Poverty of statistics

A Srinivas | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on October 21, 2015


World Bank numbers are the latest addition to this farce

The government has lost no time in criticising the World Bank’s recent report, which says that only 12.4 per cent of India’s population was poor in 2011-12. Recall the uproar that ensued from the Suresh Tendulkar Committee’s findings; it used a per capita daily expenditure requirement of about ₹30 a day at 2011 prices as the poverty line, and concluded that 22 per cent of Indians were poor that year.

The World Bank has repeated the Tendulkar report’s mistake by assuming a per capita consumption need of $1.9 a day in ‘purchasing power parity’ terms, which works out to about ₹28 a day for 2011-12, as pointed out by reports. To correct these absurdities, the Rangarajan panel revised poverty lines upward in its July 2014 report, as a result of which 30 per cent of the population was found to be poor in 2011. While both the Rangarajan and Tendulkar panel reports claim to go beyond a narrow income-calorie approach, they fall short of being multi-dimensional. Their poverty lines do not accord sufficient weightage to nutrition, and access to schools, sanitation, transport and hospitals of a certain standard.

Poverty is a psychologically dysfunctional state of being, as David Shipler’s case studies of the poor in the US point out. Statistics do not capture that. If the idea is to ‘measure’ the number of poor accurately so that schemes can be effectively ‘targeted’, that, as Nobel laureate Angus Deaton has said, is unlikely to work. Self-targeting schemes such as the MGNREGA and mid-day meals are less vulnerable to leakages. Multi-dimensional studies open up more promising policy possibilities.

For instance, the National Family Health Survey is expected to release its fourth report soon. The third report, for the period 2005-06, reported alarmingly high levels of anaemia and stunting for an economy of promise. The fourth report should tell whether poverty ‘lines’ and the singular pursuit of ‘growth’ matter.

Senior Deputy Editor

Published on October 21, 2015
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