The good Pragmatic Desi asked me to write about the release of the latest poverty numbers from NSSO. I do want to write a follow up post to my Pragati article. But the bad news is that I have accumulated a lot of heavy reading material in preparation for that follow up post which I need to read. The good news is that a long weekend is coming up, and I hope to get the reading and the post out by then.
But in the mean time, here is a rant.
As promised, I have an updated and expanded version of my post on The Poverty Numbers at Pragati. From my blog post, I have subtracted some things in the interest of space – the discussion on the recall period being most prominent. More importantly, I have added some things, so you should read the Pragati piece even if you’ve read my post.
I have referred to some papers in the Pragati article. Here are the original links to those:
- The Tendulkar Report on the methodology on estimation of poverty. Suresh Tendulkar, by the way, was an excellent free market economist.
- Angus Deaton’s 2008 paper on why Indians are consuming fewer calories is here (PDF link). Look at pages 53 onwards for discussion on the calorie decline.
- Deaton’s other paper on how the divergence between the NSS data and the CPI affected poverty numbers is here.
- All of Deaton’s work on poverty can be viewed here.
What should we make of the latest scrap over the Tendulkar committee report? Here are some thoughts.
Poverty isn’t a binary variable. There is no switch that, when turned on, defines a household as poor vs. non-poor. There are various degrees of deprivation, and we have differing intuitions about at what level of deprivation we should classify a family as poor. Part of the root of the outrage over the seemingly low household income (Rs. 26 per day per person in villages to Rs. 32 per person per day in cities) comes from the fact that our intuition about what constitutes poverty has changed.
My uncle started his career after completing his graduation in the mid-70s in Bombay’s weather office. He was single and lived alone then, but he’d send part of his salary home to his family. Towards the end of the month, his money would run out, and the last few days of the month, he’d be able to cook and eat only one meal a day.
Then, as now, if you were a graduate and you were earning an entry level salary in a government firm, you would be categorized into the middle-class – lower middle-class to be sure, but middle-class nonetheless. When did you last hear of a middle-class person lacking for food in India? But that’s how things were till the 70s, and my uncle’s situation wouldn’t excite comment then. One can only imagine the situation of the others who were poorer than my uncle.
Growing up, life was full of mysteries waiting to be unraveled. The wedding feasts I used to attend represented one such enduring mystery. The dictionary meaning of “feast” had led me to expect a lavish spread of dishes, while actual experience was utterly at odds with that expectation. There were quite a few dishes, but the course that was served first and which overwhelmed everything else was rice and saaru (rasam). Everything else served later was in small quantities. A young boy with a small tummy, a habit of eating slowly and an ill-developed strategic approach would easily get overwhelmed by the feast. He would find, as I did, that the meal he had at the feast was less rich than the what he consumed on an average day.
Let me illustrate this point for my North Indian readers. How would you like it if you were lured to a feast and served copious amounts of dal with rotis, and when you were almost sated, minuscule amounts of paneer butter masala and malai kofta were plonked on your plate? The wedding feasts I attended were like that.
I grew to adulthood without the puzzle being solved. I learnt to cope by consuming less saaru, eating faster and by developing a better appetite. In time, as the cares of the world began to weigh down on me, mysteries that challenged me during my boyhood receded from my consciousness till the debates over Sainath’s and Utsa Patnaik’s assertions that the poor are consuming less food brought back the memories.
I had once decided that if asked to write one of those schoolboy-type essays titled “If I became Prime Minister”, I would say that my agenda as the Premier would have just two items – reform the judiciary and build roads. It is but a slight exaggeration to say that every thing else will follow from that. Swaminathan Aiyar reports in today’s Swaminomics
that the second item of my agenda is indeed as important as I think it is. Ten lakh rupees spent on building good roads bring 335 people out of poverty, more than any comparable spending.
I had thought that if the NREGA had one redeeming feature, it was that infrastructure, specifically roads, would be built as a result. Alas, that is not to be:
For decades, rural roads in India were neglected by most states. Besides, rural employment schemes, starting with Maharashtra’s Employment Gurantee Scheme in the 1970s, created the illusion that durable rural roads could be built with labour-intensive techniques. In practice labour-intensive roads proved not durable at all, and those built in the dry season vanished in the monsoons.
This finally changed with the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) launched in 2000. This, for the first time, ordained mechanised techniques to provide high-quality, all-weather roads to 1.6 lakh rural habitations without pucca roads. It also upgraded roads that had collapsed. Panchayats were made responsible for maintenance. Conversations with experts suggest that this is one of the best-functioning programmes in rural development.
In 2004, the UPA government launched Bharat Nirman, an ambitious infrastructure programme for rural areas. It aims to provide connectivity by having a pucca road, electricity, telecom and drinking water in every village of over 1,000 people. This overlapped with the PMGSY. Progress on Bharat Nirman has been spotty. But rural connectivity has at last become a high government priority, and this bodes well for the future.
Jai Choorakkot wants to know whether my attack on Dilip D’Souza amounts to a defence of reforms. That is a fair question to ask. One of my pet peeves is that people believe that a successful counter-attack amounts to a defence of their own position. I’ve myself come down quite sharply on people whose defence of Mao amounted to saying that I am a hypocrite because I supposedly support Kissinger (or Pinochet – it was not clear who) So let’s accept that my attack on Dilip was an attack on Dilip, and move on to the question of reforms.