2022 marks an important decadal anniversary.
It is exactly a decade to when the Rangarajan Committee was set up to come up with fresh parameters for India’s poverty line. It submitted a report in 2014 but the government is yet to take a call. Also, Planning Commission last released poverty data for 2011-12. The number of poor in the country was pegged at 269.8 million or 21.9% of the population. After this, it has been ten years, but no official poverty estimates in India have been released.
For a democracy like India, with alleviation of poverty a primary business of the State and this government’s rhetoric of being ‘anti-elite’, it is puzzling why it has not thought it fit to confront the obvious question for eight years. With the destruction of the informal economy after demonetisation in 2016, India saw a fall in private consumption expenditure for the first time since figures started being recorded.
Unemployment shot up to the highest level since 1970s. There are other indicators that point to a worsening situation; India’s falling ranks in the Global Hunger Index and zooming demand for the Rural Employment Guarantee, are a barometer of distress. The question of how many Indians are poor and what kind of an economy we really are, needs to be honestly confronted.
The number of poor in the country was pegged at 269.8 million or 21.9% of the population. After this, it has been ten years, but no official poverty estimates in India have been released.
The government scheme of giving dry ration to “800 million” Indians is set to continue for another three months is significant.
The government of India, even if indirectly, letting out poverty data, must push the discourse away from delusions of India as a middle-class country.
Coming to terms with the reality of 800 million needing subsistence food supplies would be a great start towards securing our future.
Significance of '800 Million'
The government believes that recording the dire straits the Indian economy has been pushed into and since well before the pandemic, would torpedo its politics. Hence, there is a data drought. In this context, recent reports that the government scheme of giving dry ration to “800 million” Indians is set to continue for another three months is significant.
The scheme, launched in April 2020 to “shield the poor” has been extended six times already—confirming the continuing destitution. In the absence of any official estimate, at least 800 million is the closest official estimate for the numbers of those who are living not just below the poverty line.
If five kilograms of free ration per person per month, over and above their entitlement of food grains under the National Food Security Act is such a life-saver, what else would the 800 million be, if not the absolute poor?
Indians' Right to Food
As talk about India being the ‘fastest growing’ is put out instead, it is essential to remember that India’s per capita income is not even the highest in the region and at USD 2,277 is a fraction of the world average of USD 12,262. It is useful to remember that seen along with the inequality figures, (73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%) and low mobility (It would take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment company earns in a year), even this USD 2,277 is not the median income. The number of 800 million is the closest this government will ever get to, and is literally, those below the bread-line.
Those working on hunger in India say that 800 million is an underestimation by at least 100 million and the truly vulnerable according to them are at least 900 million. Moreover, considering all relevant facts, the Supreme Court has on 24 August, directed the government to ensure that the ambit of the Food Security Act (2013) is expanded; “come out with a formula and/or appropriate policy/scheme, if any, so that the benefits under NFSA are not restricted as per the census 2011 and more and more needy persons/citizens get the benefit under the National Food Security Act, keeping in mind what has been observed and held by this Court in a catena of decisions that “Right to Food” is a fundamental right available under Article 21 of the Constitution of India”.
'Freebies' as a Red-Herring
In this scenario, the union government’s push to somehow get the Supreme Court to intervene to snuff out attempts state governments to provide relief to their respective poor has deeply harmful implications. The bizarre bid to somehow get the apex court to ‘adjudicate’ on how political parties other than the BJP, should choose to spend on their people, hurts Indian democracy fundamentally. It proceeds to hurt the federal principle and the right of voters to choose, both in one fell swoop.
If electoral bonds (and the unequal way that has played out) were a way of tying down parties on how they are to receive money for elections, the proposed restrictions on ‘freebies’ would have served to close the other end, leading to a full-fledged unitary rule, of One Man and One Scheme. But for innovations which were possible because India’s reality is of Many Indians and Many Ways of tackling its problems, India’s poverty and inequality figures would have been even starker. Those speaking of ‘freebies’ in 2022—would have staunchly opposed the mid-day meal in Tamil Nadu or public health initiatives when started in Kerala.
Must Confront the Truth
The government of India, even if indirectly, letting out poverty data, must push the discourse away from delusions of India as a middle-class country. Correcting this illusion is important as nursing this mistaken idea carries steep costs. Not being able to see our poor is like building walls or barricades to invisiblise slums from car routes of foreign leaders. To not be conscious of our state of affairs, skews policies. It leads to the privileged continuing to air ridiculous and misplaced ideas about coming down on ‘freebies’ and on the other hand, feeling delighted about India’s Billionaire lists.
Notably, the PM may have loudly sneered at the MNREGA in 2015 as a “monument of failure”, but it is that very scheme and the National Food Security that has provided some baseline support for millions. We must mark the ten years of no official word on poverty by recognising where we stand. Coming to terms with the reality of 800 million needing subsistence food supplies would be a great start towards securing our future.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)