The Times of India
WASHINGTON : She was then a young IAS officer on her first posting in charge of a subdivision in a district of West Bengal. Today, she is a globetrotting development executive assisting efforts to alleviate abject misery in impoverished societies.
At a dinner the other night in a suburb of this town, the discussion veered round to a new measure of poverty devised by scholars on behalf of Oxford University and UNDP. As reported in the media, by that new measure, just eight states - Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal - have more desperately poor people, at 421 million, than the 26 poorest African countries combined, at 410 million. And she, understandably declining to be named, told us a telling tale of measuring poverty.
It was 1993. New Delhi had asked various states to "enumerate" poor people and the West Bengal government had ordered each district to come up with a figure. The districts in turn had asked the gram panchayats to produce data. And so they did.
When the exercise was over, the figures were tallied in a conference in Calcutta with the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, presiding. As the numbers began to come up, officials realised that something was not quite right. It seemed the grassroots level officials had assumed that the more poor people they could show the more would be the money flowing into their coffers. As a result, some districts had totted up embarrassingly high figures; Burdwan, for instance, apparently had tallied numbers that came up to 104 per cent of the entire population of the district!
This won't do, Jyoti Basu declared. The state government could not claim that after 16 years in power it had run up higher numbers of poor people than the state had in 1977. He ordered his ministers to solve the conundrum. Which they did, somewhat arbitrarily, by adjusting numbers for each district until the total figure looked sufficiently high to persuade New Delhi to send money but not excessively bloated.
On the way back to her district headquarters, our young IAS officer gave a ride in her car to the head of one village council. "Madam Sir," he said, "this property line is difficult to understand. It goes up one day, comes down the next, and then goes up again, just like the power supply." She told the confused gentleman that it was the "poverty" line they were discussing, not the "property" line, and attempted to explain the numerical gyrations. It was then that she realised the village council head had actually grasped the concept with the correct degree of scepticism.
Measuring the number of poor people living in India has proven notoriously hard over the decades. The Union government comes up with a figure, which it swears is the right one and which shows a clear downward trajectory, particularly in the first decade of the 21st century. Others have come up with much higher figures emerging from other models of measurement. The World Bank, relying largely on the reported findings of the government, agrees that the number of those living below the poverty line of $1.25 earnings a day is declining, as the government says, but is markedly higher than official estimates.
The newly created Multidimensional Poverty Index cited earlier found half the world's poor people live in South Asia, the largest number being in those eight Indian states mentioned above. This index drew inspiration from Amartya Sen's idea of using 'deprivation', and not just daily income, while measuring poverty.
I think we can all agree that India has an embarrassingly high number of poor people. Even the sunny estimates say that the number may be 300 million, which is almost the entire population of the United States. True, that number is coming down slowly. True, we also have the world's second highest number of billionaires. But, borrowing terms used by that perceptive village council chief, if the property line keeps rising faster than the rate at which the poverty line declines, we are heading for trouble. Rising expectations from growing prosperity can explode in our faces if we can't rapidly ensure visible fairness in growth. Some fear it is already happening.
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