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Measuring poverty in India

India’s population is currently estimated at more than 1.2 billion people. Official statistics suggest nearly two-fifths – around 500 million Indians - live below the poverty line.

However, some estimates put the number much higher. Since the last survey measuring the poor was conducted in 2002, the government has approved a new survey to be undertaken. This will also redefine those who are classified as poor.

Under the new system, Indians earning more than £137 pounds per month or with credit limits of over £688 pounds will no longer be defined as ‘poor’. In addition, any families with telephones, refrigerators or owning homes with three or more rooms will also be discounted, as will all government staff. Instead, the rural poor will be defined as those who are “destitute, manual scavengers” or those who belong to certain “tribal groups”. Urban poor will be classed as those who have low-paid jobs, live in inadequate shelter or live in households headed by women or children.

The task of providing a more accurate assessment of India’s poor is a large one. However, officials are recognising that better data is needed, especially to allow more effective measurement of how government strategies are working to combat poverty. The decision comes with the publication of a new report from the World Bank which says the fight against poverty is being lost in India. The report found that through corruption, weak administration and under-payments, schemes designed to assist the poor in India were ineffective.

The report is an embarrassment to India’s Congress party, which has committed 2 per cent of India’s gross domestic product to social development programmes. Despite this investment, programmes designed to distribute subsidised food and guarantee work to the rural poor are massively underperforming and the authors of the report conclude “the poor are not able to reap the full benefits”. Under the food programme, only two-fifths of subsidised grain stocks are reaching poor households through the state distribution system, with much of the grain being siphoned off to sell on the black market. And the scheme launched five years ago to offer the rural unemployed guaranteed work regularly suffers from under-payments and weak administration.

India’s economy continues to flourish and the country is now home to nearly 70 billionaires. The failure of state schemes to address the poverty of around 500 million people is therefore seen by many social experts as a national scandal.   

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