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Who Needs Poverty Estimates?

By Devinder Sharma

16 July, 2010
Ground Reality

There is hardly a month when I don't get to see a new estimate of poverty. In fact, there are so many estimates floating around that I have lost count.

At least, I am confused.

And that makes me wonder how long will we go on measuring poverty? When will we instead launch a global initiative to make poverty history? When will we redesign international monetary policies to ensure that we do not add on to poverty?

In India, which lives in poverty, there are a number of estimates doing the round. The Planning Commission had earlier estimated poverty at 26 per cent. Suresh Tendulkar committee had raised to 37.2 per cent. Before that, we had the Arjun Sengupta committee concluding that 77 per cent of the population is unable to spend more than Rs 20 a day. And then there are estimates by people/experts who were actually not asked to measure poverty. N C Saxena for instance has simply used a 'compromise' estimate of 50 per cent.

As if all this is not enough, we now have the new Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which pegs poverty in India at 55 per cent. Even this estimate I am told is faulty because it relies on the traditional barometer of kilocalories, 2400 for the rural population, that India uses deliberately to keep poverty low. This comes to Rs 356 a month, which is not even generous enough to feed a pet dog. Adding another ten indicators, including child mortality, school enrollment, drinking water, sanitation etc does not do justice if the base remains faulty.

The MPI may be used for calculating the global HDI ranking. But it still hides the reality. If India's poverty estimates are found wanting, I am sure other countries too are not that honest in acknowledging the correct number of poor.

MPI tells us that Delhi fares much better in India (vis a vis the other States) in the poverty index. I don't think I will ever try to vouch for this. I don't know what kind of parameters have the researchers applied, but for someone who lived in Delhi for more than 20 years I find the National Capital to be a virtual cesspool of poverty. Compared to Mumbai and Kolkata, Delhi certainly fares much better. But over the years, I have only seen poverty worsening in the midst of a concrete jungle that is being laid out.

Nevertheless, I think all these estimates are actually being done to demonstrate that poverty is declining because of neoliberal reforms. The World Bank (and also the UN) have been vying to justify its backing for market economy. Such is the desperation that all kinds of permutations and combinations are being applied. There is this story of an Indian research centre which actually fudged the figures to conclude that the social indicators have turned positive after the market reforms began. I will not name the institute, but it will be interesting if ever the Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) decides to launch an investigation into this.

Well, will all these estimates make a difference to the poor? Mercifully, they don't even know which estimate they fit into. What they know for sure is that poverty is their destiny. Only a miracle (or by becoming a crook) can pull them out of the real hell. Rest all is economic jugglery.

55% of India's population poor: Report