‘Planning Commission affidavit not to be taken as the last word'

An embarrassed government swung into damage control mode on Wednesday, in response to widespread criticism of an affidavit filed by the Planning Commission that suggested that an individual income of just Rs 25 a day constituted adequate “private expenditure on food, education and health,” at a time when even the minimum wage was pegged at over Rs.100 a day, the exact figure differing from State to State.

Sources in the government clarified that the affidavit was not to be taken as the last word on identifying those who would be entitled to food security in the priority sector (those living below the poverty line) and that socio-economic data for 2009-'10 would be studied before any final decision was taken.

Meanwhile, a battle is brewing inside the Planning Commission, with members Mihir Shah and Abhijit Sen taking on the “official line.” “Firstly, there is no decision in government yet on how many people will be beneficiaries of any government programme or on how they will be identified,” Mr. Shah told The Hindu .

He pointed out that “the socio-economic census, currently underway, will pave the way for deciding which households will automatically be excluded [income tax payees, professionals etc] and which will be included [those without shelter etc]. The rest will be ranked, according to indicators of deprivation and provide the basis for prioritising households for different programmes.” To be entitled for food security, he said a person should fulfil two or three prescribed criteria, than an artificial cut-off income.

“There is need to have programme-based lists, creatively using different parts of the data that will be generated by the socio-economic census, which should be completed by the end of the year,” Mr. Shah said adding, “We don't need a BPL list.”

For instance, he said, the government programmes for housing (the urban or rural poor), for people with disabilities etc., could use different parts of the data base. The data that would emerge from the socio-economic census would be verified in the gram sabhas, so that people would have the opportunity to come up and say whether their personal data was correct or not. The data would also be placed on a website to ensure a “transparent and participatory” process.

Estimates of poverty

Referring to the affidavit, which based its assertions on the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report that pegged the poverty line at Rs. 447 a month (Rs. 15 a day), at 2004-‘05 prices, Mr. Shah said: “The Tendulkar report exercise was to create comparable estimates of poverty over a length of time and the impact of government programmes and policy on alleviating poverty. It does not in any way suggest who is entitled to get benefits under the proposed food security programme. The affidavit also suffers from the fact that it does not provide the criteria for who will be entitled to food security benefits, as this was a question that had been posed by the court.”

The reason for the “shoddy” affidavit was that it was prepared by “those who have no political stakes,” said the government sources, adding that the task of overseeing the drafting of the affidavit was left to a Rajya Sabha member, currently a Minister of State. The sources said the affidavit was symptomatic of major differences within the government on the food security programme, with a powerful section wanting to reduce the numbers.