New data for rural households revealed by the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) represent a grim reminder of the state of rural India. In over 90 per cent of households, the main earning member makes less than Rs. 10,000 a month. Over half the households are landless and a similar share of them rely on casual manual labour for the larger part of their income. Just 20 per cent of households own any kind of a motor vehicle. These numbers should come as a reality check for those who talk of India’s unbridled growth, and arrival on the global stage as a superpower. The countryside remains unable to find jobs that can pull families out of poverty. Agriculture remains at subsistence levels, with low mechanisation, limited irrigation facilities and little access to credit. Just over 3 per cent of rural households have a family member who is a graduate, so skilled jobs are going to be hard to get. Female-headed households, and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households are the worst off. The eastern and central States of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha have the poorest indicators. Even in the developed southern States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, family incomes are low and dependence on casual manual labour is high. Meanwhile, early results from the urban SECC suggest that levels of deprivation, while lower in cities, are still shockingly high.
What the government chooses to do with the data is as yet unclear. While commissioning the SECC, the UPA government had spoken of creating flexibility to enable States to draw up their own combinations of indicators to create tailor-made definitions of poverty. The Narendra Modi government is yet to make its intentions clear on the SECC, especially with regard to the thorny issue of where to draw the line. Instead of a fresh round of unseemly wrangling over precisely where to set India’s poverty line, the government would be well-advised to expand and universalise its social protection schemes, and leave some space for States to innovate. It would also be wise for the government to release caste-wise information on socio-economic indicators collected by the SECC but not yet put in the public domain. Those numbers would allow, for the first time since 1931, for the relative socio-economic status of various caste groups to be compared while framing policies of affirmative action. This government stands accused of suppressing vital new information on the status of malnutrition among children, contained in a survey commissioned by the previous government through UNICEF. It should not make a habit of suppressing inconvenient data. The Indian public might hotly contest some of these numbers, particularly those relating to caste, but even angry debates represent a democratic right that must not be curtailed.