The Planning Commission defines India’s “Nothing Class” – K.P. Prabhakaran Nair

Dr. K.P. Prabhakaran Nair “The claim that poverty has declined in India does not hold water, because the indexation that is now used does not focus on the important core ‘nutritional indexing’ system. Current poverty lines which allow a nutrition norm of 2200 calories for the rural poor and 2100 for the urban poor would approximate to a spend of Rs 36/- and Rs 60/- a day respectively.” – Dr. K.P. Prabhakaran Nair 

DestitutionIndia, it would seem, has only two classes of people, the “upper class” and the “middle class”. Yet there is another, the totally forgotten “nothing class”, which the vast majority of educated, elite and intellectual Indians have chosen to ignore, which the Planning Commission has now defined. This article is about this class, which is drowning in deprivation.

Very recently, the Planning Commission submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court, which defined the country’s poor in a totally new, and bewildering, to say the least, light. The heartless manner in which this affidavit was submitted to the apex court comes to light when it defines a rural poor person as “one spending less than Rs 781/- per month or Rs 26/- a day”, and an urban poor person as “one spending less than Rs 965/- per month or Rs 32/- a day”.

Indian Peanut SellerThe most telling commentary on this heartless definition of the poor in India is dramatically highlighted by Ghanshyam, a street vendor who makes a living by selling peanuts outside the gates of the Planning Commission building, the “Yojana Bhavan,” who said, “Let the Planning Commission members step out and teach us how to live on Rs 32/- a day… I will work free for them for the rest of my life”.

While there has been widespread protest, both from the knowledgeable and the sundry, on this queer definition of the country’s poor, hardly anyone has attempted to critically examine the question in its entirety and see where it makes nonsense of current Indian economics, in particular that of food economics that is at the very centre of human life. Word has it that the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, in response to widespread national anguish, met Dr Manmohan Singh to “explain” the logic behind his “new” definition of the poor, and the Commission is sticking to its guns! The writer examines some crucial facts and shows the absurdity of this meaningless and heartless exercise.

Slum children playing carrom.The very tenor of the definition borders on defining destitution, not poverty. This is a blatant attack on the very notion of food security. Even a child can understand that the working health of an individual cannot be maintained, nor necessities obtained, by spending as little as Rs 26/- a day.

The above mentioned paltry sums are not merely supposed to cover the cost of food, but all non-food essentials, including clothing, foot wear, cooking fuel, transport , light (if there is electricity in the villages where the poor live), education, medical costs and house rent, where applicable. The tragic fact in India today is that more than a third (more than 450 million) of its current slightly more than 1.2 billion population “live” (emphasis mine, because at these abysmally low levels of expenditure it is not “living”, but just keeping body and soul together) on such pathetically low levels of daily expenditure.

"Nothing Class"This pathetic condition one can see among dalits, backward castes, and adivasis. They have been deliberately pushed out of the contorted notion of “inclusive growth”, (recall P. Chidambaram’s heartless, arrogant and demeaning definition of these deprived peoples as belonging to “Museum Culture”) that one sees only in budgets and Planning Commission papers. With bulging food stocks in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India, the primary concern of the Planning Commission and Food Ministry ought to have been how to reach these millions of tons of stocked food that is beginning to rot in FCI godowns for lack of proper storage facilities, to the hungry and needy. But, the neo-liberal thinking is different. Its concern seems to be targeted on reducing the food subsidy. And that explains why a new definition of the rural and urban poor is being dished out.

Going back to the basic question of food, the primary concern has to be how much calorie an adult needs to maintain a reasonably fair state of health. Once this is agreed upon, one can extrapolate on how much money one needs to spend to buy food to obtain this level of calorie intake. The accepted and generalised notion of “food” refers only to staples like rice and wheat, and to a much smaller extent millets, both major (sorghum or bajra) or minor (ragi), which the poor consume in large rainfed tracts of the country, primarily in central India and parts of southern India, like Karnataka.

Two bananasBut, this “generalised notion of food” does not include other items of nutrition in the food basket, such as vegetables, fish/meat/egg/milk and fruit etc., making it look as though the consumption of these “luxury items” is the “exclusive privilege” of only the upper class and middle class, and the “nothing class” will have no access to these items.

The original definition of poverty line made sense because it was based on the recommendations of an expert committee, using national sample surveys (NSS) data in 1979, which said that a person in a rural setting needs to spend as much money to obtain 2400 kilo calorie per day and one in an urban setting to obtain 2100 kilo calorie, the difference being the energy needs in a rustic setting is higher as compared to an urban setting where the expense of energy is relatively less on a day-to-day basis. Subsequently, the rural figure was scaled down to 2200 calories. The Planning Commission then accepted the recommendation of the expert committee based on nutrition-based definition, and concluded by applying this principle to the 1973-74 data, that the equivalent spend will be Rs 49/- and Rs 56/- per month in the rural and urban settings respectively. This was done only once. According to this, 56 per cent of rural population and 49 per cent of urban population were classified as “poor”.

World Bank Poverty Chart 2011The entire exercise of the current distorted indexing of poverty line came about when the Planning Commission, for reasons not explained clearly, switched from the “nutrition based indexing” to a “commodity /consumer price based index “(CPI). The notion of the latter procedure does not take into consideration how the purchasing power of the poor can be so very adversely affected when the core focus is taken away from the dialogue.

Take this example. As a Senior Associate Professor in the premier G.B. Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, Uttar Pradesh, I started my academic tenure on a basic salary of Rs 800/- plus the permissible allowances, in 1971. My family and I, with two children and a domestic help, could lead a very comfortable life, and even thought of buying a car, though it was difficult to buy one in those days, given the stranglehold of a particular automobile house of the country – not allowing any other foreign companies to venture into the field, as has happened subsequent to the “opening up” of the Indian economy. But we were content with a brand new Bajaj scooter.

Applying the CPI yardstick for urban non-manual work force, my salary today would have been close to Rs 20,000/-, by the Planning Commission’s logic. But, this amount cannot support the most modest “middle class” lifestyle of four decades earlier, for a family of four with a domestic help and a private transport facility. A newly appointed Senior Associate Professor would start now on a salary of not less than Rs 45-50000/-, because of successive revisions of the Central Pay Commission.

Free eggThe crucial question is, what can a helpless rural or urban uneducated (migrated) poor man / woman do with a daily wage around Rs 150? Take this example. By 2005, a rural person needed Rs 19/- a day to access 2200 calories, as mentioned above, while at the official figure derived by the Planning Commission he/she could access just 1800 calories. Mind you, we are speaking only of food. What about the other basic necessities of life? The CPI does not capture long range inflationary pressures. It only captures the short term ones. An egg that cost 25 paise in the 1970s now costs close to Rs 3/-, and a kilo of cheap mackerel costs Rs 35-40/-, when it cost just Rs 5/- in the seventies. And the less said about fruits, milk and meat, the better.

Fish seller in PondyAt the centre of all this dialogue is that the country is not producing enough food to make it cheap, never mind the so-called “green revolution” which is supposed to have filled our granaries, which has now fallen on its face ruining our once fertile soil resources and polluting it with unwanted chemicals. Our grain production increase rate is trailing at a snail’s pace at 1.3 per cent annually, while population growth is ballooning at more than 1.9 per cent. Clearing the “Malthusian Effect” has been set in motion, but our policy planners, politicians, and agricultural messiahs are looking the other way. For a comparable population of 1.3 billon, China harvested more than 550 million tons of grain last year; our slightly more than 200 million tons (I am not including the pulses here, because they do not constitute the staples) pales in comparison.

The claim that poverty has declined in India does not hold water, because the indexation that is now used does not focus on the important core “nutritional indexing” system. Current poverty lines which allow a nutrition norm of 2200 calories for the rural poor and 2100 for the urban poor would approximate to a spend of Rs 36/- and Rs 60/- a day respectively.

Manmohan Singh & M.S. AhluwaliaIn other words, the Planning Commission wants to trim this to just two-thirds for the rural poor and just half for the urban, respectively. The hidden agenda is clear – eliminate millions of helpless Indians from the State cover. Alternatively, help the rich get richer.

This article is only about the “poor” – the “nothing class”. Where is the place for the old, ill, and infirm in this grand strategy of mass elimination from State protection? As always, the poor can simply be thrown to the dogs. Are Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh listening? – Vijayvaani, New Delhi, 14 October 2011

» Prabhakaran Nair  is an agricultural scientist and can be reached at drkppnair@gmail.com

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