x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

India's poverty data cheers politicians, but not the poor

Declining rates of poverty in India reflect a faulty definition of poverty rather than more poor families being able to make ends meet

Amid a tidal wave of corruption scandals and economic gloom, and during damaging flooding, India had some wonderful news last month: the number of people below the poverty line had fallen sharply, from 407 million in 2004-05 to 269 million in 2011-12.

The ruling Congress Party patted itself on the back and on television the evening of the announcement. Congress spokesmen grinned from ear to ear, relieved to be able to boast about genuinely good news instead of having to defend some venal minister or other. After all, the proportion of Indians in poverty had fallen from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12.

But the euphoria was soon ruined when comments about food prices, by three hard-hearted politicians, betrayed their contempt for the poor. Then came the growing realisation that the definition of poverty used in India is scandalously low.

First the Marie Antoinette-type remarks: Congress leader Raj Babbar said one could get a meal in Mumbai for 12 rupees (72 fils).

Cabinet minister Farooq Abdullah, whose girth suggests the ingestion of many hearty meals, argued that "you can fill your stomach by spending one rupee [or] cannot fill it even with 100 rupees; the question is what you want to eat".

And Congress politician Rasheed Masood said five rupees was enough to buy a meal in Delhi.

All three men apparently did not realise that the poor cannot afford milk, eggs, or any but the cheapest vegetables; forget meat, fish or fruit. After more than a year of food-price inflation, many Indians cannot afford onions at 20 rupees per kilo, or even a tomato at 70 rupees to give flavour to a watery potato pottage.

Mr Babbar should know that for 12 rupees, one cannot buy even a plate of rice and dal in Delhi or Mumbai.

Beyond the disdain for the poor of a few politicians, the numbers themselves demand examination. India's definition of poverty is based on individual spending. Only those spending less than 27 rupees a day (in rural areas) or 33 rupees a day (in urban areas) - that's Dh1.62 and Dh1.99, respectively - is counted as living "in poverty".

Is this an honest definition? Since 2008 the World Bank has used daily income of $1.25 (Dh4.6, or 76 rupees) as its poverty line.

For 33 rupees, one can buy a few bananas and onions. But in addition to food, the average slum-dweller has to pay rent for his hovel and pay for clothes, medical expenses, school textbooks, transport, electricity, and cooking gas.

In that context, the idea that 33 rupees a day for total spending is the real threshold of poverty seems to have been conjured up by a misanthropic nutritionist to ensure very precisely that it just, only just, prevents organ failure.

So yes, the number of poor in India has fallen - but only because the definition of poverty is so disgracefully low. India should either increase the threshold figure, or else rename it as "abject poverty" and use another, higher figure to define "ordinary poverty".

A committee under economist and MP Chakravarthi Rangarajan is studying the poverty line figure to see if it needs to be revised. Any Indian on the street could tell him that inflation alone has rendered the figure ludicrous.

"I look through the rubbish from rich homes to find some mango peel. I want my child to know what a mango tastes like," a slum-dweller once told me. If she heard that she had been lifted out of poverty by decree because she earns just over 5,000 rupees a month, she would laugh sardonically.

The news also revealed a contradiction. If the poor are only 22 per cent of the population, then why has the Congress Party promulgated a Food Security Bill to provide subsidised foodgrain to 67 per cent of the population, or about 800 million people?

Leaving aside government statistics, one's senses are enough to reveal that immense poverty is still the norm for millions of Indians who are forced to live in dreadful slums, eat appalling food, cope without running water, defecate in the open, and generally to live in squalor from birth to death.

A fresh assessment of the poverty line is urgently needed to end the cruel joke being played on the poor. "A nation's greatness is measured," Mahatma Gandhi said, "by how it treats its weakest members." By that yardstick, India is a long, long way from greatness.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi