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BPL census to assess poverty better: Plan panel

By Sreelatha Menon
October 07, 2011 15:41 IST
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ParliamentThe below poverty line census, which is expected to put the issue of poverty in perspective, will be a scientific exercise of counting the poor, the Planning Commission believes.

Embarrassed by the debate on whether its suggestion that a human being can live on Rs 32 a day in urban India, the Plan panel has said those who are not really poor should be excluded from being enumerated as being poor.

The BPL census is one way of doing this.

Though the BPL census is expected to finish collecting data on all rural households by January 2012, the data would be fluid because there is no consensus on defining poverty.

The data will be finalised only after a committee of experts -- to be announced shortly -- has scrutinised data on all households and decides which should be considered as being below the poverty line; which households should get specific benefits like food, housing and health insurance, marking the beginning of a multi-dimensional approach to poverty.

This is subject to the agreement of all state governments and the biggest objector is Bihar, which has been refuting the central government's assessments of the numerical extent of poverty ever since the Nitish Kumar government came to power.

A BPL census was done for the first time in 1992 as an enumeration or head count of households below the poverty line.

But after 2002, it was done to enumerate certain poor households previously determined by the Centre based on the poverty ratio.

K L Datta, statistician and former chief economic advisor with the rural development ministry, recalls that the 1992 census was done on the basis of income earned by each household annually.

Since the then poverty line (in 1992) was Rs 11,000 per capita a year, families that earned less than that per year were brought under this limit.

However, the difference between then and now is that the poverty line was not used to set a limit on the number of such people who could be counted.

"It was a census in the true sense. You don't do your census with a target of counting a limited number of persons in each state.

"So the 'caps' based on the money available with the Centre for poverty based programmes did not come into play," says Datta.

The next census of BPL families was based on consumption and income was taken into account in this too, recalls Datta.

The poverty line was then Rs 20,000 per capita annually.

So, families earning less than that came in this category.

The states decided how many households could be included and the numbers were accepted by the Centre.

However, the problem began with the BPL census of 2002, as the Centre had started the targeted public distribution system and said the poor households or BPL cards could not exceed the poverty ratio based on the official poverty line, says Datta.

Since the BPL category was targeted for many other benefits too, this created problems and if a person did not get subsidised food, he lost other benefits too like a house or scholarships or other benefits for the poor.

The M N Shankar committee decided on a 13-point parameter to rank households in villages based on livelihood, sanitation facilities, literacy, clothes and belongings, type of house, nature of work, ownership of land.

However, five states rejected it and refused to finalise their numbers and the BPL status determined by the previous census was continued in most places.

In 2009, the N C Saxena committee was formed by the rural development ministry to decide on fresh parameters for a new BPL census of rural households.

The committee suggested a survey based on automatic exclusion of ineligible households, automatic inclusion of some based on certain parameters and ranking of the rest.

However this was rejected.

A fresh methodology of identifying the poor was made by a team and the ongoing BPL census is based on this.

The method is again that of automatic exclusion based on a few parameters.

This is followed by the inclusion of some households which match inclusion parameters.

The balance are examined for tallying with any of the seven deprivations listed.

The type and number of deprivations would make the households eligible for various benefits on the basis of this criterion. For instance, a household with two deprivations may be eligible for food, while another with a single deprivation such as a kucha house would be eligible for a house, and so on.

So, it would be deprivation that would determine the benefits and not a blanket inclusion in the BPL category as in the past, explains Himanshu, who was part of the team that piloted the census based on the new criteria.

Whether all those automatically included would get the benefit of BPL ration cards or it would be subject to the possession of one or two deprivations would be decided by the expert committee being set up, says Himanshu.

This committee would rank the households and tweak the outcome to match the final shape of the Food Security Bill.

It may not be a return to pre-2002, but  it is close to that, he adds.

According to current pilot projects, as much as 28 per cent of the current poor who qualify to be BPL, might lose that status on the basis of the new parameters.

On the other hand, three to four per cent of the poor could be included in this category.

Being done jointly by the Rural Development Ministry, Urban Development Ministry and the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, it is like a mini census.

However, the Planning Commission and Rural Development Ministry are facing opposition from states like Bihar and Chattisgarh on the BPL census and a final decision on who would qualify for food subsidy and other subsidies would be taken by an expert committee being set up.

So in January 2012, when the BPL census is officially over, it would still not be over.

BPL census leads to unfair distribution of benefits

The United Progressive Alliance government may be seeking to get rid of the controversy over a renewed ceiling for the poverty line, but many states are in no mood to accept the ongoing BPL census.

Topping them is Bihar, which is all set to oppose the exercise in a meeting of the National Development Council on October 22.

Patna's main issue is the difference in the BPL census and the routine decadal census. It is because the latter counts individuals than households -- unlike the other.

This, the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party regime believes, leads to unfair distribution of benefits to families irrespective of their size.

So sensitive are the Bihar government on the issue of individual entitlements that it has already rejected the Food Security Bill.

As a lasting solution to the problem, it has proposed the setting up of a national commission to conduct the BPL census in all states.

The present BPL census, though delinked from the poverty line, does not still address the issue of individual head-count as well as setting up of an impartial central commission for the BPL census on the lines of the Election Commission, for which Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is campaigning.

Just as the poll body keeps the voter list updated, the commission is expected to keep the BPL beneficiary list updated all the time.

A senior Bihar government official, explaining the regime's stand on individual head-count, says the state found that the average family size as per the census was six, while the family size as per the BPL census in Bihar was 3.98.

Families tend to split themselves to ensure they get more ration cards.

Thus, the family size reduces in BPL census.

"This fraudulence," adds the official, "is forced on the public by the government's BPL method of targeting families rather than individuals for benefits."

Again, the BPL census conducted every five years and now being conducted after 2002 (almost nine years later), does not take into account the changes that families or individuals go through even as the benefits or lack of benefits continue unchanged, point out Bihar state officials.

"A youth may get a good job, or the breadwinner may die and a well to do family may plunge into poverty. These things are not taken into account," says another official.

The Bihar government, in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and to Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, says the problem can be solved only by constituting a national commission like the poll body.

Such a panel should conduct the BPL census, according to Bihar government officials. It should be constantly updating the list of the poor.

"A state would never be fair in counting the poor, just as it would not be fair in conducting its own elections," points out an official.

The current BPL census is a recipe for more confusion, according to Bihar government sources.

Notes one of them: "What is the point collecting data now when you have not decided on what you propose to do with it? You should have a clear-cut approach.

"Then everyone will accept it."

Minister Ramesh has already accepted the state's proposal. "We are hoping that the expert committee set up by the ministry would take a decision in line with our demand," adds a Bihar government official.

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Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi
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