Whose poor is poor?
“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?