SECC not irrelevant just yet

CRUCIAL EXERCISE: There are now multiple reliable estimates of the extent of rural poverty. In picture are Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Minister for Rural Development Birender Singh (right) during the release of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan  

The release of data for rural households from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) is only the latest step in India’s tortured history of trying to count its poor. The idea behind the SECC was technocratic. Commissioned by the United Progressive Alliance in 2011, it was meant to canvass every Indian family, both in rural and urban India, and ask about their economic status so as to allow Central and State authorities to come up with a range of indicators of deprivation, permutations and combinations of which could be used by each authority to define a poor or deprived person. It was also meant, for the first time since 1931, to ask every person their specific caste name to allow the government to re-evaluate which caste groups were economically worst off and which were better off. As it happens, neither of those objectives is likely to be served.

The feeling was that the current definition of poverty — which was derived by identifying a basket of essential goods and services and marking the point in India’s income distribution where that basket could be purchased by an individual — was missing too much. For one, the numbers seemed absurdly low — set at Rs.816 per person per month in rural areas and Rs.1,000 in urban areas by the Planning Commission by updating the Tendulkar methodology, the numbers amounted to a daily expenditure of around Rs.30, which caused public indignation. A new committee was formed which drew a new line, but the Rangarajan methodology too wound up at a poverty line not very different from the Tendulkar line.

Broader definition

So, a broader and more dynamic definition of poverty seemed important. The SECC measures deprivation along seven criteria — households with only one room with no solid walls and roof, those with no adult member aged 15-59, female-headed households with no adult male aged 15-59, those with differently abled members and no able-bodied member, SC/ST households, those with no literate member above the age of 25, and landless households deriving a major portion of their income from manual casual labour.

The problem is that little of this was not already known. The decadal Census, which interviews every Indian, was conducted in the same year and collected data on condition of houses, asset ownership, whether the family belonged to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe, marital and fertility status and education, among others. The National Sample Survey Office’s regular nationally representative surveys collect information of land and asset ownership, consumption expenditure and nature of employment. The NSSO does not ask direct questions on income as it believes respondents find it difficult to accurately estimate their income, but the National Council for Applied Economic Research’s 2011-12 India Human Development Survey asked a nationally representative sample of their incomes.

So the SECC in effect offers little more than a reminder of the grim realities of rural India. The starkness of this reality should not be dismissed — in over 90 per cent of rural households, the top earning family member makes less than Rs.10,000 per month. Just over 3 per cent of households have a family member who is a graduate. Over half rely on casual manual labour, and fewer than ten per cent have salaried jobs. Over half have no land, and fewer than five per cent own agricultural equipment. Fewer than four per cent have access to agricultural credit of over Rs.50,000. Just 20 per cent own a vehicle, and just 10 per cent own a refrigerator.

In effect, we have by now multiple reliable estimates of the extent of rural poverty — no one can really argue any more than we do not know how many rural Indians live in difficult conditions where they could use government support. We also have — perhaps the SECC’s greatest contribution — a reliable way to identify these households, since the survey details of every household is available to the state. But the problem never really was a technocratic one; it was and remains a political one.

Moral values

What a state decides constitutes poverty or difficulty is a call it must take not by the size of its financial reserves alone, but by its moral values. One way of looking at it could be that landless households which rely on casual manual labour are poor — that’s nearly 30 per cent of households. For some people, a household that cannot afford to buy a vehicle is poor, and that’s 80 per cent of rural India. For others, one in which no one makes over Rs.10,000 should be called poor — that’s over 90 per cent of rural India. For some, a household which does not make enough to pay income tax is poor – that’s over 95 per cent of the countryside.

Why this matters is that unlike India’s decades-old systems of state-subsidised schools or hospitals which self-select — only those poor enough to need it actually go there — governments are increasingly trying to target schemes, often for ever narrower categories. Whether you get subsidised grain or cashless medical insurance is a product of where exactly the government decides to draw the poverty line. This despite the fact that a 2010 World Bank analysis of India’s social protection schemes showed that the least targeted ones were the ones that were most effective at actually delivering to the poor.

The most intensely political part of the SECC is the first C — caste — which the government has thus far dealt with by putting the matter off. The publicly available draft and final lists of the SECC contain information on not just the socio-economic level of every family, but also that family’s precise caste name. This should have allowed the government to release information on the relative socio-economic status of various caste groups — the information is after all already available — but it chose not to.

Undoubtedly it will be valuable to know whether specific caste groups which currently are entitled to reservations are worse off or better off than those which are not. Undoubtedly, some of the political leaders who have opposed the publication of this data are concerned that a particular caste group whose patronage they enjoy might turn out to be relatively well off. However, not all political objections to taking decisions on this caste data are unimportant.

Caste discrimination

Caste has never been proxy for class or deprivation in India; it constitutes a distinct kind of embedded discrimination that often transcends class. People with Dalit last names are less likely to be called for job interviews even when their qualifications are better than that of an upper caste candidate, research shows. They are also less likely to be accepted as tenants by landlords. Marriage to a well- educated, well-off Dalit man still sparks violent reprisals among the families of upper caste women every day across the country. The caste data from the SECC will not reflect these realities.

A mature society should have accurate information on the well-being of its people, and the SECC is a big step towards that goal. But it should also feel equally comfortable to set aside the data to create a universal safety net and equal opportunity for those whose economic status might not reflect the barriers they face.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 2:52:40 PM |

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