The silly season is upon us, again. Policy makers and experts have taken their positions debating threadbare whether the planning commission’s recent report claiming that poverty has fallen on the basis of NSSO data for consumption expenditure between 2004-5 and 2009-10 in consonance with the Tendulakar committee’s poverty line prescription – Rs 28 per capita per day in urban areas and Rs 22 per capita per day in rural areas (that is, at 2009-10 price level). But all the sound and fury is focused on the statistics, rather than the incidence of poverty and poverty alleviation programmes so crucial to take improve people's lives. The statistics is useful in its own ways but it is absolutely critical to know why poverty prevails and how it can be addressed. If nobody is paying attention to the latter it is because the planning commission has no appetite for that. It is more comfortable with mere statistics.
A good example of this is its draft paper for the 12th five-year plan. The plan panel had claimed to have made radical changes in its approach by drafting in all stakeholders, including the civil society groups working at the ground level. When the draft was finally presented, it turned out to be a repeat of the old approach – primarily guided by and borrowing ideas from a World Bank paper! (see Governance Now issue of November 1-15, 2011.) If this seems to be an isolated case, check out the Integrated Action Plan (IAP) worked out with great fanfare last year to tackle the Maoist menace. After a massive brainstorming exercise, the panel produced a document which merely provided for putting Rs 25 crore a year at the disposal of the collector of each of the 60 Maoist-affected districts to quickly address problems relating to healthcare, drinking water, education and roads not provided for in any plan or programme.
The plan panel’s continued focus on keeping the poverty estimate and poverty line low (it came for severe criticism last year for claiming that anyone surviving on Rs 32 a day in urban and Rs 26 per day in rural areas is not poor in its affidavit before the supreme court) can be best explained by deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s obsession to keep the subsidies for the poor in check, but not the 'subsidies' to the rich (revenue foregone by way of corporate tax alone amounts to Rs 50,000 crore in this year’s budget) to tame deficit. CPM member of parliament Sitaram Yechuri beautifully explained the mindset of Ahluwalia and others like him in a signed article: “The philosophy of neo-liberalism, of course, dictates that the burden of deficit should be brought down not by disbanding such concessions (revenue foregone) to the rich. These, after all, are ‘incentives’ for growth. This deficit has to be brought down by disbanding the subsidies for the poor which, after all, are ‘burdens’ on the economy”. See, how this mindset was reflected in the latest budget which slashed fuel and fertilizer subsidies. If the food subsidy went up it is because the UPA wants to launch its food security programme in time for the next general election, with a hope that it will do what NREGA did in 2009 elections.
How has our economist-turned prime minister responded to silly debates on poverty numbers? Well, he announced appointment of another technical committee to come up with “new methodology to capture poverty” (the plan panel had mandated the Abhijit Sen committee with the precise task following the uproar over its affidavit to the supreme court). Add that to the Tendulkar committee, Arjun Sengupta committee, Hashmi committee and so on and you have a long list of committees devoted to poverty estimate and poverty line. Can anyone please name one committee which has looked at how badly our poverty alleviation programmes are designed and how poor is our implantation mechanism?