Starvation amidst luxury: Groping for a Definition of Poverty
by Ashwani Mahajan on 16 Jul 2011 4 Comments

WHILE hearing a PIL petition recently, the Supreme Court expressed concern over the starvation deaths in India, ironically the world’s third most powerful country. The judiciary posed a very stark question ~ how can there be two Indias? ~ one hit by starvation and the other enjoying an excess of luxuries.


The government has advanced varying figures on poverty. It thus becomes difficult to form an estimate of the approximate number of the poor. Poverty has been defined variously and this has further complicated the matter. In the absence of an appropriate definition, efforts to alleviate poverty cannot be meaningful.


Various measures have been adopted by the government to tackle poverty. Cheap grain, pulses and kerosene through the PDS, rural and urban employment programmes, free education and health facilities have been the key initiatives. The food security legislation is on the anvil. Its objective is to ensure that those below the poverty line can access food at affordable prices.

The Supreme Court has asked the Planning Commission’s Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia to clarify the basis on which the Planning Commission contends that people below the poverty line constitute only 36 per cent of the population. An expert group, constituted by the Planning Commission under the chairmanship of (late) Prof. Suresh D. Tendulkar had suggested a different index for the measurement of poverty. The formula has been notified accordingly.

Before the expert group had advanced its report, the government had claimed in 2004-05 that only 28 per cent of the people were poor. This dropped to only 20 per cent in 2007. The expert group headed by Prof. Tendulkar suggested a new definition of poverty; the expenditure on health and education has also been included while assessing the phenomenon. This suggestion has been accepted by the government.

The Supreme Court has questioned what the government regards as an ‘improved definition’ of poverty. According to Prof. Tendulkar’s guidelines, a person can be treated as poor, as on 2004-05, if his monthly income is less than Rs 446.68 in rural areas and Rs 578.80 in urban areas. Considering the data furnished by the Planning Commission, the court questioned the methodology. It asked the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission how a person will be able to consume 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas with less than Rs 20 a day in urban areas and less than Rs 15 a day in rural areas.


It may be noted that as per the basic definition of poverty, intake of 2100 calories in rural areas and 2400 calories in urban areas has been the basis of drawing the poverty line. Going by this parameter, 56 per cent of the population was estimated to be living below the poverty line in 1973-74. Before 1973-74, the poverty line was properly defined. So was the estimation of poverty, based on the requisite expenditure to attain the desired quantum of calories.

However, the estimation of poverty in 1993-94 and 1999-2000 was devoid of any sense of proportion. Statisticians of the Planning Commission were able to bring down the number of poor by numerical jugglery and a change in the definition of poverty. Critics believe that had the price data been properly used, poverty figures would have been 80 per cent in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas.

If we accept the data presented by the Planning Commission, we will notice that a person with a daily income of Rs 20 or more in urban areas and Rs 15 or more in rural areas will not be called poor. According to the internationally accepted definition of poverty, it is $1.25 a day. If we convert this amount to rupees, it will work out to Rs 58 per day. This is lower than what is required for subsistence; it would be useless to identify the poverty line with an amount that is nearly one-third of this figure.

This illustrates a degree of insensitivity on the part of the government towards the poor. No wonder it has not been able to provide for the minimum subsistence cost of living. Some time ago, the government constituted a committee for the unorganized sector under the chairmanship of Arjun Sengupta. It reported that more than 77 per cent of the populace makes do with less than Rs 20 a day.


It is easy to understand why it is not possible to meet the minimum requirement of a person’s food, shelter, health and clothing with so little at his/her disposal. In real terms, more than 77 per cent of the people cannot even meet their basic needs, whereas poverty measured as per the mathematical method gives a figure of merely 36 per cent. Such varying figures of the poor make the scenario still more complicated. The task of poverty alleviation becomes difficult.

As per data provided by the UN, more than 22 crore are hungry in India. According to a report of a UK-based research organisation, an estimated 3000 children die of malnutrition each day. This is in accord with the UN data on hunger. Over the past four years, food prices have more than doubled. This has pushed a large number of people below the poverty line.

The Tendulkar report has tried to redefine poverty by including the requisite expenditure on education and health. Even so, it has failed to address the reality. A ‘poverty line’ that is based on calories can at best be called a ‘hunger line’. To make it comprehensive, the government needs to take a realistic view of poverty. If it earnestly intends to implement the right to food, it must correct its assessment of poverty and stop the statistical jugglery. It must call off the crude joke on the poor.


The author teaches Economics at the University of Delhi, Delhi

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top