NEW DELHI— In India, the government says the percentage of poor people has dropped sharply following strong economic growth during the last seven years. While critics acknowledge that the poverty rate has declined at a rapid pace, they say the Indian government's definition of poverty results in the undercounting of the number of poor.
Thirty-five-year-old Jay Prakash Mahato begins his day at 5 am cleaning cars in the business hub of Gurgaon. He then goes to work in a factory making crockery. In the evening he cooks for a family. The two part time jobs along with his regular job help him earn about $200 a month.
Mahato says his economic status has improved hugely since he migrated from a village in Bihar more than a decade ago.
Mahato says when he came to Gurgaon the wages were very low - about $40. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Now he is able to comfortably feed and clothe his four children.
Economists link Mahato’s rising income to a decade in which India’s economy grew by almost eight percent annually. Wages improved and people like Mahato got more opportunities, whether at regular jobs or part time ones.
The government this week announced that the number of poor people dropped from more than 400 million in 2005 to 270 million by 2012. That’s a drop from 37 percent to 22 percent of the population - or roughly two percent every year.
Economists say the actual number of poor people is debatable because the government counts only those who spend less than 55 cents a day in urban areas and about 45 cents in rural areas as poor. The international poverty standard is less than $1.25 per day. By that mark, in 2010, the World Bank estimated nearly 33 percent of Indians were living in poverty.
Economist Y.K. Alagh in Gujarat says that the exact proportion of poor in the country of 1.2 billion may be questioned. But he says the trend is clear - there is evidence to show that poverty has declined at a more rapid pace in the past decade.
“One, it was a period of high growth. Second, it was a period of high agricultural growth. Employment has also improved. Agricultural growth and employment are very important determinants of poverty. So in that sense it is plausible, that poverty has fallen in India. What is the level, well…,” . said Alagh.
The decline has been steeper in the country’s vast rural areas where two thirds of the population lives. Some of the country’s poorest states such as Orissa, Bihar and Rajasthan have also shown sharper drops in poverty levels than more prosperous regions.
However, rural areas are still home to the bulk of the poor - three out of every four live in the countryside.
Job creation challenge
The head of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research in Mumbai, Mahendra Dev, says that makes it critical to focus on creating more jobs outside of the farming sector.
“There is a need to shift them to non-farm employment, [the] basic thing is we need more productive employment. India missed [opportunities in the] labor intensive manufacturing sector. You cannot do it overnight, but medium term we have to go to [the] manufacturing sector,” said Dev.
Mahato, who migrated from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, agrees.
He says his condition was bad in the village. There were no jobs and no money, and the only sustenance was a few fields which they cultivated.
The political opposition has slammed the government for the latest poverty numbers saying they have been calculated by lowering the bar to measure poverty.
Economist Alagh says India’s record on fighting poverty has been a mixed bag.
“Grain consumption has gone up. Nutrition levels have improved, but for women, the girl child and in some regions, chronic malnutrition is still very high. Obviously those are the glaring failures. A lot more could have been done, more focused programs, better evaluation, more effective local institutions,” said Alagh.
The government has promised new norms to identify the poor and more programs to fight high levels of malnutrition in the country. Among them is an ambitious food program to provide highly subsidized food grains to nearly two thirds of the population. Opposition parties, however, are questioning the government for trying to push through this program if it claims only one in every five persons is poor.