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REACHING OUT: The food security bill, if implemented, will provide 25 kg of foodgrains to the BPL population at Rs 3 per kg

Call it a poor joke. India has so far managed to turn the not-sodifficult task of identifying the poor into a near impossible one. Really, how difficult can it be to put a finger on the poorest of the poor here — those scouring the garbage for food, the beggars, manual scavengers, dalit tolas in villages, the tribals and forest dwellers?

Not that it has escaped the notice of the concerned authorities. But, as politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals and activists debate the Food Security Act, which will guarantee 25 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3 per kg to those below the poverty line (BPL), the exact number of the poor and who they are remain a source of abiding controversy.

Planning Commission member Mihir Shah sums up the irony when he says, "It should be easy to identify the poor in India because of the strong markers of poverty. But because of obstacles like bad methodology and power structures in villages, it has become a most difficult task. "

Thankfully, one of the major stumbling blocks cleared itself last week when the Planning Commission agreed to the Tendulkar committee's estimates of the poor — 37. 2 per cent. It puts an upper ceiling to those who would be identified by the proposed BPL census across the states and offers a platform from which to launch the massive counting exercise.

The agreement on Tendulkar's estimates is a big step towards the accurate estimation of poverty numbers, a near 10 per cent jump over the present figure of 28. 3 per cent.

Tendulkar's estimates triggered alarm bells in ruling circles as the report raised the quantum of the poor when successive governments had claimed that poverty levels were dipping, owing to a consistently rising growth rate.

The alarm is also due to the fact that it has come at a time when entitlements are becoming legal guarantees, as in the case of proposed food security, and imply increased aid to the poor in housing, health insurance and micro finance. The hike in the BPL figure to 37. 2 per cent would mean a quantum leap in expenditure.

The multiplicity of poverty figures available can vastly affect government expenditure on the food Act. Though quite a few of these estimates have no direct bearing on the subsidy programmes targeted for the poor, it is an indication of the confusion prevailing in a crucial area of the government's welfare policies.

For example, according to an official calculation, the Arjun Sengupta committee report of 15. 4 crore poor families would have resulted in the NFSA demanding spending of Rs 60, 060 crore annually.

Another set of figures based on the N C Saxena report pegged the poverty figures at 10 crore families, which would have implied an expenditure of Rs 39, 000 crore.

It is in this context that the Tendulkar committee's estimate of 7. 4 crore BPL families offers the state a reasonably manageable target. On the basis of these numbers, the government will have to set aside Rs 28, 860 crore. Certainly, as a result of the acceptance of the new figures, there is likely to be clarity on the reach and execution of the distribution programme.

But the bane of the census exercise, more than anything else, has been a flawed methodology. Till now, a vast population was scanned to pick the poor even as the truly wretched — those low on awareness and victims of a biased caste structure — fell through the census net.

In 'automatic inclusion', which is the basis of the new BPL census, a few large categories would be assumed to be poor, unless proved otherwise on the basis of an individual's occupation or his material possessions.

So, from now on, a member of a 'primitive tribal group', a mahadalit, will be deemed to be poor, but the census will exclude him if he has a government job or if he owns property or material possessions.

Once the method is set right, the refining of the census process will play a big part in achieving results. Experts say that accuracy depends on the quality of the census agency, the capacity of enumerators and the framing of questions.

The 'one size-fits-all' approach to questionnaires and the criteria for the BPL census have destroyed many surveys. In the heterogeneous society that is India, there cannot be a uniform benchmark to judge poverty levels across states.

The new census will be made flexible to insert state-specific demands. It has been decided that pilot projects will be held to identify what a state requires outside the framework given for the census.

Shah says a uniform proforma cannot be rammed through states. For example, being 'mahadalit' can be an important marker for poverty in one state while, in another, 'minority' may hold a different connotation. There may be a case of higher landholding for exclusion from the poverty list as tribal areas generally have higher landholding than non-tribal areas.

The consultation with the states will help avert the ugliness of the last census when its findings were challenged in the Supreme Court, resulting in a stalemate. There has been since then a tussle between the Centre and the states on poverty figures.
Hopefully, soon both parties can agree on exactly who is poor and how many of them are around.

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