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Poor ideas to remove poverty
By Gopal Krishna

While the Planning Commission has repeatedly failed to provide any worthwhile solution to eradicate poverty, its insincere attempts to deliberately hide the actual number of poor in the country makes one question its relevance in present times.

More than half of India lives in pathetic conditions in urban slums

In an affidavit filed by B D Virdi, Adviser, Planning Commission before the Supreme Court in the PUCL vs Union of India & Others or Writ Petition (Civil) 196 of 2001, the Commission said that any citizen who spends more than Rs 965 per month in urban India (around Rs.32 per day) and Rs 781 in rural India (around Rs.26 per day) “at June 2011 price level” would be considered not to be poor. This is set as poverty line based on the monetary value of some normative expenditure that is deemed essential.

The affidavit submits that “At June 2011 price level, for a family of five this provisional poverty line would amount to Rs.4, 824 per month in urban areas and Rs.3, 905 per month in rural areas. However, final poverty lines following the Tendulkar Committee will only be available after completion of the 2011-12 NSS Survey” by National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). Till then poor can wait.

While hearing the PUCL case on September 20, 2011, the Bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Deepak Verma ordered, “We direct the States and Union Territories to inform the public about the availability of the night shelters through print media and electronic media, so that the poor and needy people may avail the benefit of the night shelters.” Clearly, Rs 26 per day for rural India and Rs 32 for urban India is not sufficient to ensure housing for the poor. The Committee on Slum Statistics/Census under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation has projected the urban slum population to be 9.3 crore as of March 2011, which was 5.23 crore in 2001.

While deciding on Rs 32 per day for urban India, the planners seem to have failed to factor in slums which are “any compact housing cluster or settlement of at least 20 households with a collection of poorly built tenements which are, mostly temporary in nature with inadequate sanitary, drinking water facilities and unhygienic conditions”. Although it does not seem obvious to the Commission, it is quite intelligible to any discerning citizen who is not guided by external financial institutions that such living circumstances breed diseases of all ilk. Such diseases take a huge toll on the poor and if it turns out to be an epidemic then on country’s economy.

In its order dated May 14, 2011, the apex court observed, “We see no rationale in not distributing food grains according to the estimate of Union of India. The food allocation should be based on every year's population estimate as carried out by the Planning Commission or the Registrar General, in the absence of any official census figure.” These orders of the apex court has to be implemented in the 35 States/Union Territories, 640 districts, 5,924 sub-districts, 7,935 towns and 6,40,867 villages. As per Census 2011, the provisional population of India is 121 crore. But there is nothing on record to show that Indian National Congress led government has complied with the court’s order so far. The matter will come for further directions on November 2, 2011.

In order to address hunger and starvation among other issues, in October 1938, Subhas Chandra Bose formed a National Planning Committee at the national level in his capacity as the President of Indian National Congress during the commencement of World War II. This Committee functioned till 1949 with its sub-committees and made several valuable recommendations under Jawaharlal Nehru’s chairmanship.

National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector headed by Arjun Sengupta found in its report on “Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector” at the end of 2004-05 that 77% of Indians, or 83.6 crore citizens, lived on less than 20 rupees per day. But USA’s central intelligence agency states that as per 2007 estimates 25% of India’s population is below poverty line. Its website mentions this figure as of August 29, 2011.

The 39 page Report of the Expert Group to review the methodology for estimation of poverty authored by Suresh Tendulkar, R Radhakrishna and Suranjan Sengupta for the Planning Commission in November 2009 left the all-India urban poverty estimate unaltered at 25.7%. It has revised the estimate of poverty in India for 2004-05 to 37.2% from 27.5% and for rural India to 41.8%. Its estimation was based on consumption share of commodities around poverty line class for urban areas in all India. The commodities included consumption of cereal, pulses, milk, edible oil, meat products, vegetables, fresh fruits, dry fruits, sugar, salt, spices, fuel, clothing, footwear, education, medical, entertainment, rent, footwear and conveyance.

Taking note of the above, the apex Court vide its order dated 14.05.2011 directed that: “….According to the Tendulkar Committee, with the price level of 2011, it is impossible for an individual in an urban area to consume 2100 calories in Rs.20 and an individual in a rural area to consume 2400 calories at Rs.15. The Planning Commission may revise norms of per capita amount looking to the price index of May 2011 or any other subsequent dates”. This appears to be an indictment of the Commission which should be sufficient reason for the concerned officials to step down or recuse themselves from such work in future. The Planning Commission’s affidavit stating “the Poverty Lines recommended by Tendulkar Committee are not anchored in calorie intake norm” seems to be defending the indefensible.

With its repeated failure to address the gnawing felt needs of the poor in the country, the Planning Commission stands exposed. Its scandalous recommendations create a compelling logic to disband the Commission.

It appears relevant to recollect the historical context of planning process in India. In 1887, the founder of Indian National Congress, A O Hume highlighted the misery of the starving residents of India by saying, “Toil, toil, toil; hunger, hunger, hunger, sickness, suffering, sorrow; these alas, alas, alas are the keynotes of their short and sad existence" in a pamphlet at the Madras Session. Things remain the same even today. Later, speaking on behalf of the party, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Above all the Congress represents, in its essence, the dumb semi-starved millions scattered over the length and breadth of the land in its 7, 00, 000 villages” at the Second Round Table Conference in 193l in London.

In order to address hunger and starvation among other issues, in October 1938, Subhas Chandra Bose formed a National Planning Committee at the national level in his capacity as the President of Indian National Congress during the commencement of World War II. This Committee functioned till 1949 with its sub-committees and made several valuable recommendations under Jawaharlal Nehru’s chairmanship. Later, following a resolution of Congress Working Committee in January 1950 that recommended setting up of a statutory body for planning and its announcement in the Union Budget of February 1950, the Planning Commission was set up by a resolution of Government of India dated March 15, 1950. Those were war time efforts. There is now a need for peace time efforts for genuine democratic planning.

It has been argued that “Planning Commission is the nodal agency for estimating poverty along with the Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, NSSO under the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, Registrar General of Census under the Ministry of Home Affairs and now the Unique Identification Authority of India housed in the Planning Commission.”

While creation of multiple agencies is indeed akin to shifting the responsibility, the real issue is lack of political consensus on ensuring genuine public health, public education and public transport to deal with dehumanizing poverty of fellow citizens. With its repeated failure to address the gnawing felt needs of the poor in the country, the Planning Commission stands exposed. Its scandalous recommendations create a compelling logic to disband the Commission. This can initiate the planning process as envisaged in the Constitution under Eleventh Schedule (Article 243-G) for rural local government and under Twelfth Schedule (Article 243-W) for urban local government for reaching the unreached malnourished compatriots unmindful of whether or not one agrees with CIA’s assessment of India “developing into an open-market economy” with “traces of its past autarkic policies”. The fact remains that almost every act of the Planning Commission echoes the above assessment.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Gopal Krishna  |  krishnagreen@gmail.com

Gopal Krishna is a public policy analyst with avid interest in ecology and public health. He is convenor of WaterWatch Alliance.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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