The Below Poverty Line (BPL) lists are to be revised again. It is time therefore that the people looked closely at what is involved. For a family to be listed as BPL promises to ensure relatively affordable food, free medical care and various other facilities. It is therefore a vital marker for the nearly 80 percent of our rural population and the similar but slightly lesser numbers in the urban areas who do not get two square meals a day throughout the year. It is therefore not surprising that BPL listings have become the focus of spontaneous class struggles throughout India. A brief review of the question is therefore necessary at the present juncture.
The World Bank has been and is terribly worried by world poverty. Now then, I didn’t really want to start with a joke, but that sentence sounds like a bit of black humour. Along with its Breton Woods twin, the IMF, it has imposed economic and fiscal policies designed precisely to create the most abysmal poverty in all countries of the world, including such metropolitan centres as the USA and Europe where discriminated ethno-racial groups, female-headed households, workers in the informal sectors and others such as the unemployed millions know well the kind of poverty we suffer from in South. All this in a relentless pursuit of the interests of their masters, what Samir Amin calls the Triad consisting of the three major imperialist formations, the US, Japan and the EU,
Huge and increasing poverty on a world scale has lately become exacerbated by the current economic meltdown. Naturally, the masters are worried and have been very worried over the last decade or so. They know that their monetarist, neo-liberal policies are designed to strangulate all social sector spending by the state or community such as on healthcare, subsidised food and transport, education, old age care, insurance, etc. Those policies are the very source of increasing poverty and consequent hunger, malnutrition and death. And yet the deep systemic crisis of capitalism, not just a financial meltdown, leaves the imperialist ruling classes no other serious policy choices even if that means a massive destruction of the productive forces of capitalism. Within that destructive process and after it, socialism will not appear as inevitable unless the class struggle is ideologically oriented towards it. Without this kind of class struggle, capitalism will emerge from the debris with a new regime of accumulation. But then no one wants to become debris especially when (if the socialist alternative can be averted) new regimes of accumulation have the bad habit of shifting their centre or centres geographically, as is being openly talked about with regard to China and some other countries, including India.
The current crisis has made the question of acute poverty most urgent for the ruling classes throughout the world. They have to do something and be seen to be doing something. But so massive and extreme is poverty in the world today that to attempt to alleviate it ever so slightly would totally disrupt the present economic regime. So it is better to be seen to be doing something than actually doing it while actually doing the opposite. Hence we see the reprehensible chicanery accompanying the whole question on who is poor.
Let’s look at our own experience in India where the gnomes who run this particular show from Delhi’s Planning Commission are not just passive followers of the World Bank but are a part of that bank’s intellectual climate of thought on poverty. The game is to show that poverty is low and reducing rapidly.
In 1979, a bunch of experts put together by the Planning Commission recommended that the minimum nutritional need (food) in India was 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 in urban areas. This show of expensive research was a ploy to reduce the earlier figures recommended by Ackroyd and immediately reduce the numbers below the poverty line.
On the basis of this reduced caloric requirement, it was then decided that the minimum per capita expenditure ought to be Rs 49 in rural areas and Rs 57 in urban areas, taking 1973–74 as the base year. The assortment of goods chosen and their respective prices for the base year should come under strict scrutiny now that we know that the intentions of the Planning Commission and successive governments of India are less than honourable. But let us accept those figures, as so many have done so far. For subsequent years, the procedure should have been to take the same assortment of goods (to ensure comparability), determine their current prices and arrive at the required minimum expenditure required to satisfy nutritional needs. But that is precisely what the Planning Commission was not prepared to do. What it did was to adjust the monetary values obtained for 1973–74 by indexed inflation. With this arithmetical sleight of hand, the Planning Commission immediately reduced poverty as a lasting tribute to its planning.
Deaton and Dreze have shown what this price updating actually means. In 1999–2000, the Planning Commission arrived at the poverty line of Rs 328 for the rural and Rs 454 for the urban, whereas it should have been Rs 565 and Rs 625 respectively to satisfy the caloric norms. That meant that millions were shown to be above the poverty line when they were not and the government could crow about the rapid decline in poverty due to its policies.
The Ministry of Rural Development has over the years conducted several surveys. All of them have been found to be faulty by the ministry itself. There is now another expert group of that ministry that proposes a new methodology that has been on the internet as a draft. If adopted, it will surely meet the same fate as the previous ones because it is unnecessarily complicated, mystifying in many aspects especially in those where it means well and too unwieldy for the untrained (and mostly predatory about the poor) government officials at the grass root level. But even if it is conceded that this methodology will give us a fairly good picture of poverty in the country, there will still remain the gnomes in the Planning Commission to contend with. Before the last survey, the Commission arrived at the figure of 28.3 percent of people below the poverty line, defying NSSO and other results. But it ordered all concerned to not find anything above that figure. Only Montek Singh Ahluwalia and PM who certified that we all loved Bush, the puppets from the Bank, could order such wonderful sociology.
The situation is such that it has been truly said (2005) by Dr Pronab Sen, Chief Statistician and Secretary, Department of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, that
“…it is indubitably true that the per capita calorie intake of the poverty line classes practically all over the country has declined significantly between 1972–73 and 1999–2000… The current value of the poverty line does not permit the poverty line class to consume the caloric norm, and the periodic price corrections that have been carried out to update the poverty lines are inadequate and indeed may be even inappropriate. Consequently, the poverty estimates made in the years after 1973–74 understate the true incidence of poverty in the country.”The 61st Round of the NSSO (2004–05) clearly shows that in rural and urban India less than 19 and less than 13 percent of the population respectively access the caloric norm. What is more staggering is that millions, nearly 30 percent of the population, cannot access even half of that norm. What is the need then to have more “elaborate” and “better” surveys? The case for a universal public distribution system (PDS), free and universal healthcare, free education, etc. is overwhelming when more than 80 percent of the population do not have enough to eat, let alone satisfy other vital needs. There is no need to fret over much about resource leakage to those who are not poor because the consumption of cereals by the non-poor 15 percent or so of the population is far less than that of the others and decreasing. Not only that, these non-poor would rarely access the coarse cereals dished out at the ration shops as was evident when there was universal PDS. The same sort of thing can be said about public sector healthcare and education, except that in the case of the latter, the high quality specialist education in government-run institutions such as medical colleges, technical institutes, etc. where the non-poor tend to crowd out the poor.
The Indian ruling classes have become very uneasy about their own poverty games owing to two factors. First and foremost, the continuous revolt of the poor on this question which is already spilling into intermittent violence against officials and the police. In these numerous instances of revolt, two issues come to the forefront. First, most of the poor have been left out. This is perceived as corruption by local officials. This perception has to change and the people must understand the role of the World Bank and the Planning Commission. But there is indeed massive corruption at the local levels of course. That comes out in the fact that many rich and super-rich households have gotten on the BPL lists through bribery and or political clout. This therefore becomes the second issue.
The second factor is the growing division among the ruling classes regarding what to do about export-led growth when the US and the EU consumer is tightening the belt on account of the current meltdown. No one is yet proposing a shift out of that policy for growth, but some it would appear to be rooting for drastic modifications through creating a modest home market a la the Beijing thugs. This contradiction could be read into the current budget and the various reactions to it from the ruling classes. Be that as it may, a modest home market is inconceivable, after the top 10 percent of our population having already satiated itself with all the white goods and the electronic goo-ga and already apprehensive about a meltdown at home making it a little shy of shopping sprees, unless something is done about the bottom of the pile. That pile needs to be fed and then given something to do that creates assets for bottom up capitalist development.
Fear of a mass revolt and policy flux within the ruling classes is a very good time for the people to rise up for their various rights, foremost of which is the right to food.
We must therefore all organise, organise and organise immediately on the following demands:
• We Want a Universal Public Distribution System!
• No More of this APL/BPL Farce!
• We Want Universal Healthcare & Free Education!
• Down with Police Repression against the Hungry!