Kerala is a land of baffling contradictions. Amidst the visible signs of affluence, there is a widening spectrum of poverty and deprivation, a phenomenon that continues to evade focussed attention.
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Ostentatious display of luxury by a rising middle class, camouflaging of the severe vulnerabilities of large sections of the people and the nonchalant attitude of the entire ruling class together seem to be obscuring an objective assessment of the multiple dimensions of poverty and deprivation in Kerala.
Experts say that this paradox of visible affluence and hidden poverty has deprived the State of its due share of Central assistance on the one hand. On the other, the State has miserably failed to evolve a scientific strategy to map the extent and profile of its deprivations. Consequently, many of the programmes launched to help the disadvantaged sections in the State have missed the target apart from causing severe drain of its scarce resources over the years.
Large sections of the people in the State are faced with poverty. But poverty also has several unique dimensions in Kerala because of the peculiar path of socio-economic development of the State. The norms adopted by the Planning Commission to measure poverty fail to capture these unique dimensions, leading to the gross underestimation of poverty in the State. This, in turn, has led to a drastic mismatch in the quantum of Central assistance to Kerala and its resource requirements to implement programmes to ameliorate the specific forms of deprivations in the State. “There has been no significant decline in absolute poverty in the State in the recent periods as is being claimed by the Planning Commission and some others,” says Prabhat Patnaik, Vice-Chairman of the State Planning Board (SPB).
The Planning Commission, Prof. Patnaik points out, has taken an indirect route to assess poverty using the consumer price index with 1974 as the base year. One reason for the divergence in the poverty assessment figures could be that the consumer price index norm fails to capture disappearance of several common social resources and services like fire wood and health care, which were available free in 1974. Now people have to pay for all these and Central poverty surveys do not reflect the rising in cost of living of the people because of these factors, Prof. Patnaik explains.
Even if one were to go by the Planning Commission’s nutritional criteria and make a direct assessment of the rural poverty level in the State, it can be said that 84 per cent of the people were poor in the State in 1993-94 while their share could have been 82.5 per cent in 1999-2000. But, as per the Planning Commission’s official assessment, the poverty level in Kerala was 25.73 per cent in 1993-94 and it had come down to 9.4 per cent in 1999-2000. The Planning Commission had fixed the capacity to access 2,400 calories as the level to assess rural poverty, but even at a lower level of 1,800 calories, the prevalence of poverty in Kerala should have been 40 per cent in 1993-94 and 38 per cent in 1999-2000, Prof. Patnaik says.
The huge rush to register for the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) programme in Wayanad and Palakkad districts is stated to be indicative of the extreme levels of destitution in the State. Economist M.A. Oommen says that though his studies on the ‘Kudumbasree’ Poverty Eradication Mission had indicated that there has been a decline in absolute poverty in the State, there are clear signs that disparities are on the rise.
Kudumbasree has adopted a nine-point criterion to assess poverty: ‘kutcha’ house for shelter, inaccessibility to safe drinking water, presence of illiterate adults in the family, presence of just one earning member in the family, the family getting barely two meals a day or less, presence of children below five years and an alcoholic or drug addict in the family and the family being one belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe. In this method, the families meeting four out of the nine criteria are treated as poor. According to Prof. Oommen, one main shortcoming of this method is that it gives equal weight to all the nine criteria. He feels that different weightage must be given to various norms according to the priorities of the society and using statistical devices.
Several experts are of the view that Kerala must focus on the absolute and relative poverties when it presents its case before the Union government on the dispute regarding the number of families Below the Poverty Line (BPL) in the State.
Even in advanced countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., nearly 30 per cent of the people are categorised as belonging to the BPL category as they follow the relative poverty norms to assess the deprivations in their societies, they say.
The Kerala government, they feel, must come out with a unified position on the levels of poverty in the State. Now there is a significant divergence in the poverty assessment of different agencies such as the Local-Self Government Department, the State Planning Board and the Food and Civil Supplies Department.
Only a cohesive document enriched through public debates would help the State push its position on the BPL dispute with the Centre and to frame an effective internal poverty alleviation strategy. This must be accompanied by a systematic follow up action at the political and administrative levels if Kerala is to come to real grips with the issue, experts say.