Whose poor is poor?

January 10, 2009

“To define is to limit,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

Indeed sometimes, to limit things, they just may have been defined in a particular manner.

This struck home when I saw a communication by the World Bank on poverty estimates.

The World Bank produced an update of poverty numbers for the developing world based on an international price survey conducted in 2005.

The latest figures put the percentage of India’s people living below $1.25-a-day poverty line at 42 percent in 2005. This was an improvement on the 60 percent figure in 1981.

On the other hand, the government’s Economic Survey 2007-08 claims a poverty ratio of 22 percent for the country.

There is a huge difference between the two figures. According to the World Bank figure nearly half of India is defined as poor.

This rankles and also gets my attention a bit more than the previous figure. Perhaps it is the same for you.

So whose poor is really poor?

More importantly which figure is the one we want to believe? Which figure do we think conforms to our self image as a nation with the third-fastest growing economy, even after the global recession?

Here is a pop quiz.

How many items of clothing and footwear did you buy over the last one year?

Even if you are no Imelda Marcos, the chances are that the question has stumped you. Do you really keep track of these purchases?

Well, apparently the Planning Commission depends upon people doing so and being able to remember them when approached by the National Sample Survey Organisation for working out the poverty estimates.

This may or may not detract from the accuracy of the findings but it is nevertheless a thought.

Maybe the poor, or at least those who are classified as such, do remember for they have hardly purchased anything.

The Times of India reported last year on an affidavit filed by the Ministry for Health and Family Welfare before the Supreme Court which claims that if a person earns 455 rupees a month in an urban area then she is above the poverty line and hence not classified as poor. That’s 15.67 rupees in daily earnings.

Often, once consensus has been built on a particular fact, it is difficult to move arguments and policies that have been woven around it.

The subtleties and the arcane methodologies that may temper any statistician’s faith in his own figures never enter the popular realm.

The statistics are generated for and by the middle classes, the poor rarely get to see them or use them to enliven their lives even through an argument over a cup of tea.

It is the middle classes who manufacture and consume these statistics that should be more circumspect.

It should be noted that the World Bank estimate of poverty at 24 percent, based on the dollar-a-day poverty line as opposed to $1.25-a-day, is more in tune with the Economic Survey.

Shouldn’t we in tandem with the growing stature of our economy choose a more generous definition of poverty especially for the purpose of public discourse?

Or do we want to continue indulging and deluding ourselves with the same sort of creative accounting as the Satyam promoters did and meet our come-uppance one day?


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[…] leave a comment » I came across a Reuters India article today – on poverty. […]

Posted by Wealth and poverty « Brad R. Waltman | Report as abusive

Totally agree with you sire!!!!!

Posted by nivedita | Report as abusive

I am sorry but I the 42% number seems more creditable. While India has made such strides in the past decade that I would have not imagined in my lifetime – we as a nation need to address the poverty issue. Begin first by protecting the craftsmen, artisans and other skilled artists and performers who are living below the poverty line – be it the silk weavers of Benaras or the artisans of Kashmir or metal workers of UP. First save the talent and skill – the govt and the private sector should come together – maybe creating artisan villages where food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education is provided and then get some smart people to market the wares that these people are creating generating wealth for the village, individual, the govt and private sector and also saving the skills and knowledge. I know there are organizations that do just this sort of thing, but I am talking about creating the villages where the artisans have traditionally lived. Make it a self sustaining unit that is also marketing it’s wares outside. Make it a model unit that is green, creates it’s own energy and will provide new opportunities for the children of these people.

Posted by Net Comment | Report as abusive

a really magesticb report which if read by any seriously devoted reputed person will really try to take action..
hope for its sucess..

Posted by Vibhor | Report as abusive

Yes. Hats-off to the columnist. It is true that we publish false statistics to satisfy ourselves from the ‘truth’ which we afraid to face. We should try to base on true figures and have to try to overcome poverty in a time bound manner.

Posted by ramaswamy | Report as abusive

I dont think 42% indians living below poverty as stated by world bank. It is approxiamtely 2 in 1 Indian living in poverty. I think it should be under 20%. There are must be taken consideration while calculating poverty

Here are facts
1. 90% Indians do not pay mortage. Most of the houses in India are self built and fully owned by indviduals.
2. Average age of Indians is 25, so there is huge proportion of the population is not working.
3. 50% of married women in India are house wives, therefore they dont contribute to the income per person calculation.
4. Lot of un-requlated retail trading is happening in India.

Posted by Murugan | Report as abusive

The published percentage of us living below poverty line doesn’t make much sense till the commodity basket is correctly defined taking into consideration the services part getting a proper representation. Once we have done that we can work on finding how many of us can or can’t afford the basket. Even after this we will still not take into account the absence of availability of primary education and basic health services.
If we want to have a inclusive growth we need to figure out how can we give primary education and basic health services to one and all.

Posted by suman | Report as abusive

KUDOS to Net Comment!

As someone from the U.S., and not having been in India since the mid-1980’s for a 6-week trip, I say….

Yes, self-sustaining villages/communities are a terrific idea economically and culturally. It’s about time people with skills (or who will soon acquire “skills”) form protection around themselves to become self-sustaining, and to stop looking to the government for help (if it gives help at all??). Certainly, there are many business minded individuals in India who can teach basic economics, “manufacturing” their own wares, distribution, cost analysis, marketing, computer use, etc. to their own people. If folks in villages kept their focus on unifying their talents, and then marketing the goods they produce, using a business model, they then can pass this information onto their children, become self-sustaining, and get out of poverty.

As far as statistics go, who is to say? Anyone who is not Indian and travels there can see first hand the number of beggars on the street and children and teenagers forced into prostitution. This is a disgrace to these people. Frankly, India, as other countries, needs more women in politics. Men in politics seem to turn away from despair and ignore “their own people.”

So, artisans in India could use a self-sustaining model to success, retaining their cultural identity, and also provide for themselves where the government has failed.

Also, birth control would help eradicate over-population and therefore reduce poverty immensely, not only in India but everywhere around the world. Why don’t “politicians” mention this? Why not discuss birth control, use it, reduce populations, reduce poverty and polution, and overtaxing of resources, reallocate resources and food evenly; all of this, I believe would help/balance an economy faster than any other method..birth control!

That said, the U.S. and Europe hopefully would not be able to continue its exploitation of Indian, African and Asian people. The more “a people” can become self-directed, the less dependency and therefore exploitation by others….. England and Belgium (is it) owe the India people SERIOUS financial assistance for plundering over the years…..

Birth control = reducing poverty = self-sustaining, self-directed communities = happier, healthier, financially responsible people!

Posted by renee | Report as abusive

The estimation of poverty should be as objective as possible since it decides financial allocations for poverty alleviation programmes. Underestimation will lead to allotment of small share of national resources for poverty alleviation.it neccesitates to follow a proper methodology to measure it and ensure inclusive growth.

Posted by Arun | Report as abusive

Every Individual has a minimum knowledge to over the issue of poverty and can use their facilities in such a way where all the Indians can meet at a point to strike – off it. And then there won’t be any kind of worries to think.

Posted by Subhash | Report as abusive

absolutely true.it is far better to over estimate than to under estimate, as economic policies and government plans are defined by these.

Posted by john | Report as abusive

Very well said but i dont agree with the world bank report which says that almost half of our country are poor…thats just a way of showing and reinforcing the statement that we are underdeveloped or so called “third world” country.

Posted by neha | Report as abusive

No need of statistics and figures. One has to travel in an unbook compartment of Delhi Janta Express from Mumbai to Delhi, and one shall see the real Bharat. Poverty, hunger and disease.

Posted by Merchant M S | Report as abusive

An insightful column–do hope it has some impact,

Posted by Kumkum Roy | Report as abusive

I think it’s a very though provoking article. If we want to truly improve ourselves then we need keep the bar as high as possible. When we say that a person earning 16Rs a day is no longer poor, then we are just living in a fool’s paradise. I think it is time we put more thought while assessing the quality of life each citizen of our country has. The question is not just about having two meals a day, but things like education, health care, housing, social justice are all equally important for anyone to have a dignified life.

I think we have done reasonably good job in reducing poverty since independence, but much of the work still needs to be done and we need realistic statistics to know if we are on the right path.

Posted by B | Report as abusive

All the new so called progress is just because the CEO wants to have cheap Indian service labor. Slavery is back but it is by the Internet. As the backlash against outsourcing and CEOs increases in the West in the global crisis, India will be the main looser. Nehru and its founder wants socialist India for the poors but the Brahman caste want the capitalism so only few gets the benefits while rest loose. With this much population and caste system and a downturn economy based on service sectors. It is a real challenge to the shining India.

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive