ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Breach of Faith

An official response from the Ministry of Rural Development to the article by Santosh Mehrotra and Harsh Mander ("How to Identify the Poor? A Proposal", EPW, 9 May 2009).

DISCUSSION

Breach of Faith
Group by virtue of the official position he used to occupy then. With the change in his official position, the association of the first author with the Expert Group has ceased. K L Datta The second author continues to be a mem-

An official response from the Ministry of Rural Development to the article by Santosh Mehrotra and Harsh Mander (“How to Identify the Poor? A Proposal”, EPW, 9 May 2009).

K L Datta is with the Ministry of Rural Development.

T
he Ministry of Rural Development (MORD) in association with the state governments conducts a b elow the poverty line (BPL) census gen erally on the eve of a five-year plan. The census is conducted to identify the potential beneficiaries under the income redistributive poverty alleviation programmes. Until now, three such censuses have been conducted, each with a different methodo logy. The methodology employed to conduct the census is decided by an Expert Group consisting of academicians, experts in the area of poverty estimation, representatives of civil society organisations and officials of the central and state governments in-charge of implementation of the poverty alleviation programmes. For the past six months, an Expert Group has been working to delineate the methodology for conducting the BPL census for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan period. The Expert Group has held several meetings. It has also constituted a drafting committee, which has been charged with the responsibility of preparing the draft for discussion in the ensuing meeting of the Expert Group. The latest draft of the report which has been prepared for discussion in the meeting of the Expert Group has unfortunately found its way into the contents of the special article: “How to Identify the Poor? A Proposal” in the Economic & Political Weekly, 9 May 2009 under the authorship of Santosh Mehrotra and Harsh Mander.

The special article by Mehrotra and Mander deals with the criteria for identification of the BPL households in the censuses conducted earlier in 1992 and 1997. Then, it spells out the basis of identification of BPL households in the third BPL census conducted by the MORD in 2002. Finally, Mehrotra and Mander present the methodology for identification of BPL households that is b eing deliberated for the next BPL census proposed to be conducted in 2009.

The first author of the special article was for sometime a member of the Expert ber of the Expert Group and is also a member of the drafting committee c onstituted for the purpose of assisting the Expert Group with a draft report, which contains background notes on the m ethodo logy of the previous BPL censuses and an outline of the suggested methodo logy for the proposed 2009 BPL census, among other things.

The first section of the special article, which is a review of the criteria used to conduct the BPL censuses of 1992 and 1997, has been taken almost entirely from the background note prepared by the ministry, which was circulated to the members of the drafting committee. In the special article, the origins of BPL census in section 1, BPL census 1992 in sub-section 1.1 are examples. Similar is the case for second section, which spells out the BPL census 2002. The only exception is the sub-section 2.1 titled “Other Issues Related to Census 2002”, and even in this sub-section the last three paragraphs are taken from the background note prepared in the MORD. “Indicators Used for Identification of BPL in Census 2002” given in Box 1 in the article has also been lifted verbatim from the background note circulated by the MORD.

The third section of the special article relates to the proposed set of criteria for conducting the census in 2009 and elaborating the procedure to be followed for this purpose. The guiding principles of this suggested methodology came from a note circulated by the second author, which was discussed in a meeting and had the benefit of the opinions of the members of the civil society organisations, the s enior officials of the central and state governments associated with the overall management of the rural poverty alleviation programmes at various levels of the administrative apparatus, and of all, the members of the Expert Group. On the suggested methodology, the second author had a distinct point of view. After several rounds of discussion with the Expert Group and also with members of civil s ociety, the final version emerged. The

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

DISCUSSION

something in their name which is not exclusively prepared by them. Fourth, the authors have placed the document in the public domain when it is still being discussed by the Expert Group to which one author is an ex-member and another is currently a member. For them to have utilised the document and put it in the public domain without even consulting other members, is an irresponsible act. Fifth and finally, the publication of the contents of a draft report has violated the propriety of collective functioning since much of the work has been done by the Expert Group.

A Response

Harsh Mander

feedback, to help sharpen and improve our suggestions to the expert committee. In fact this purpose was well served, and we were indeed able to improve greatly on our initial set of suggestions, in the final proposals we made to the committee, partly because of the feedback we got from the published article.

It is also said that the earlier part of the article giving the history of past BPL censuses was based on materials of the Ministry of Rural Development. Of course it is based on materials of the ministry which have been in the public domain for the past seven years. There is nothing in our paper or in the draft ministry report about these two censuses which has not already been put in published form by the MORD in methodology scripted by Mehrotra and Mander in the special article is, therefore, based on the inputs of several members of the Expert Group, besides the members of the civil society organisations.

The background notes and the suggested methodology for the proposed BPL census were prepared with the specific purpose of placing it before the Expert Group for discussion and its likely endorsement. The purpose is to evolve a methodology most suitable for the identification of BPL families in the rural areas in the present socioeconomic set up. The issues raised by the Expert Group are being debated at various levels. The process of such discussion is not complete yet. The act of presenting this document as their own and placing them in the public domain at this stage is inconsistent with the position that the a uthors occupy in the light of their association with the Expert Group. Seeking public opinion on this issue is unwarranted on their part because this could well have been accomplished by the Expert Group or the MORD itself, in case it was considered necessary. It can be treated as an attempt by the authors to render the functioning of the Expert Group redundant.

The draft methodology has been placed by Mehrotra and Mander under their signature without even acknowledging the contribution of others who were equally responsible and instrumental in its preparation. Placing such a document in the name of individuals, bypassing the contribution of other authors could be questioned both for impropriety and on ethical grounds.

The reasons which make this particular act of the authors inappropriate are briefly the following. First, for not to have acknowledged the fact that both the authors were members of the Expert Group constituted by the MORD which is considering a methodology for identification of poor families for the past six months. The proposals have been placed in the public d omain when the process of consultation is still on. Second, the authors make several major portions of the article by lifting from the documents prepared by the ministry for servicing a background note for the first and second rounds of discussion for which no acknowledgement has been made in either the end notes or in the refe rences. Third, they have published

T
he methodology for selection of BPL households affects the access to critical government support of millions of impoverished families. There was enormous dissatisfaction with the earlier methodology among poor families in every part of the country. Because of this, the authors felt therefore that there should be the widest possible consultation in the time available while proposing a new methodology, e specially because the decisions will a ffect the lives of disadvantaged people so critically. We therefore conducted a series of consultations, including with grass roots activists.

In those consultations, we felt that consultation with academics would be best facilitated through the Economic & Political Weekly, in the belief that in critical matters concerning public welfare, there should be transparency, consultation and open debate at every stage of the process of decision-making.

The proposals that we shared in EPW could not be sent out as those of the committee, because many other members had different (and equally valid) viewpoints. The published proposals were specifically those of the authors, and very different from the recorded minutes of the deliberations of the committee. These views of the author had benefited from consulting with other experts, whose names were duly acknowledged in the article. But we felt that we could not claim that we were consulting through EPW on behalf of the expert committee. We were consulting only as individuals, so as to get the maximum a publication duly cited in the p aper’s bibliography. We agree that this should have been explained more explicitly in the body of the paper as well, and apologise for this lapse. But the original ideas which the authors wished to d ebate lay in the new proposed methodology, and not at all in the history of BPL censuses, which is well known and long in the public domain.

The ministry also felt that the article was some kind of a breach of trust, b ecause it took the debate into the public domain before the expert committee took its decisions. To the extent that the ministry felt we should not have gone public as members of an official committee, we offer our regrets. We had not at all anticipated that there could be any official objection to the article. With all due respect, we feel on the contrary that the era of government functioning in which it was believed that government decisions affecting the people must be conducted in secrecy rightly belongs to the past. There is wide official and nonofficial consensus (and indeed legal obligations) that there should be wide and open debate in all such decision-making. The important question is whether the article and subsequent feedback and debates added to the pool of ideas and opinions that contributed to the final recommendations that the expert committee will make. There is no doubt that it has done that. To the extent that this will possibly help improve even in a small way the decisions about the methodology to select BPL families, it would have served its purpose, once the dust raised by this small controversy rests.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

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