Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Highly inflated poverty figures embarrass government

The Centre and the Kerala government have been arguing for years about the number of people below the poverty line in the State. Now the State government is at loggerheads with local self-government institutions too on this issue.

According to the National Sample Survey, India’s population below the poverty line (BPL) in 2004-05 was 22 per cent.

While in absolute terms the BPL population was substantial, the authorities said poverty was on the decline. In 1993-94 the BPL population had been estimated at 36 per cent and in 1999-2000 at 26 per cent.

In 2007, Central estimates put the number of BPL families in Kerala at 1.55 million, including 590,000 who were classified as extremely poor. It was on that basis that the Centre allotted food grains for distribution at subsidised rates through the public distribution system.

The Union Agriculture Ministry had worked out this figure on the basis of the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates for 1993-94 and the population projections made by the Registrar General of India in March 2000.

Kerala disputed this figure. Civil Supplies Minister C Divakaran claimed that there were 2.02 million BPL families in the State and demanded that the Centre allot food grains on that basis.

The Centre rejected the demand. It actually reduced the allotment as the State was not lifting the allotted quantities.

Kerala has the most extensive public distribution system in the country. It was built up decades ago when there was severe shortage of food grains and a large section of the population stood in need of subsidised rations.

As remittances from migrants working abroad boosted the State’s economy, those who could afford to buy good quality grains from the open market stopped making purchases from PDS outlets.

BPL families are entitled to various kinds of benefits under Centrally-financed schemes. For instance, at present, a BPL family gets a subsidy of Rs 50,000 for construction of house. If the family belongs to a Scheduled Caste the subsidy will be Rs 75,000. A Scheduled Tribe family will get Rs 100,000.

Also, a BPL family is entitled to a grant of Rs 5,000 for renovation of house. If it belongs to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, it will get twice that amount.

Sometimes the State modifies the Central scheme and extends benefits to more people. Under the guidelines drawn up by the Centre, only 1.18 million families in Kerala were eligible to join its free health insurance scheme for BPL families. The State decided to extend coverage to one million more families figuring in its BPL list.

The State government will pay the annual premium of Rs 550 for these families.

To make available the benefits of such schemes to more people, the State has been urging the Centre to revise the norms for identifying BPL families. Alternatively, it wants the States to be allowed to fix their own norms, taking into account local conditions.

The Centre has rejected the idea of using different standards for identifying BPL families in the different States. However, the Union Rural Development Ministry has been toying with the idea of revising the Central norms to bring them in line with the criteria adopted by Kerala.

Officials from State were invited to make a presentation before an expert committee set up the ministry to revise the norms. A newspaper report quoted a ministry official as saying, “The Kerala model is progressive and sensitive. There, poverty is understood in its totality.”

While the Kerala pattern of BPL identification is thus gaining national recognition, things have got out of hand in the State. Panchayat institutions, which were asked to draw up revised BPL lists, have came up with the highly inflated figures, making for a total of 4.8 million BPL families in the State.

Evidently, panchayats members inflated the number of persons below the poverty line in their wards with a view to cornering as much benefit as possible for their constituents.

The revised BPL lists have come as an embarrassment to the State government because, when added up, the number comes to more than twice the figure of the last count. If the government accepts this figure, it will amount to admitting that poverty, instead of going down, is going up.

Local Self-government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty has now asked the panchayats to rectify the anomalies. The process may take up to two years.--Gulf Today, January 12, 2009.

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