INDIA's first Social Development Report, published in 2006, the year in which the present Left Democratic Front (LDF) government took office in Kerala, estimated that 12.72 per cent of the state's population was poor. A survey ordered by the state government, the result of which is due to be released next month, may indicate a threefold increase in the number of the poor.
The anticipated growth of poverty is not the result of deterioration in the condition of the people under LDF rule. It is the result of a motivated attempt to boost the number of persons below the poverty line (BPL).
The state government wants to increase the number of BPL families so that more people can benefit from programmes meant for such families. It expects the step to yield a dividend to the ruling coalition at election time.
For long, the Centre's estimate of poverty has been at variance with that of the state. The estimates differ widely because the two governments use different yardsticks to measure poverty.
Early in this decade the Centre pegged the number of BPL families in the state at 1.2 million. The state government conducted its own survey with the help of members of the Kudumbasree self-help mission and came up with a list which contained an additional one million families.
In 2006 the Centre pruned the BPL list. It said only about 900,000 families in the state were eligible for inclusion in the list. But the state government said there were 2.5 million BPL families.
The Centre identifies BPL families using 13 socio-economic parameters such as operational landholding, housing, clothing, food security, sanitation, ownership of consumer durables like TV sets, literacy, means of livelihood, number of children, type of indebtedness etc. A good showing on one or two of these parameters will result in exclusion from BPL category.
The norms adopted by Kerala permit exclusion from the BPL list only if the families have members who are regular employees of public, private or co-operative institutions or have concrete houses with plinth area of 100 square feet or more or one acre of land or a four-wheel vehicle for private use or an NRI member.
Last year Central and state officials undertook a joint review of poverty norms. While the Central officials conceded that the Kerala formula was progressive and sensitive and took into account poverty in its totality, no agreed norms emerged.
While the state government's norms may be in order, its BPL list has attracted widespread criticism on two grounds. One is that many poor families have been excluded. The other is that many ineligible families have been included.
The Kudumbasree mission, which conducted the survey for the state government, is the local version of the network of women's self-help groups (SHGs) set up by all states in furtherance of a Central scheme. Many Kudumbasree units are under the control of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the LDF. This has prompted the Congress, which heads the opposition United Democratic Front, to establish an SHG network of its own, named Janasree.
In view of the leanings of Kudumbasree units, there is room to suspect that political considerations played a role in the exclusion of eligible families and inclusion of ineligible ones.
In this year's budgets, both the Centre and the state announced plans to supply rice to BPL families with higher subsidies. Only those in the Centre's BPL list will get the benefits it has announced. The state will have to find its own resources to help those who are not in the Central list.
Eager to raise the number of families eligible for subsidised supplies, the state government ordered a fresh BPL survey. This time it requisitioned the services of teachers to undertake the field work. They began the massive exercise of gathering data from an estimated 8.6 million families in May.
While teachers have better credentials than Kudumbasree members to undertake the survey, the possibility of political bias still remains as many teachers too have strong political bias.
Local Self-government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty told the State Assembly recently that the new BPL list, which would exclude ineligible families and include eligible ones, would be published in October.
There is speculation that no fewer than 35 million families will be in the new list. That means 40 per cent of the population will be officially certified poor. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 14, 2009