The Planning Commission’s controversial poverty figures — with BPL pegged at Rs. 33.30 and Rs. 27.20 in urban and rural India respectively — will have “no impact on the government welfare schemes” said the Congress, as this definition will not be used to identify beneficiaries.

“The Planning Commission’s poverty figures,” Congress communication chief Ajay Maken told The Hindu, “will have no impact on the 150-odd schemes, as we have de-linked them from this definition of BPL. At the moment, only one scheme remains — the old age pension — and the government is in the process of de-linking that as well.”

So, why were the figures released with so much fanfare on Tuesday? “It’s just an academic exercise,” Mr. Maken said, “to understand the impact of the policies and programmes on poverty – it has nothing to do with identifying beneficiaries. You can see we have already said that the food security law will cover 67 per cent of the population.”

Planning Minister Rajeev Shukla too tried to do some damage control, saying the latest estimates were just a preliminary assessment by an expert group, and that regardless of the BJP’s criticism, the population of poor people in the country had dwindled faster during the UPA regime than it had in the BJP-led NDA’s six years regime.

But the damage has been done, and it has been compounded by party MP Rasheed Masood and spokesperson Raj Babbar speaking glibly of being able to buy meals ranging from Rs. 5 (in Delhi) to Rs. 12 (in Mumbai) — remarks that have been greeted with hoots of derision not just by the twitterati but by all Opposition parties. A senior Congress functionary told The Hindu of his discomfiture with his colleagues’ comments, saying that the party would have preferred it if they had remained silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, for the second day running, the Opposition parties had a field day questioning the credibility of the Planning Commission’s figures – that those living below the poverty line had shrunk to 21.9 per cent in 2011-2012 from 37.2 per cent in 2004-2005.

BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi took the lead, charging the government with mocking the plight of the poor and misleading them in a bid to cover fewer people under the Food Security Act. “It [the estimates] proves that the government defines poverty as per its whims and fancies. It increases the number of the poor or decreases it as and when it wants,” he said.

The CPI(M) said the estimates made “a mockery of life and death struggles” of the people, amid the continuous rise in prices and “massive” slashing of subsidies for the poor. The UPA government is carrying out an “exercise of deceit” before the elections to show that the poor had benefited during its tenure, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury said. “The manner in which this has been done only reconfirms an age-old English adage — there are lies, damned lies and statistics,” he added.

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