Poverty hidden in numbers


Sachin Kumar Jain Bhopal

It seems that the definition of poverty itself is responsible for keeping the poor, poor. And, hungry. For the elimination of chronic hunger, poverty identification is a big challenge. At the all-India level, poverty line is based on Uniform Recall Period Consumption (URP) which is the consumption data collected from a 30-day recall period covering all items. According to sources, the Uniform Recall Period Consumption (URP-Consumption) distribution data showed a poverty ratio of 28.3 per cent in the rural areas, 25.7 per cent in the urban areas and 27.5 per cent for the country as a whole in 2004-05.

According to the Planning Commission's latest estimate, poverty in India is reducing. However, there are serious lacunae in this process of arriving at this estimate. Locally available items from forest or agriculture consumed by farmers or tribals are also valued at prevailing prices. These are added to the expenditure on non-food items to give the total monthly per capita expenditure. At the same time, the cost of items and services such as shelter, health or education are counted at the lowest price without considering the present state of inflation. All this adds up to give a picture that is not accurate.

At the all-India level, the poverty line represents the expenditure level of Rs 356.30 in rural areas and Rs 538.60 in urban area per person per month. This is basically a starvation line rather than a poverty line, and virtually impossible for any person to survive at this level of expenditure.

The Planning Commission estimates that in Madhya Pradesh, a family spending Rs 327.78 per person per month in a rural settlement will be considered poor. In an urban settlement, the expenditure level is Rs 570.15 per person per month. In other words, it means, a person spending anything more then Rs 9 every day in a village or Rs 19 in any kind of urban area, will not be considered as poor and will be out of poverty elimination programmes.

In Madhya Pradesh, it is estimated that a population of 249.68 lakh (38.3 per cent) will go to bed hungry, as they simply do not have access to resources to overcome this situation. Once communities like Sahariya, a primitive tribal group, get trapped in the cycle of chronic hunger, they begin to lose their capacities to contribute to society either economically or socially. At the same time, reviews of existing schemes like Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana or National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme show such communities as poor contributors and unwilling workers.

The roots lie in a system which neither allows them rights over natural resources nor enough income to overcome hunger. There have been no land reforms in Madhya Pradesh. This, in spite of the MP government releasing the Bhopal Declaration at the beginning of this millennium, which commits state's priorities of land distribution to dalits.

To add insult to injury, the state government has reduced the common grazing land available to the community while it has been non-committal on ownership rights of the land inhabited by them for generations. This leaves them with very little choice or avenues to challenge their situation of deprivation. The dalits and tribals are ultimately left at the mercy of more powerful castes in the region sans any government protective measures to retain rights on the land.

If control over natural resources is considered the key component for attaining economic independence and overcoming chronic hunger, then Madhya Pradesh has a long way to go. Southern states, in contrast, have demonstrated political will in protection of marginalised sections. Land reforms in Kerala stand testimony to the transformation of the lives of the weakest sections in society. Tamil Nadu's schemes for aged destitutes is an example.

Madhya Pradesh has the lowest and continuously declining food consumption figures and high malnutrition, high infant mortality compared to other states. Its life expectancy of 57.7 years is, for instance, much lower than Kerala's 73.9 years. This is reflective of the policies of exclusion, an unbridled exploitation of natural resources for revenue generation which has pushed larger sections of society to the margins while the few continue to benefit from such policies.

The politics of exclusion which ties in with the perpetuation of poverty and the prevalence of hunger has a long history. At the beginning of the British Raj, the colonial rulers took steps to establish control over the natural resources to set up infrastructure for railway tracks, industry and, later, for shipbuilding. There was no commitment to preserving natural resources, which for colonial rulers was not a priority. What is unfortunate is that independent India continued to follow this policy, at least in the initial years.

At the end of this dark tunnel, however, there seems to be a light for those who have been excluded in the development process. And, this has led to perspectives changing gradually among policy makers. It is now widely acknowledged that losing access to forest and forest produce has been highly detrimental for the tribal population in Madhya Pradesh and across India.

The  Forest Rights Act is a response to this growing belief, now within policy circles, to correct this. The Act will improve the tribals' access not only to land for agriculture, but also to non-timber forest produce, food items and give protection to livestock. A genuine implementation of Forest Rights Act would result in the handing over of rights of forest land and its resources to the four lakh tribal and other forest dwelling families. That would be a concrete step in not only recognising the inherent rights of these communities but in creating a protective mechanism to stave off hunger and curtail poverty.

This is the only expectation one has from those who set policy and govern. To respond to poverty not merely as a statistics but take measures that would bring the poor gradually out of its clutches, to move out from the safety of poverty definitions and address
ground realties.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: April 2009