Measuring deprivation, want and hunger is limited and the failure to do so accurately deprives people of their right to affordable food, social security and health care.

There is a bewildering maze of debates about defining and measuring poverty and hunger. I am reminded of an irreverent economics professor who compared statistics to a hapless impoverished tribal man arrested in a police station. “If you torture both enough,” he tells his students, “you can force them to admit to anything!”

Yet we cannot afford to ignore the sometimes abstruse intellectual polemics around estimating poverty and hunger levels and trends, because especially since the 1990s in India, this calculus has been deployed by public planners and finance managers to justify cutting back public expenditures on social and food security. They targeted a hitherto universal public distribution system (through a country-wide network of subsidised food grain ration shops), to only those who are officially ‘measured' and certified to be poor. This approach persists in current officials proposals around the Food Security Bill. When poverty lines are fixed by politicians and administrators with one eye on political implications and another on budgetary ones, commentator Ashwani Saith pithily surmises that this “usually leads to a squint and to cock-eyed vision”.

Severely minimalist

Most poverty lines are constructed around the severely minimalist premise of the least amount of money that an allegedly ‘average' man or woman would require to buy the cheapest food that, when eaten, would metabolise into the minimum calories that he or she requires to lead an active and healthy life. This was pegged by Indian planners at 2100 kilocalories for urban and 2400 for rural persons per day for ‘ normal' work, based on recommendations by the Nutrition Expert Group to the Planning Commission in 1969. Yet studies have established that heavy work such as that which is typically the burden of casual daily workers, such as earth cutting, carrying headloads, mining and pedalling rickshaws, requires even higher ‘food fuel' for the body, close to 3550 kilocalories. Food denials for the unorganised and destitute poor, therefore, take a heavy toll in terms of avoidable sickness and early deaths.

The claims of declining poverty are based on surreptitiously changing goal-posts. Utsa Patnaik painstakingly establishes that even these extremely modest minimal standards of caloric intake prescribed for calculating poverty thresholds, have been quietly (and she believes dishonestly) abandoned by policy planners in India, to mythologise about rapidly falling poverty levels. In 1999-2000, for instance, the price adjusted poverty line was Rs. 328 per month per rural person. By this count, the proportion of poor people in Indian villages had impressively fallen to 27 per cent from 37 per cent in 1993-94. But Patnaik points out that planners are silent that a monthly expenditure of Rs. 328 could enable a person to access at best 1890 kilocalories a day, as much as 500 kilocalories below the modest minimal norm of 2400 officially fixed three decades earlier. If the government adhered to its own norm, as many as 74.5 per cent of its rural people were consuming less food than minimally deemed necessary for an active healthy life. The latest official poverty estimates by the Tendulkar Committee accepts calorie norms of 1800 calories, suggesting that this is an adequate standard for India.

Further, a child in school would tell you that a nutritious diet requires not just calories for energy, but also proteins, and a range of vitamins and minerals. The niggardly poverty line is based on consumption of cereals, which supply calories but not most other nutrition needs. Further, the severe poverty line standards of our national planners, requires them to purchase only the cheapest food, regardless of their cultural and personal preference. Bardhan believes that people should be excluded from poverty calculations if they “forego the opportunity to buy cheaper sources of calories and protein just because these items are not tasty enough”.

Saith counters by asking whether the poor are “permitted to have palates and preferences? A sweet tooth perhaps? Would life not be a misery for a Bengali or a Punjabi deprived of sweets?” I recall the poignancy of the aged Bengali widow in Deepa Mehta's gentle film “Water”, who dreams for years of eating sweets, and cannot survive the ecstasy when finally she once realises her longing. He asks if poor children are entitled to eat “junk fast food occasionally – not often enough to get obese, but occasionally at least to know how the other half thrives, and to harbour the illusion that they belong to the same universe as other children?” Are poor people only entitled to making ‘good' and ‘wise' choices, whereas even mildly wicked indulgences or fun remains only the rightful preserve of those who are privileged?

Many assumptions

There are many other obvious pitfalls to regarding household expenditure as a measure of well-being. It assumes that impoverished people can depend on reliable, accessible and satisfactory quality services of health and education from the public sector. For instance, a Working Group of eminent and learned economists in 1962, after great debate, fixed the poverty line at a level that excluded any expenditure on health and education. They justified these by simply assuming that both of these would be provided completely free of cost by the State, because it was a constitutional mandate; it also assumed urban housing would be subsidised by the State. These assumptions are light years away from the lived from realities of most poor families. The Centre for Policy Alternatives constructed an alternative poverty index based on expenditure required minimally for basic needs of nutrition, healthcare, clothing, shelter etc, and even by their austere standards, in 2001 an monthly expenditure of Rs. 840 per head, which would place 68.5 per cent of the urban and 80 per cent of the rural population below poverty, a far cry from the upbeat government claims at that time of a fall of poverty ratios to 26.1 per cent.

Actual poverty surveys, when conducted under official patronage, have very damaging outcomes on the chances of survival with dignity and security of the poorest families, by blocking their access to official food and safety nets. For instance, the Planning Commission instituted a rural survey of poor families based on a somewhat whimsical 13 point scoring scale. By the norms of the survey, a household was in peril of being regarded as relatively well-endowed and consequently ineligible for subsidised food and other government aid if its home had a pucca roof, a toilet, children attended school and some of its members were educated, it accessed credit in times of need, and they occasionally ate non-vegetarian food. The survey, in effect, disqualified hunting and foraging forest-based tribals and fisher folk, or conscientious poor people who benefited from government sanitation drives, or those who sacrificed a great deal to send their children to school. The selection of urban poor families is even more arbitrary, based on local enquiries by often corrupt officials of the notorious food department, when poor households apply for ration cards. The procedures effectively rule out those who are most needy in any city, because of their constantly contested citizenship - migrant workers, rag-pickers, homeless populations, wandering mentally ill persons and leprosy patients, destitute people who live by begging, residents of illegalised and demolished slums, minorities (especially if they come from Eastern India and are therefore suspected Bangladeshi illegal immigrants), construction labour, rickshaw pullers and head-loaders, sex workers and domestic workers.

There is an old proverb that what the eye cannot see, the heart cannot grieve. The capacities of governments to see, measure and then list deprivation, want and hunger seem currently acutely limited. Their failures deprive people of their rights to affordable food, social security and health care. But in fact there is no dearth of talent, professional knowledge and resources available to public authorities. What they needs perhaps is just a little more compassion.