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India's Stingy Poverty Definition Irks Critics

MUNEEZA NAQVI   05/27/11 09:50 AM ET  AP

NEW DELHI — Every day, through scorching summers and chilly winters, Himmat pedals his bicycle rickshaw through New Delhi's crowded streets, earning barely enough to feed his family. But to India's government he is not poor – not even close.

The 5,000 rupees ($110) he earns a month pays for a tiny room with a single light bulb and no running water for his family of four. After buying just enough food to keep his family from starving, there is nothing left for medicine, new clothes for his children or savings.

Still, Himmat is way above India's poverty line.

Earlier this month, India's Planning Commission, which helps sets economic policy, told the Supreme Court that the poverty line for the nation's cities was 578 rupees ($12.75) per person a month – or 2,312 rupees ($51.38) for Himmat's family of four. For rural India, it's even lower at about 450 rupees ($9.93).

The revelation set off an angry debate in a country with soaring economic growth that has brought Ferrari dealerships and Louis Vuitton stores to cater to the new urban rich but left hundreds of millions of others struggling without access to adequate food and clean water.

The World Bank global poverty line, at $1.25 a day or about $38 per month, is three times higher than India's urban level. Local activists say a better name for India's standard would be "the starvation line."

"This number is a joke. There's no seriousness about the poor," activist Aruna Roy said.

The Planning Commission said it has to set the poverty line – which determines who gets government assistance – to make the best use of limited funds.

"When you have such a large number of people, given the resources that are available to the government, do you target the poorest of the poor or do you spread your net wider and succeed in covering nobody?" Pranab Sen, an adviser to the Planning Commission, recently told the NDTV news channel.

A daily allowance of 19 rupees (42 cents) would buy 3 1/2 bananas from a stall outside the commission's own office in the Indian capital or less than two pounds (one kilogram) of wheat flour or rice, staples for most Indians.

Himmat, who like many Indians uses just one name, said India's poverty line was ridiculous.

"What can we eat with that much money? Not even two dry rotis," he said, referring to the traditional flat bread of north India.

Rent for his room, which is no larger than 10 feet by 4 feet, costs 1,500 rupees ($33). He struggles to send his two children to a poorly run government school that costs him another 1,000 rupees ($22). The remaining 2,500 ($55) must pay for food, medicines and any other necessities for his family.

In the summer, he sends his wife and children back to their village in eastern India and sleeps on the sidewalk to save on rent.

"I am a very poor man. I can't imagine living on any less money," he said.

The poverty debate began after India's top court asked the Planning Commission to explain earlier this month why hundreds of millions of Indians are undernourished when the country had vast stores of food grains – at times running into millions of tons of surplus.

The commission maintained the government has only limited resources to distribute the grain to subsidized shops, and that it must set its poverty line accordingly to target the neediest.

Rights activists and some economists have slammed the commission, saying it should guide the government to set aside adequate resources to help the poor, and not merely set a poverty line so low that hundreds of millions are kept out of the social security net.

"In a globalized economy why are the people of India naked? It's because the planning is to keep them naked," said activist and lawyer Colin Gonsalves.

Dozens of activists protested outside the commission's office earlier this week carrying small cardboard gift boxes for its members. The boxes contained the cheapest bus ticket, a pound (about 500 grams) of the cheapest rice, one potato, one onion, one banana, a matchbox and a pencil and overshot the daily budget by two rupees (4 cents).

"I propose that the Planning Commission members do their own research for one day. If they can live on this money and tell us how they did it we will stop protesting," said activist Nikhil Dey.

For most of the last six decades since gaining independence from British rule, India has struggled to find a method to identify its poor and provide for them, at times trying to count calorie intake and now using income data that economists acknowledge are unreliable.

Using the commission's poverty line, 37 percent of India's 1.2 billion people qualify as poor.

The country currently spends 2 percent of its GDP – about 29 billion – in social protection, and half of that goes to the Public Distribution System, which provides the poor with subsidized food. Even with the low poverty line, the system – riddled with corruption and mismanagement – caters to over 440 million people, more than the entire population of the United States.

The World Bank poverty line would add about 60 million more people to that category.

Critics say even that is too few, and that India needs to extend its social security net to hundreds of millions more who like Himmat, the rickshaw puller, live in penury.

The Planning Commission's current approach implies that the coverage of social benefits will shrink if not disappear over time, said Jean Dreze, a development economist affiliated with the Delhi School of Economics.

"In a rapidly growing economy, one would like to see the opposite," he said.

For Himmat, who is illiterate and oblivious to what he can expect from the government, the debate has little meaning.

"My existence doesn't matter to the government. They don't care if people like me live or die," he said.

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Filed by Erica Liepmann  |