Poverty Line: Debate the mechanisms not just the 'line'
The poverty debate in the country reached a fever pitch ever since the Planning Commission accepted Prof Tendulkar's report which kept the poverty line at Rs 32/day(urban) and the Rs 26/day (rural).While the entire country was disturbed by this, I found something very amusing about this entire scenario. In the fever pitch of emotions and impulse, the entire poverty debate was focused primarily on the poverty "line" (with our double standards) while the focus should have been on the strengthening of the mechanisms to tackle poverty in India.
Double Standards by us:
Firstly, the entire hue and cry was actually made by the upper middle class who were startled by the claims made by the Commission. While it was very encouraging for us to be so conscious of our society, I also found it ironical considering the double standards. The Rs 32 per person per household figure is taken with an average of 5 people per household per day. Assume that five people are there and 30 days are there in a month, the figure comes to Rs 4800 a month. I enquired how much maids (including my household) earn and the fact is most of the households pay their maids much lower than this. Most of the households have maids who are either single working in their family. In essence, this issue of the "poor" is right under our doorstep day in day out; it's not something out of the blue. While we sit around and bargain with our maids for their salaries (in some cases justifiably so), aren't we hypocritical when we are appalled at the state of the downtrodden? While its encouraging to listen to concern, this hypocrisy is also something that needs to be checked if one is suppose to raise a voice. Besides this, the entire debate has been raging on the poverty "line" issue and not the greater issue of improving delivery mechanisms.
Zoom in on the Delivery Mechanisms:
The greater issue confronting the aam admi is the implementation of the systems in place. The poverty line, if kept at Rs 32 or Rs 64, will not make a difference if the Public Distribution System as a whole is not improved. The BPL system that is offered in most of the states caters to a certain section of citizens who are below a certain poverty line figure. On the other hand, the Universal Public Distribution system is one that caters to every single citizen across the country. The BPL has its own sets of issues with regards to enabling ration cards to migrating workers (from state to state), covering only a certain segment of the population and also not reaching that focused limited section of population. On the other hand, the Universal public distribution system has been a hit in some states and is being appreciated in states in the South. The sustainability of this works on the assumption that the wealthier ones actually renegade their right to get the ration and the poor gets their share since there is no discretion and discrimination on who should or should not get what. However, the catch to this if the wealthy actually give up this right. It is a well known fact that even the middle class use and enjoy the freebies provided by their respective governments for their own benefits (TV sets for example), even though the freebies are of lower quality. I agree that it is the right for every citizen but my point is that, even this system has its own sets of issues concerned irrespective of the poverty line. Since the larger debate is focused solely on the poverty line and not the mechanism, other suggestions are often not brought to the light.
More Debate, More Suggestions to improve the system:
An interesting observation by eminent Economist Swaminathan Aiyar suggests to actually provide nutritious and healthy (soya and wheat) food in place of popular food so as to again nullify the presence of the wealthier ones since they would prefer to get popular food. Prominent experts also suggest that lesser rice take can be provided adding more nutritional value. My personal view is that (with all humility amidst these stalwarts) is that in either of these systems, the delivery point's needs to be enhanced. The very nature of any systemic problem is at the root of it, the root of this issue is the strengthening of the Municipality, the Graham Sabha's and Panchayati Raj. This would ensure that at the delivery point, the poor are being given their due in an honest manner. Even if we stick to this line and even if the government has the capacity to cover at the max 41% of the population, if the system is strengthened a certain section of poor would come out of it. Moreover, a proper implementation of Nandan Nilekani's UID model can be incorporated to monitor the point of delivery as well. While such discussions are present, they are few and far between and not impactful enough in streamlining the distribution system (both BPL or Universal system) that actually reaches the poor people. The more the debate, the more suggestions and hence more viable to improve the system.
In essence, the figure of Rs 32 or Rs 64 or Rs 100 as a poverty line figure would not make a difference if the implementation mechanisms are not enhanced further. For that to happen, we need to have lesser double standards and a greater awareness/debate among the educated middle class such as ours. For that to happen, we need to understand the needs of others, facilitate them at the mundane level and even in some cases give up our right at something that is very much affordable for us.
The debate should go beyond the poverty line; after all irrespective of the poverty line, the
implementation of the mechanisms is the key to eliminate poverty in India.
(The author can be reached on his Facebook page)
More about Sriram Balasubramanian
Sriram Balasubramanian is a Journalist, voracious reader, avid Blogger, social enthusiast and a believer in excellence not mediocrity. With an inherent passion towards journalism and writing, he believes in playing the "Straight Drive" all the time. Besides this, he has a MS in Engineering Management and has played Chess for Singapore.
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