The Planning Commission had no choice. The results of the 2009-10 edition of the five-yearly large sample survey of consumption by the National Sample Survey Organisation are in the public domain. So it had to release the official estimates of poverty that are based on them. They point to a seven-percentage-points reduction in the national incidence of poverty between 2004-05 and 2009-10. Rather than serve as an indicator of the UPA's achievement on the human development front, however, those estimates are turning out to be an embarrassment for the government. Public attention is focused on the fact that the “poverty lines” on which these estimates are based appear ridiculously low: a per capita daily consumption expenditure of Rs. 28.35 and Rs. 22.42 in urban and rural areas respectively. The government has only recently been subject to ridicule because of an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court suggesting that a measly per capita expenditure of Rs. 32 in urban areas or Rs. 26 in rural areas in 2010-11 would serve as the benchmark to define those who would be treated as being below or above the poverty line.

This is not a mere statistical issue. That line was also initially presented as the benchmark to determine who would or would not be eligible for access to a range of state subsidies and benefits. Having come under attack for excluding much of the poor, the government had to retract. It held that eligibility for state support would be determined using a different methodology with data collected by a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC). That exercise is nowhere near complete. The official poverty line has a sanctity derived from its role in identifying “below poverty line” beneficiaries. That ‘line' is, however, controversial. It was meant to identify those with an average daily per capita calorie intake below 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas. But the result underestimated severe deprivation and was far below the figure yielded by the direct evidence on per capita calorific intake. So the Tendulkar Committee used a set of arbitrary principles to arrive at a new poverty benchmark that would be more “inclusive”. But even that figure is now seen as absurdly low. In the event, the government is caught in a statistical trap over poverty. It would do well, therefore, to give up its effort to find a benchmark for targeting its flagship social programmes and opt for universalisation, which has much else to recommend it as a principle. The poverty estimate would then not matter much.

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