News / Asia

India’s New Poverty Definition Upsets Activists, Some Economists

A man sits outside his makeshift shelter at the side of a road in Mumbai, India, Sept. 21, 2011.
A man sits outside his makeshift shelter at the side of a road in Mumbai, India, Sept. 21, 2011.

In India, norms set by the country’s main planning body to calculate poverty have been slammed by critics who fear they will exclude vast numbers of the needy from social welfare programs. About one third of India’s 1.2 billion population is poor, according to official estimates.  

Hari Singh earns about $150 a month working as a security guard in the business hub of Gurgaon near Delhi. After paying $40 to rent a small room in a slum, the 45-year-old can barely manage to buy enough food for the house.

Singh says fruit and milk are out of his reach. He estimates he needs double his income to cover basic expenses on housing, health care and schooling for his son.

But Hari Singh will not be counted among India’s poor, according to new criteria proposed by the planning commission to determine the poverty line.

The planning commission has told India’s supreme court that a person who spends roughly half a dollar a day on food, education and health in rural areas, or $15 a month, will not be considered poor. The bar for the poverty line for urban areas is slightly higher - 66 cents or about $20 a month. The figures are far below the World Bank’s international poverty standard of $1.25 per day.

The planning commission, which guides economic policy, formulated the norms after the country’s top court asked it to explain the basis for its poverty numbers.

The new criteria follow a contentious debate, in recent years, on how to identify India’s poor.  After being determined for decades by a person’s calorie intake, it has now moved to income.

But activists and many economists have slammed the new norms for being unrealistic.  They say that in a city such as New Delhi, 66 cents would buy a person no more than an onion, a potato, some rice, a banana, a pencil, an aspirin and a bus ticket.

"It’s been understood for some time that this poverty basket is very restrictive. But what is new and I think completely startling is the claim that this poverty line actually ensures adequate expenditure on food, health and education. That really cannot be justified from a common sense point of view… This is more like a starvation line than a poverty line," said Jean Dreze, a prominent development economist involved in India’s economic policy making.    

The planning commission says it has to set the poverty line to target those who are most in need. Officials stress that the government must make the best use of limited funds it has to spend on social welfare programs and they cannot cast the net too wide.

Despite India’s spectacular economic growth, millions of people are still poor. The Congress-led government has ambitious plans to cut poverty by spending billions of dollars on employment, health care and education programs. It proposes to pass a law to give cheap food grains to the poor. It wants to replace subsidized fuel and fertilizer with cash transfers.     

But activists argue that the government is trying to reduce its welfare burden by reducing the number of those who will qualify for state benefits. Among the critics is Biraj Patnaik, adviser to an official commission on the right to food.  

"What they want to do is to exclude 70 percent of the people of this country from any benefit that anti-poverty programs are giving, and this will then subsequently lead to a decline in subsidies… But this is eliminating the poor by deceit, by default and not by improving their lives," said Patnaik.

About 32 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, or roughly 400 million people, live in poverty, according to official estimates.

But several economists argue that these figures do not accurately reflect the extent of deprivation in a country where nearly half the children under five are malnourished.

A government appointed watchdog, the National Advisory Council, has been arguing that social support should now be extended to all citizens because the country can afford it.

Economist Dreze, who was a member of the council, supports this. He says some states in the country, like Tamil Nadu in the south and Himachal Pradesh in the north, are showing the way.   

“We can have comprehensive social security systems and many states in India are actually moving in that direction, expanding the public distribution system and I think the experience of that is reasonably positive that when more people are involved in the system, it works much better. A lot of people have a stake in it. When you have social services restricted to this minority of extremely poor households, it does not work very well, nobody cares," said Dreze.

Among those who agree with the proposal to expand benefits is security guard Hari Singh.

He says, however the official norms define poverty, he counts himself among the country’s poor and would appreciate a helping hand from the government.

You May Like

China Investigates Former Powerful Security Chief

Former security chief and member of Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, under investigation for suspected 'serious disciplinary violation' More

India, US Look to Reset Ties During Kerry Visit

This week's talks will be first high level interaction between two countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge More

Video Young African Leadership Program Renamed to Honor Mandela

YALI program, launched by President Obama in 2010, aims to build skills in business, entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid