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Behind the Numbers Hidden Realities of Poverty

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
04 Sep 2023
The UNDP report suggests that 645.7 million people were poor in India in 2005-06, 370.5 million in 2015-16 and 230.7 million in 2019-21.

They say, we have beaten poverty. Yes, this is what the recent report released by the government think-tank, Niti Ayog, claims. The census, which was supposed to be conducted in 2021, has been postponed indefinitely. 

The official data on consumption expenditure (NES) conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) dates back to the year 2011! Incidentally, this data forms the basis of calculating the magnitude of poverty. 

Yet, we claim that 135 million people have been lifted out of poverty from 2015-16 to 2019-21. And multidimensional poverty has declined by almost 10 percent to 14.96 percent between 2015-16 and 2019-21.   

This purportedly shows that millions of people actually benefited from the fruits of holistic progress. Does this also mean the hundreds and thousands of people who were given food packets by the civil society organisations and the relief packages announced by the Finance Minister during the pandemic, were just out of generosity?   

Despite this, the latest official data suggests that 26.35 crore BPL cards are still active with 85.92 crore beneficiaries. This number excludes the Union Territories. Needless to say, these people have been benefitting from several welfare schemes devised for BPL families, including provision of food-grains, staples etc. at a subsidised rate.   

The report, released last month, is based on the data collected during the fifth round of the national family health survey. Incidentally, the UNDP along with Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative released a report on global multidimensional poverty index (GMPI) in October 2022, based on the same data. 

The UNDP report suggests that 645.7 million people were poor in India in 2005-06, 370.5 million in 2015-16 and 230.7 million in 2019-21. If one looks at the pace at which poverty was reduced annually during these periods, it is more or less similar. In other words, there is nothing exceptional about this data.  

However, despite the fact that both the reports are based on the same dataset, yet there is a difference in the index. The UNDP report measures poverty based on 10 deprivations per person, categorised in three groups -– healthcare, education and standard of living. 

The National Multidimensional Poverty Index (NMPI) has added two more deprivations/indicators, which shows 14.96 percent people were poor in India against the UNDP’s 16.39 percent during 2019-21.   

Before looking at the additional deprivations that Niti Ayog considered in its report, let’s have a look at the data published by the NFHS survey. The data shows that 31.52 percent people were found to be deficient in nutrition, 43.9 percent did not have access to cooking fuel, and 41.37 percent were deprived of housing facilities. 

Contrary to various claims made by the government that India has become open-defecation free, the data shows that 30.13 per cent people were deprived of sanitation services!   

Besides, children falling in the age group of six to 14 years, which constitutes 18 percent of the total population, have been excluded while calculating NMPI. More than two-thirds of this group is anaemic. Not only this, the report has not considered stunting (height for age) as an indicator while calculating NMPI for children under five. Instead, it is based on undernourishment (weight for age). The former is higher than the latter.   

Coming to the additional indicators, NMPI has also included the data on maternal health and households not holding a bank account. Now many will say, what is wrong in this. The report has considered a pregnant woman as deprived in case her delivery is done by an unskilled person and she has not been given four antenatal care services. It is a fact that more than 80 percent deliveries now happen in health institutions. In fact, several studies have also shown that despite institutional deliveries, health system coverage is insufficient to save newborn lives.     

Similarly, 90.3 percent people in India hold a bank account or a post office account, thanks to Jan Dhan Scheme. It is a different matter that a large chunk of these bank accounts was found to be redundant. 

These two indicators and exclusion of children, reduces the number of deprived people considerably, thereby affecting the overall index. Besides, the majority of the data collected during NFHS-5 pertains to the pre-pandemic period. This again questions the relevance of this data and report. Not only this, the data is based on the same population figure as that of 2015! 

The actual population data for 2021 has not been considered while calculating NMPI. So, we are basically comparing progress between an apple and an orange. The numbers are highly flawed.  

The methodology to calculate MPI has been devised in such a way that the index will never increase unless a natural disaster or another unforeseen incident, affecting the entire population occurs.   

One can understand the context in which the report’s findings are being publicised. However, by turning a blind eye to stark realities, one is inviting own doomsday. How will a country plan to solve its problems, if the leader is not aware of its magnitude? The government has not conducted the census for obvious reasons. 

The actual data on consumption expenditure survey (CES) would have perhaps shown that poverty has actually increased. It is unfortunate that the opposition, too, has not played much role in creating political pressure on the government for conducting the census. Does it mean that poverty has disappeared even from political discourses?   

However, when it comes to election propaganda, the poor become the centre of attraction. It is usual to see various announcements being made to appease them. In reality, the government does not even want to accept their existence.  

If one looks at the consumer price index, it has shot up by 7.44 per cent in comparison to the last month. Food prices have skyrocketed on account of short supplies due to unfavourable weather. The RBI monetary policy committee has issued a warning. “There is a need for ensuring increasing supplies in the domestic market and to social safety programmes.” 

Vegetables and pulses have become unaffordable even for the middle class. How will those staying at the bottom of the pyramid survive? But, then, poverty does not exist. How will increasing prices even affect the government? What is more important is to close the national capital for the G20 summit! After all, representatives from 19 countries are visiting.

Our people have forgotten that this country has hosted several events in the past with much larger audiences and for much longer durations, without affecting the daily life of the common man. The sudden closure of the national capital will affect those who work on daily wages, factory labourers, small entrepreneurs and so on. But then who cares? 

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