An expert body finds that up to 50 per cent of Indians could indeed be below the poverty line (BPL) if calorie intake is used as the criterion.
"The number of food deficit people is at least double the number officially declared poor in India. Thus there is every case for enlarging the category of those entitled to cheaper food from the government," says the committee set up by the Rural Development Ministry and headed by N.C. Saxena.
The committee was appointed to advise the government on the methodology to be adopted for a census of those below the poverty line for the 11th Five Year Plan.
The report of the Rural Development ministry, though, demonstrates that there has been a steady decline in the calorie intake, especially cereal consumption, among the poor between 1972-73 and 1999-2000. Ironically this has happened even as the number of people officially declared poor has steadily gone down over the same years.
The report points out the level the poor would need to spend on consumption than what is indicated by the poverty lines now in force to reach the minimum calorie norm (2400 kcal in rural areas and 2100 kcal in urban). The calorie consumption has been consistently declining since 1987-88, it is pointed out.
The report maps "gross errors of exclusion and inclusion" that have crept into the system because of the flawed methodology of BPL identification, and argues that "errors of inclusion are far better than the errors of exclusions which often crop up in the backward districts as the poor people, especially tribals, have little voice or influence over the administration."
It says that 61 per cent of households, poor on account of their consumption expenditure being less than the official poverty line, have been excluded from the net of BPL census.
It recommends a new methodology of score-based ranking, besides recommending parameters for "automatic inclusion" and "automatic exclusion" for some categories of households. It has said that families with double the land of the district average of agricultural land and other criteria could be excluded from survey, while families being designated a primitive tribe, dalit, homeless household or minorities be included automatically.
The report also records comments by members who disagree with its orientation.
P. Sainath, member, argues against the system of targeted welfare schemes for food, health care, education and decent work. He points out that Public Distribution System (PDS) has worked best when it "has been for decades closer to universal [such as in Kerala and Tamil Nadu]." He argues that targeted systems "are very expensive and call for a huge and expensive apparatus that invites corruption and black-marketing."
On the other hand, member-convenor K.L. Das has said that determining the poverty ratio is beyond the terms of reference of the expert group since "it is to be decided by the Planning Commission and not Ministry of Rural Development."
The committee has recommended that a survey of BPL rural families be undertaken between August 2009 and January 2010 as work on Census 2011 is to start from next year, requiring huge numbers of field staff, The Hindu reports.