Updated: April 12, 2011 16:46 IST

Needed: systematic efforts to tackle deprivations

Brinda Viswanathan
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Policy formulation to reduce socioeconomic deprivation requires a sound knowledge of the incidence, extent, and persistence of the malady. The rate of absolute deprivation is arrived at by first measuring ‘poverty', which usually involves identifying a threshold for income or consumption. Those falling below that threshold level are considered ‘deprived'.


In recent times, there has been an attempt to move from a unidimensional to a multi-dimensional deprivation measure. Evidently, this is a more complex process since it requires identifying a threshold for each dimension of deprivation and assigning appropriate weights to the various dimensions for the purpose of indexation. Usually, the dimensions capture the ‘functionings' or the observed outcomes on health, education, and income.

However, a few researchers have, going along with the line of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, attempted to capture ‘capabilities' or choices available — as, for example, access to clean water, public health care, efficient source of energy, freedom to choose the type of livelihood — that enable individuals to achieve the desired outcomes.

What do not, usually, feature in the measures of poverty are the distributional considerations related to dispersion around mean or the distance from the threshold on the lower side. A common measure of relative deprivation deals with vertical inequality to compare inter-individual distribution in, say, wealth. Emphasis is now on measures that capture horizontal inequality or inter-group variations in, say, possession of wealth including the decomposition of overall inequality into contributions from within and between group inequalities.

Since the ultimate aim is to find pathways to reduce deprivation, the availability and quality of data play an important role in converting these measures into real numbers so that the target population is more accurately estimated and the intervention has a greater impact.

In this area of applied measurement, Jayaraj and Subramanian have made useful contribution for over a decade, and the book under review brings together their essays published in academic journals. Focussing largely on evolving new measures, the book discusses the effectiveness of existing ones in capturing deprivation. Anyone who ventures to read the chapters thoroughly and in totality may find the going tough (except in the case of the first chapter) unless he is mathematically and quantitatively inclined.


The introductory chapter provides a summary of the different extensions of poverty and inequality measures and their applications dealt with in the chapters that follow. The second chapter makes a comparison between a multi-dimensional indicator based on the capability approach and ‘school-less-ness' — an expanded definition of child labour. The latter concept covers all the children who are out of school, not just those engaged in wage employment but also those who are assisting the family in economic or non-economic activities.

The 1991 census data show a distinct correlation between higher incidence of ‘school-less-ness' and higher deprivation across States, going by the ‘generalised index'. Graphics are commonly used for visual impact while presenting comparative data related to poverty and inequality. Some new ‘devices' are employed to capture age structures of population (Chapter 6), ageing (Chapter 7) and women-to-men ratio across age profiles (Chapter 8). The illustrations serve to bring out the strengths and limitations of the popular approaches to measurement that largely miss out distributional aspects, while arriving at a measure of the core trend.

Wealth inequality of the horizontal and vertical types in India is the subject of a rare study that uses a huge body of information on indebtedness, and physical and financial assets covering four decades (Chapter 5). However, its findings that the phenomenon of highly skewed distribution of assets persisted over time — and more so in poorer States like Orissa — and that the self-reported nature of data on financial wealth understates the level of polarisation come as no surprise. The last two chapters are classic pieces for pedagogy in the incorrect assessment of data generated as well as the methodology used. Also, they should serve as a warning to the data collecting agencies and researchers against lack of diligence and rigour in analysis.

The chapters straddle different derived measures of poverty and inequality, and the contextualisation leaves one in a state of confusion as to their appropriateness to different situations. Possibly, the first chapter, written by Subramanian, could have addressed this more effectively.

The hallmark of the essays lies in contextualising the measures derived, without compromising on the ‘conceptual soundness', and supporting it with real numbers — and, in a few cases, also engaging in useful discussion as, for instance, on the use of ‘faulty procedures' in utilising the data. Overall, what emerges is that deprivation persists in certain regions and among certain groups, calling for more systematic and effective interventions.

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