The Planning Commission had recently submitted an affidavit before the Supreme Court on the poverty line used to estimate the number of poor persons in the country. The report by SD Tendulkar committee on the issue has been meted out with heavy criticism. For, according to the report a person is considered to be poor only if his or her monthly spending is below Rs.781 (Rs.26 a day) in the rural areas and Rs.965 (Rs.32 a day) in the urban areas, is ridiculously unrealistic definition of poverty line keeping in mind the present prices. Hold on, to add to the fury, this spending is inclusive of food as well as non-food essentials like clothing and footwear, cooking fuel, lighting, transport, education, medical costs and house rent. The total is divided into Rs.18 and Rs.14 for food and non-food items in towns, and into Rs.16 and Rs.10 in the rural areas, and includes the value of food that farmers produce and consume themselves.
Official government estimates place the number of poverty-stricken people in India at a staggering 407 million which could have been more, had the BPL been set at more realistic levels. A ‘living wage’, at current wage rates declared under the Minimum Wage Act, comes to Rs.247 a day for unskilled workers, with Rs.32 touted by the Planning Commission is less than seven times the Minimum Wage which itself is a subsistence wage.
A thali lunch at a humblest street vendor in Mumbai would cost at least 30 rupees, fetching a plate (thali) of two small paper-thin chapatis, a little rice, a ladle of watery dal, a dash of the cheapest vegetable in the market, and, as a sinful luxury, a pinch of lime pickle.
For a daily expenditure of 32 rupees, as Ahluwalia budgeted, a family of four in Mumbai can each live off two bananas and half a glass of tea daily - if they have to indulge in other occasional necessities as clothes and a bar of soap. With such a budget they live in the street, sometimes in bus-stop shelters and outside railway stations, and the children live as illiterates.
With the double-digit inflation gripping the country, one atleast needs RS. 50 a day for a working person. The public toilets cost upto Rs.3, to have a bath there costs Rs. 5; a cutting chai (half glass of tea) costs Rs. 4. The economic plight in the country has been so miserable that we do often encounter small vendors, selling tea, vegetables or of any such business survives their businesses on maintaining accounts of different people, who would give them money at the end of a week, a month or say a year. Nearly 10% of their daily food budget would go in such hospitality to a stranger. When framing their economic policies, one wonders if economists are even aware of the quiet dignity with which the working poor in urban and rural India approach their daily struggle for survival, leave alone those with no income at all.
National Advisory Council (NAC) that has as its chairperson Sonia Gandhi, ridiculed the current definition of poverty by the Planning Commission as defining destitution and not poverty. In an open letter to Ahluwalia, Aruna Roy (member of NAC) and co requested that he start living on 32 rupees a day, and then kindly explain - in simple, non-mumbo-jumbo language - how one can accomplish this feat. Do this or quit the commission, they urged him.
"If 25 rupees for rural areas and 32 rupees for urban areas per capita expenditure was 'adequate' then it is not clear to us why Planning Commission members are paid up to 115 times the amount (not counting the perks of free housing and health care and numerous other benefits)," said the open letter, also published on the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission website.
The fact is to be kept in mind by the Planning Commission while deriving to the definition of poverty and determining the cap as to how much should the poor receive that before celebrating for the world's second fastest growing economy, India is still a home to the most hungry people in the world and is ranked 67th out of 88 countries by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute in the Global Hunger Index.