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Looking for the Poor

The media noise shed little light on the important issues involved in deciding the coverage of welfare programmes.

The context for the Planning Commission’s (PC) affidavit on the official poverty line was the deliberation in the Supreme Court on how many people could be covered by the public distribution system (PDS). But while the sound and fury over the poverty line – Rs 32 per capita per day in the urban areas and Rs 26 in rural India – has subsided, it is not clear if we are any closer to taking a correct decision on who will be covered by welfare programmes. All that we know from the joint statement issued by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and the union minister for rural development is that the state-wise poverty numbers – based on the PC’s methodology – will not be used to set ceilings (“caps”) on the number of households to be covered in each state by specific programmes. What the statement was silent about was if a different set of caps will henceforth be applied and if these caps will operate within the ceiling of the national poverty ratio. In other words, first, capping is still on the table. Second, the union cabinet, when earlier clearing the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), had taken a decision on which kind of household would be automatically excluded, which one included and how to “score” deprivation indices of others, and had linked the size of the beneficiary population to the PC’s poverty ratios. It has now been decided that yet another committee of experts will make recommendations on how to use the information of the SECC.

Fiscal considerations drove the introduction of the “targeted” public distribution system (TPDS), which in turn called for the design of the “Below the Poverty Line” (BPL) Census. It is now almost universally accepted that targeting – whichever the programme and whatever the criterion used – has led to errors in exclusion (i e, those who should be covered are not) that are substantially larger than the errors in inclusion (i e, those who should not be covered are). Yet the government and those who would like to shut down all anti-poverty programmes prefer to focus on the errors of inclusion, which is not surprising given their concern with containing the fiscal deficit.

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