Friday, September 23, 2011

[ZESTCaste] India’s poor don’t count

India's poor don't count

Thursday, 22 September 2011 23:56

The Congress-led UPA has decided to wish them away!

The social justice plank seems to have been eclipsed for the present
by anti-corruption campaigns and fasts, undertaken as a public resolve
to strengthen the nation. But the work of governance continues in the
manner that the Congress-led UPA coalition knows best: Craftily
camouflaging widespread poverty by means of bizarre policy decisions
even as the well off manoeuvre to stake claim to greater privilege.
Two developments should suffice to prove the point. On the one hand,
the Planning Commission's acceptance of the Suresh Tendulkar
Committee's estimate of below poverty line people at 37.2 per cent of
the population requires willing suspension of disbelief, with at least
one Union Minister and numerous Chief Ministers voicing dissent. The
out-dated 2004-2005 consumer expenditure survey, conducted by the
National Sample Survey Organisation, was deployed by the committee.

On the other hand, the National Commission for Backward Classes has
proposed that the ceiling for the OBC quota in Government jobs and
educational institutions be raised to a ludicrous Rs 9 lakh a year
from Rs 4.5 lakh. The reasons cited are soaring inflation and the hike
in the wages of Union Government employees via the Sixth Pay
Commission recommendations. The earlier ceiling was fixed in 2008, and
according to sources in NCBC, that amount is too low by present
standards, to mark the cut-off for the creamy layer among OBCs. And
they certainly must be wallowing in cream — apart from owning most
farmland and prospective real estate in the country — if Rs 9 lakh is
to be the cut-off. Since many general category students do not come
from such privileged backgrounds, the ground for severe future discord
is being prepared. The State Backward Class Commissions predictably
endorse this proposal.

Is the real objective to create a super class that is already rural
gentry, by virtue of its monopolistic hold over land resources, and
which can easily leap-frog into the category of urban gentry via the
reservations route? By the yardstick of annual income, OBCs, as a
group, are not entitled to quotas, which, in their original form, were
meant only for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, considered
historically oppressed and deprived. Compulsions of identity politics
completely subverted the spirit of the constitutional proviso, which
now hangs like the sword of Damocles over policy-makers. Their
greatest fear is that one wrong move would antagonise select
vote-banks, and they would lose the cakes and loaves of office.

When one compares this with the Planning Commission's BPL cut-off for
rural and urban people, nothing could be more unjust, laughable and
appalling. It was earlier a paltry Rs 15 a day for the former, and Rs
20 a day for the latter. Under pressure, the amounts have been
upgraded to Rs 26 a day and Rs 32 a day, respectively. Those earning
more would not be eligible for BPL benefits. What a vast gulf between
the poor and intended OBC beneficiaries of quotas! For the former,
existence is subsistence level. As for the latter, they use their
considerable economic clout to arm-twist policy-makers so that they
have things their way even if the end result is regressive. The quota
juggernaut thus threatens to level everything and everyone into one
unredeemed whole, characterised by mediocrity, chicanery and worse.

Incensed by the BPL benchmarks and questioning the low estimate for
people living below the poverty line, the Supreme Court in May, while
hearing a PIL on the public distribution system, slammed the Planning
Commission for using obsolete data. Plan panel statisticians and
writers, fat cats all, postulated that a villager spending over Rs 15
a day was not poor. And that a city dweller was not poor if his
average monthly expenditure surpassed Rs 31 on rent and conveyance, Rs
18 on education, Rs 25 on medicines or Rs 36.5 on vegetables. In the
light of these consumption levels, the Planning Commission has
inferred that only 41.8 per cent of rural Indians are poor, and 25.7
per cent of the urban Indians need social security from the
Government. However, the whole estimate is flawed, being based on
2004-2005 prices.

Seeing through the subterfuge, the apex court told the Government
counsel that "You can't have two Indias" while drawing attention to
the affidavits filed by many States, including Congress-ruled ones,
disputing Planning Commission claims, and averring that the number of
those below the poverty line is higher. UPA watchers see the BPL
exercise as a ploy by the Centre to keep the intended beneficiaries of
the proposed Food Security Act and other vote-garnering gambits,
hinging on public welfare schemes, to the minimal. A viable option
would be to bring down inflation, and create conditions for genuine
self-empowerment. Doles should be an emergency option.

The CPI(M), reacting to the Planning Commission estimates, in a May 29
Press release, pointed out the glaring anomaly in the Commission's

"The ridiculousness of these figures can be gauged from the fact that
the Planning Commission itself prescribes a minimal in-take of 2,200
calories daily to sustain oneself. This requires an expenditure of Rs
44 per day. This, of course, does not include any expenditures on
shelter, clothing, education, transportation, etc."

Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh wants removal of this
cap on BPL numbers since it restricts beneficiaries of Government
schemes. His Ministry has initiated a diennial census of rural poor. A
similar census of the urban poor is in the offing. The social justice
index thus veers sharply between the proposed OBC quota ceiling of Rs
9 lakh per year, and the BPL cut-off at a wretched Rs 32 daily for the
urban poor, and Rs 26 for the rural.


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