The impending BPL Census exercise will not help the poor; on the contrary, it will further deny them a fair share in national resources.

The BPL, or Below Poverty Line, Census 2011 for the rural areas will start in select States this month. In a country such as India with vast numbers of the poor, counting the poor often becomes an exercise in undercounting and dividing them, to suit the wholly inhuman policy of targeted provision of what should be universal rights. But since this is an intrinsic part of the present neoliberal framework, it is necessary to look at the actual design of the census. After the earlier questionnaires that were used to identify the poor faced widespread criticism, the government had promised a change. But except for the removal of a few absolutely objectionable questions that were in the 2002 questionnaire, the 2011 questionnaire remains problematic. The 2002 questionnaire included questions on the number of meals one ate each day and the number of saris owned: you got into the BPL category only if you ate a meal once a day, or owned one sari. These questions have now been removed.

The 2011 questionnaire includes an automatic exclusion category and an automatic inclusion category — new additions to the design. It, however, retains the ranking system for the rest, who will make up the majority of the rural population. The 2002 BPL questionnaire had 13 questions, each with a score of 0-4. The total score ranged from zero to 52, with zero denoting the most poor. The 2011 questionnaire has only seven questions. It has a 0-7 score, with seven denoting the most poor.

Exclusion

An easily verifiable exclusion category for the BPL Census would be unexceptionable, given the reality of social and economic inequalities in rural India. But the present criteria seem geared to stretching the 13 categories that would qualify for automatic exclusion to a much higher percentage of the total. There can be no objection to the exclusion of government employees, income tax payees, those who own tractors, or those who hold kisan credit cards with a credit provision for Rs. 50,000. But the list “automatically excludes peasants with 2.5 acres of irrigated land who own a tubewell.” With hugely fluctuating incomes, large debt burdens on poor peasant households, vagaries of the weather, droughts or floods, such automatic exclusion would amount to meting out grave injustice to a large section of rural India.

Another questionable exclusion is that of a household with “a non-agricultural enterprise registered with the government.” Even micro-enterprises run by women's self-help groups, for example, are registered with the government. So are many others, and why should they be automatically excluded? There are other such examples.

The experience in Tamil Nadu, for example, has shown that self-exclusion of those who do not require the subsidy benefit turns out be more accurate and fair than otherwise. Moreover, automatic exclusion criteria make sense when the rest of the population is automatically included. But this is not the case in the present BPL Census design.

Inclusion

On the contrary, the five-point automatic inclusion category is so absurdly narrow that it is unlikely to cover even 5 per cent of the rural poor. Destitute people have been defined as those living on alms: they will be in the automatic inclusion list. But if, for example, a family of two senior citizens who are forced to work, say, four or five days a month just to survive, they will not be included as destitute as they do not “beg.” Others include “households without shelter, manual scavengers, primitive tribal groups, legally released bonded labourers.” Presumably, if the worker has run away from bondage he or she is not legally released and therefore does not deserve automatic inclusion. Even social categories such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the disabled, widows, and casual manual workers are not automatically included.

Ranking

With such a narrow set of automatic inclusion criteria being applied, the large mass of the rural poor will be marked poor or non-poor through a ranking system. The questions are odd and have little connection with actual conditions. Suppose you are a tribal family of five members — Mina Usendi, aged 35, her mother aged 58, a 17-year-old boy and two polio-affected girls; owning half a bigha of agricultural land but doing manual work to survive. How would you be marked in the seven-point questionnaire that would make you eligible or ineligible for a BPL card?

Question 1: “Houses with one room with kutcha walls and roof.” Since within the small plot of land that you own, you have erected a kutcha house with a kutcha roof with two small rooms (not one), on the first question you will score zero.

Question 2: “Household with no adult member between age 16 to 59.” Since you are 35 years old and therefore an adult, on the second question also you score zero.

Question 3: “Female headed family with no adult male member between age 16 to 59.” Although you are a woman, and you head your family, since your eldest child is a 17-year-old boy, you will get a zero rank.

Question 4: “Household with any disabled member and no able bodied member.” You have two children who are disabled, affected by polio. But since you are able-bodied you get zero on this question.

Question 5: “SC/ST households.” Since you are a tribal, you will get the score one on this marker.

Question 6: “Households with no literate adult above 25 years.” Since you are 35 years old and have studied up to Class 4, you are literate and therefore will again get a zero.

Question 7: “Landless households deriving the major part of their income from manual casual labour.” Since you own half a bigha of land, even if it is dry and unproductive, even though you work from morning to night as a casual manual worker, you will still get a zero.

Therefore, someone like Mina Usendi, a tribal woman heading a family, who depends on casual manual labour to survive, will get just one point on a score of seven.

This is just one example of how the method of ranking and also the questionnaire are bound to ensure that only a small percentage of the poor can score the highest or near-highest marks. It is like trying to distinguish between the ‘poor,' ‘very poor,' ‘very very poor,' ‘extremely poor,' and so on. This is the classic manner in which neoliberal policymakers make poverty “disappear.” You are no longer poor, because you are not as poor as the poorest of the poor!

Terror of cut-off marks

The Ministry of Rural Development and related departments at the State level have the job of identifying the poor according to the seven-point questionnaire. But the number of people who will be recognised as being poor is determined by poverty estimates, and the “caps” on numbers of the poor as determined by the dubious methods and assessments of the Planning Commission.

Thus, for example, to get 42 per cent, which is the poverty “cap” set for West Bengal, the cut-off score may be four. Those who score below four will be deprived of the card. The cut-off for each State will differ. A person in Madhya Pradesh who has the same score of four may not get into the BPL category. This is because, in order to suit the “cap” of the Planning Commission, the cut-off score in Madhya Pradesh may be five as there may be many more families with a score of 5-7 than there are in West Bengal. This is the terror of cut-off lines.

In this scenario it is most unlikely that Mina Usendi, with a low score of one, will get a BPL card.

The BPL Census is designed to suit the wholly arbitrary and utterly unfair State-wise “caps” on poverty that have been set by the Planning Commission. It can be safely said that this entire census exercise is not meant to help the poor such as Mina Usendi, but on the contrary to further deny them a fair share in national resources.

(Brinda Karat is a Member of Parliament, and a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India-Marxist.)

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