State of India’s poor must be acknowledged
In India, there is now, rightly, a consensus difficult for the Government to beat down that to be able to battle COVID-19 and secure India from successive waves, the exact numbers of the dead must be carefully documented.
Trends on India’s Poverty
- On ranking of median income, India stood at 99 among 131 countries.
- With a median income of $616 per annum, it was the lowest among BRICS and fell in the lower-middle-income country bracket.
- A decline for the first time since 1972 – 1973 in the monthly per capita consumption expenditure of FY 2017-18.
- India downgraded on the Global Hunger Index to ‘serious hunger’ category.
- India’s own health census data or the recently concluded National Family Health Survey or NFHS-5, which had worrying markers of increased malnutrition, infant mortality, and maternal health.
- Bangladesh recently achieved a high per capita income ($280 higher) than India. This must also be a reason for Indians to introspect.
- India has also slid on the sustainable development goals index (by at least two ranks last month)
- In 2019, the global Multidimensional Poverty Index reported that India lifted 271 million citizens out of poverty between 2006 and 2016. Since then, the International Monetary Fund, Hunger Watch, SWAN and several other surveys show a definite slide.
- In March, the Pew Research Center with the World Bank data estimated that ‘the number of poor in India, on the basis of an income of $2 per day or less in purchasing power parity, has more than doubled to 134 million from 60 million in just a year due to the pandemic-induced recession’.
- In 2020, India contributed 57.3% of the growth of the global poor. India contributed to 59.3% of the global middle class that slid into poverty.
- The last time that ‘India reported an increase in poverty was in the first 25 years after Independence, when from 1951 to 1974, the population of the poor increased from 47% to 56%’.
So, India is again a “country of mass poverty” after 45 years. This has thrown a spanner in the so far uninterrupted battle against poverty since the 1970s. Urgent solutions are needed within, and the starting point of that would be only when we know how many are poor.
Poverty line debate
- In India, the poverty line debate became very fraught in 2011, as the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report at a ‘line’ of ₹816 per capita per month for rural India and ₹1,000 per capita per month for urban India, calculated the poor at 25.7% of the population.
- The anger over the 2011 conclusions, led to the setting up of the C. Rangarajan Committee, which in 2014 estimated that the number of poor were 29.6%, based on persons spending below ₹47 a day in cities and ₹32 in villages.
Reasons why numbers count
- The first is because knowing the numbers and making them public makes it possible to get public opinion to support massive and urgent cash transfers. Spain has accorded security to its gig workers by giving delivery boys the status of workers. In India too, a dramatic reorientation would get support only once numbers are honestly laid out.
- The second argument for recording the data is so that all policies can be honestly evaluated based on whether they meet the needs of the majority. It Is a policy such as bank write-offs of loans amounting to ₹1.53-lakh crore last year, which helped corporates overwhelmingly, beneficial to the vast majority? Or has it been just beneficial to a thin sliver of the super-rich? This would be possible to transparently evaluate only when the numbers of the poor are known and established.
- Third, if government data were to honestly account for the exact numbers of the poor, it may be more realistic to expect the public debate to be conducted on the concerns of the real majority and create a climate that demands accountability from public representatives.
- Fourth, India has clocked a massive rise in the market capitalisation and the fortunes of the richest Indian corporates, whose wealth has grown manifold in the past few years, even as millions of Indians have experienced a massive tumble into poverty.
Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Act
- The late Arjun Sengupta, as Chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector in 2004, had concluded that 836 million Indians still remained marginalised. He spoke of the poorest of poor and the commission’s recommendations on social security resulted in the enactment of the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Act.
- At the time his conclusion was ignored — that 77% of India was marginalised — emphasising that it was a problem of a much bigger magnitude, than the figure of 25.7% conveyed.
- Urgent solutions are needed within, and the starting point of that would be only when we know how many are poor.
- The Government must girdle up and unflinchingly quantify the slide from the ‘fastest growing economy’ to the country with the largest rise in the number of poor people. It must be accepted, to go back to the debate Charles Booth had with the Social Democratic Federation that it is “abject poverty” we are talking about; almost a sub-human level of existence of the majority of fellow Indians we cannot continue to be blasé about. Counting them would be a much-needed start to convey that each life matters.
- If we do not bother to know of the increased numbers sliding into poverty, there would be little possibility of moving toward a solution.
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