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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed 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.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs