A nationwide survey that will simultaneously map the economic, caste and religious backgrounds of the entire population was approved by the Union Cabinet on Thursday. The survey marks two firsts: firstly, in a break with past practice, the Below Poverty Line (BPL) Census has been widened to include urban areas; earlier, it was restricted to rural India. Secondly, the caste headcount, which will be conducted simultaneously with the BPL census, will be done for the first time after 1931.
Announcing the Cabinet decision, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told journalists, “This completely fulfils the assurance given by the government in Parliament to the Opposition parties to have a caste-based census along with the socio-economic profiling.”
In an effort to refine the BPL census, the government has redefined what constitutes poverty: Sanjay Kumar, Joint Secretary in the Rural Development Ministry, said BPL households in urban areas would be identified through an “inclusion criteria,” based on three factors — place of residence, social vulnerability (illiteracy, chronic disability or female headed households etc.) and occupational vulnerability (those in the most informal and least remunerative sectors).
However, the identification of their counterparts in rural areas would be done differently, he said. Here, the population would be divided into three categories — those at the top in rural areas (such as families owning fixed-line telephones, refrigerators and farmers with a credit limit of Rs.50,000) would be excluded, those at the bottom (such as destitutes, manual scavengers and primitive tribal groups) would be automatically included, and finally, for those in between to qualify for BPL status, there would be seven “deprivation indicators.”
At the Cabinet meeting, Ms. Soni said there was a long and thorough discussion on these seven “deprivation indicators,” with Ministers pointing out possible loopholes in those that had been listed. Eventually, Union Rural Development Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was asked to factor in his colleagues' suggestions before finalising the seven “deprivation indicators.”
The BPL census, Ms. Soni said, would be conducted by the Rural Development Ministry in association with the Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry and the Registrar General of India (RGI). The actual implementation is to be left to the State governments, who will deploy panchayat workers, patwaris and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act workers. The entire process would be completed by December 2011, and the results of the BPL census would be utilised in the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-13 to 2016-17).
While the BPL lists would be placed in the public domain in case anyone wishes to challenge inclusions or exclusions, the data on caste and religion would be given to the Registrar-General and kept confidential, Mr Kumar said. The last BPL census was conducted in 2002.
In the past, many Chief Ministers have challenged the BPL figures for their States, claiming that the numbers of the poor were much higher than those computed by the Centre. To a question, Mr. Kumar said that if any State government challenged the figures that emerged from the BPL census, it would have to sort it out with the Planning Commission. These figures were critical in the past, for instance, for foodgrain allocations for the PDS; in the future, allocations under the proposed Food Security law would also hinge on these figures.