The controversy over who in India is ‘poor’ enough to receive state support has been partially laid to rest. A joint statement by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and the Minister for Rural Development has declared that data collected by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011 will be the basis for identifying those deemed eligible for entitlements under various central government programmes. India’s official poverty estimates based on the Planning Commission’s ‘methodology’ will not be used to cap the number of households considered eligible. The immediate need for this clarification was the controversy over an affidavit filed by the Planning Commission in a case in the Supreme Court. That affidavit was doubly problematic. On the one hand, without qualification, it declared a particular per person daily expenditure as the level at or below which a person was ‘officially’ poor. On the other hand, given the context, it implicitly suggested that this figure provided the benchmark to assess how many of India’s citizens qualified as eligible for state subsidies or support. The numbers that defined a person as poor appalled the media and the public: a measly Rs.32 or less in urban areas or Rs.26 or less in rural areas in a day.
What is not adequately stressed is that even these figures represent a considerable improvement on what used to be India’s much-discussed poverty line — computed by inflating an expenditure level from 1973-74 that ensured an adequate calorific intake. It was when that original poverty line was being considered as a possible cap to identify ‘beneficiaries’ eligible for government support that officialdom too realised its gross inadequacy. What followed was an effort by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee to revise upwards the poverty line, applying principles that were arbitrary. This effort was not without intent. It furthered the official agenda of curtailing subsidies, including those on food. Reducing subsidies required a step-wise process in which the Tendulkar Committee estimates played a part. The first of these steps was to move from a PDS that offered self-selecting universal access to one that was targeted at those below the poverty line. The second was to identify a set of indicators the prevalence of which could help identify the BPL population. And the third was to apply those indicators with a severity that ensured that only that proportion of the population in individual States that were under the poverty line would qualify for state support. Experience suggests that the consequence of such targeting is that many deserving support are left out, whereas many not needing it are identified as eligible. Universal access is the solution and the additional costs are unlikely to be high. This, unfortunately, is the lesson that the current ‘retreat’ to the SECC does not fully take account of.