Amanullah pulls rickshaw for 15 hours to earn on an average Rs 250 daily. Out of this over Rs 33 goes into payment of rent of the two-room tenement he shares with five others in Ludhiana. He claims to be paying only Rs 50 for two meals a day. He remits the rest of the amount to his wife and three sons back home in North Dinajpur District in west Bengal. In case one goes by the data based on price indices computed from the 66th Round NSS (2009-10) data on Household Consumer Expenditure Survey which says that anyone who has Rs 28 to spend daily is out of proverty, Amanullah is not at all a poor. In fact his expenditure on meals put him much beyond the reach of the poverty. Yet no one can dispute the fact that he lives on the margins of the society. He does not have a bank account, has no access to quality healthcare and governance.
Amanullah is an example of how poverty estimates in the country are so far cut off from the ground reality. No wonder, the media goes on pasting the government every time such estimates are released for the public. People like Amanullah make poverty an open-ended debate. They are an indication of how poverty estimates have failed to take into account the increase in food inflation. They put a question mark on every such data which claims that poverty has reduced in the country. They raise disbelief when the Planning Commission quotes 66th round NSS to say that people with daily consumption of more than Rs 28.65 in cities and Rs 22.42 in rural areas are not poor, that poverty got down 7.4 percentage points in the past five years, from 37.2 per cent to 29.8 per cent and that around 52.5 million people have come out of poverty from 2004-05 to 2009-10.
“During the 12th Five year Plan, a lot more focus will be on training and capacity building of Panchayat representatives and Gram Sabha. That is after all the level where need based planning has to take place”Loretta Marry Vas
“Yes poverty has come down but the fact that you have defined poverty by a number which is not believable throws the whole issue in disbelief”, says K Yatish Rajawat, Group Managing Director, Dainik Bhaskar Group. He questions the efficacy of social security schemes too by saying that the schemes only contributed to grassroot corruption by putting development funds in to the hands of Sarpanches and Block Development Officers (BDOs).
Apparently, Rajawat is on that extreme of the poverty debate. The problem with poverty debate is that it swings between two extremes and hardly has a grey area.
Surjit S Bhalla, Chairman, Oxus Research & Investments, takes a dig at the critics of poverty decline saying that “hunger has lessened and not worsened and our rank is pretty high in terms of delivery”. He says that poverty was indeed declining and is declining at a much faster rate. He claims India’s rank is pretty high when it comes to delivering services to the poor and accuses the media of overlooking the price rise while criticising the government on poverty reduction. According to him, count of poor in India has declined from 90 per cent ‘dirt poor’ in 1983 to 80 per cent in 2004 and 74 per cent in 2009.
But it is abundantly clear that the government has not succeeded as much as it should have. We still have large mass steeped into hunger, poverty and starvation. There are people in the interiors who still have no access to government services, nutritious food, quality health care and even drinking water. Majority of Indians households still do not have toilets. They have no say in the planning or execution of programmes meant for their welfare. Everything trickles down either from New Delhi or the state capitals. Thus, we have schools which have no buildings but buy fire equipments. There are primary health centres but doctors and paramedical staff are absent. Money is allocated under the MGNREGA but remain unspent because there is no work on the ground.
“What we should do is to create more secular platforms. The active participation of civil society will be required”Surajit Mitra
Yamini Aiyar is Director, Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, who recently found a school in Bihar which had fire safety equipment but no building, feels there is a strong need for bottom-up planning. “Decisions are taken somewhere very far away”, she asserts saying that district authorities are not taking adequate interest in drafting development plans. For her, the need of the hour is to spend money based on the actual demands. She is of the view that the government has not done enough to make use even of the existing infrastructure. Thus we have class V children who cannot read class II books and government doctors not putting in requisite time and effort to treat the poor. “Challenge is ensuring that doctors come to the clinics. Challenge is to ensure that teachers show up and teach,” she says stressing on focusing on processes and outcomes.
The centre needs to study more thoroughly the people who it claims to be working for. Moreover, it needs to amalgamate different schemes. Presently each scheme works in a different silo. Innovations need to be documented so that these can be replicated. Bhalla, who is sure that poverty has declined with growth, too seeks improvement in the programmes. “I do believe we are not doing it very effectively”, he opines calling for regular audit of the money spent on poverty reduction.
“Challenge is ensuring that doctors come to the clinics. Challenge is also to ensure that teachers show up and teach”Yamini Aiyar
Since work for compartmentalised sections has not brought about the desired outcomes (reservation has created elites among scheduled castes, tribes and other backward castes), it might help to embark on social engineering and adopt secular parameters for development. Surajit Mitra, Secretary, Ministry of Minority Affairs, makes a strong case for secular planning and a social structure where there is equal opportunity for all. “What we should do is to create more secular platforms. The active participation of civil society will be required”, Mitra demands.
Like the social sector programmes, the data on the basis of which they work out their targets are also compartmentalised. To overcome this, the central government has decided to create a national data bank with the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. “The central government agencies, NGOs and states will guide the national data bank to make effective planning,” Mitra says. Ministry of Minority Affairs also has plans to replace minority commission with equal opportunity commission and follow secular parameters in development.
Ravi S Saxena, Additional Chief Secretary, Gujarat, backs Mitra on creation of secular platforms when he says that without social engineering, no devolution will work. He calls for eradication of caste issues citing the example of water as common property source. Saxena identifies poverty, information and communication technology, industrial revolution and birth in backward castes and tribes among the causes of marginalisation and proposes ICT as one-size-fits-all solution. “ICT can tackle all kinds of marginalisation. The problem lies in people not having connectivity,” he points out. Only three to four per cent people in the country have Internet connectivity and 950 million out of 1.2 billion people have mobiles. Gujarat has tried to bridge the connectivity gap by creating Gujarat State Area Wide Network, which connects State Government with 26 districts and 226 Talukas. The State has also connected 18,000 of its villages through e-Gram.
“ICT can tackle all kinds of marginalisation. The problem lies in people not having connectivity”Ravi S Saxena
The state looks at improvement in infrastructure as another means of achieving poverty eradication. Thus it has achieved 24×7 electricity in the villages under operation Jyoti and last year 5.5 million households in the state paid electricity bills through e-Gram Intranet. It has issued barcoded ration cards, tracks all children through a scheme called e-Mamata. Under a ceremony called Kenya Kelodi Mahotsava, on 17th June every year, all IAS, IPS and IFS and district level officers descend in villages and carry all girls to schools for enrollment and continuing education. “Give them roads, health and power and you would have mainstreamed the marginalised. Mainstreaming the marginalised can’t be limited. There is a need to go beyond poverty line”, Saxena emphasises.
It might help if the governments empower institutes of local governance and allow them a definite say in planning and execution of development programmes. But for that, the states would need to devolve funds, functions and functionaries to them, build their capacity, put them on ICT platforms and replicate their best practices. The states would need to make use of the largest resource available to deepen participatory governance in the country. India after all has 240,000 Panchayats, 2.8 million elected representatives, 1 million functionaries and representation of SCs (18 per cent), STs (12 per cent) and women (39 per cent – in 12 states its 50 per cent) in all three tiers of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). But it is mostly Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra which have continued to be on top of the list when it comes to devolution of powers. Loretta Marry Vas, Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, admits the enormity of challenge. She hopes that during the 12th Five year Plan, a lot more focus will be on training and capacity building of Panchayat representatives and Gram Sabha. That is after all the level where need based planning has to take place. The centre also plans to honour the best innovations in Panchayats and try to replicate them. ICT connectivity of Panchayats would enable them to pursue self governance. The government has 12 core applications up its sleeve. Out of these four have already been rolled out. 120,000 Panchayats have been put on PRIASoft, the accounting software developed by the central government. According to Vas, National Panchayat Portal has already covered 95 per cent Panchayats.
“The below poverty line accounts we have started opening in last one year are 12 million now. You can open such account with Rs20. These accounts are also catering to pay for their (account holders) life insurance policies”Sunita Trivedi
It would be a good idea to use technology to find solutions for starvation and illiteracy and create jobs to bring about mainstreaming of marginalised. “Do we know that pre-prepaid food can survive for seven years? Instead of rice and wheat rotting in the government godowns, it will take care of the draught. There are technological solutions available”, says Ashishkumar Chauhan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). Chauhan also stresses on job creation in SMEs through technology. The BSE has launched an SME exchange for the purpose. The technology can also be harnessed to bring about a change in corruption, health care, life care, financial literacy and other areas. “Why we see corruption today because it has become transparent. Technology has been the single largest change”, Chauhan claims.
“Why we see corruption today is because it has become transparent. Technology has been the single largest change”Ashishkumar Chauhan
The enormous postal network of India Post could make a major contribution to mainstreaming the marginalised. It allows BPL account holders to pay for their life insurance policies from their savings in the accounts. The postal department has issued over 12 million life insurance policies. “The below poverty line accounts we opened during last one year stand at 12 million now. One can open such account with Rs 20. These accounts are also catering to pay for their (account holders’) life insurance policies”, informs Sunita Trivedi, Member (Planning) Postal Services Board, New Delhi. The department is opening BPL accounts, allowing automatic conversions of savings into premiums and cash disbursements under social sector programmes and has picked up two corridors – Delhi-Kerala and Chandigarh-Bihar – to test the efficacy of mobile money orders. It has also distributed 8 million smart cards in 3,000 coastal villages and 76 million Aadhaar cards till now.