the anvil. This only reminds me of the stubborn demand that the Mahatma stuck to when the country got Independence. He wanted the country’s leaders to convert the Rashtrapati Bhavan to a hospital or something that would prove useful to the country’s poor citizens, and wanted the President, the Head of the State, to rule from a normal quarter in Delhi. It was with great difficulty that he was persuaded and the Viceroy’s house became the ‘Rashtrapati Bhavan’.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have relented. For had The Mahatma been alive today, he would have hanged himself, like what the 20 odd farmers of Vidarbha do every day, after seeing the contrast in the extravagant spendings of the titular head of the state, and the humble perseverance of India’s poor in their bid to survive, despite repeated attempts by the State to choke their resources, to cut their access to the agencies of survival and to make them die a slow, painful, and humiliating death.

As a student and a part of that privileged class of citizens who have the ability to afford proper food, clothing, shelter and English education, I can only try to feel the agony felt by the poor every day. I can only write a few words of support, few words of solidarity and only hope, that somewhere, someone in the ruling establishment may stumble upon the cluster of these sentences and may derive a substantive meaning out of it. I can only hope that my pen provides comfort to those who have lived in such squalid poverty and have risen to be able to read what they are reading write now. I can only hope against hopelessness.