K Nagaraj, a pioneer in studying farmers’ suicide in India, is now demanding our attention with his new book on identifying the parameters of deprivation for making it a thing of the past. Written with Nalini Rajan, the book is primarily targeted at journalists, in the hope that they eventually speak truth to power. The book has four sections, with the first section setting the agenda for journalists in India: ‘The democratic agenda of the journalist is simply being pro-poor. The poor, after all, constitute the majority in this country’ (p. 6). The authors, however, citing several examples in chapters 1 and 2 show that this is not the case with the Indian media presently. Rather, correspondents, often unknowingly, sensationalize certain public health issues at the behest of entrenched vested interests and at worst ‘lavish consumption by a minority is [deliberately] passed off as a phenomenon found among Indians in general …’ (p. 9). This trend, the book alerts us, would mean that ‘over time, the problem of deprivation is likely to go off the public radar’ (p. 11). The core of the book is to resist such tendencies.
Section 1 ends with a discussion on different data sets related to the subject, along with defining deprivation from basic minimum subsistence in chapter 3 (ideally should have gone to the next section). Section 2 and 3 carry the central message of the book. While section 2 primarily concentrates on biological subsistence—measuring absolute poverty—employing the income criterion, section 3 broadens the definition of deprivation along the lines of ‘capability approach’ championed by Amartya Sen.
One of the remarkable features of the book is its systematic account of (income) poverty measurement from the first principles and mostly being self-contained. Essentially, biological subsistence is defined in terms of nutritional requirement, which is tied purely to calorific norms. In India, anyone consuming 2400 kilocalories/day in rural areas and 2100 kilocalories/day in urban areas is not considered poor. For 1973-74, poverty line was calculated by considering actual consumption data of households in each expenditure class and then identifying the consumption/commodity basket that met the required calorie norms; cost of this commodity basket was defined as the poverty line and anyone spending less was counted as poor. This is the direct method of poverty estimation. Chapter 4 cogently discusses these issues.
This method, however, was discontinued in later years and the government simply adjusted the 1973-74 poverty line for inflation. This is the indirect method of poverty estimation, where a new poverty line is obtained by updating the old poverty line with a suitable consumer price index. A detailed discussion of the indirect method and its implication is available in chapter 5.
What is the rationale for abandoning the direct method? The authors suspect that the reason lies in political economy; while the indirect method shows steep fall in rural (urban) poverty from 56.4 (49) percent in 1973-74 to 25.7 (13.7) percent in 2011-12, the direct method shows 87 (65) percent of rural (urban) population poor in 2011-12. Elected governments naturally prefer declining poverty figures. Moreover, when different welfare programmes, including poverty alleviation drive, are targeted for the poor—falling poverty saves on government money. Lower poverty figures are also useful to showcase the success of neoliberal policies. Since state support is a matter of life and death for the poor, herein lies the importance of measuring poverty with utmost honesty.
Now the indirect method assumes that the consumption basket of poor remained fixed for four decades; more precisely, the ratio of household expenditure on food and non-food items has not changed between 1973-74 and 2011-12. But this is simply untenable, inter alia, because of vanishing common property resources. For example, poor households relied more on firewood for cooking fuel back in 1973-74. Many of them were forced to buy kerosene in 2011-12. Since, proportionately more expenditure is incurred on kerosene, this shifts expenditure from food to non-food items—which a simple updating of the 1973-74 consumption basket for inflation, misses. Declining food expenditure adversely impacts calorie intake, consequently, direct poverty estimates are usually higher.
Advocates of the indirect method, including the Tendulkar Committee Report (TCR), argue that 1973-74 poverty figures should be delinked from calorie norms. Their argument banks on mechanization of agriculture, reducing the drudgery of work in addition to producing disguised unemployment—both leading to lower calorific requirements. However, the strongest argument in favour of reducing calorie norms from 2400 to 1800 kilocalories/day is based on a 1981 study by PV Sukhatme. The study however, did not go unchallenged. VN Dandekar pointed out, comparing the nutritional requirements of British soldiers—enjoying greater dietary choice—with Indian poor is fundamentally erroneous (see pp. 73-75 for details). Nonetheless, TCR reduced calorie thresholds and employed the indirect method.
Additionally, various techniques adopted by the Planning Commission to obtain lower poverty estimates are succinctly discussed in chapter 6. These include: (a) using inflated consumption figures from National Accounts to demonstrate higher calorie intake; (b) updating 1973-74 poverty line with the price index registering lower inflation; (c) arbitrarily changing the established monthly reference period for food consumption to one-week reference period showing higher consumption.
With academics pointing out the obvious problems of data manipulation, the Planning Commission realized the necessity to overhaul the poverty estimation methodology, leading to the TCR. Chapter 7 discusses this in detail. TCR conceded that the consumption basket of 1973-74 is no longer relevant today. In addition to food, TCR allowed items like education, healthcare, housing, clothing, footwear and fuel to be explicitly regarded in the subsistence basket. This is undoubtedly welcome and goes back to David Ricardo, who appreciated the influence of ‘customs and habits’ in defining subsistence. TCR, however, reduced calorie norms and stuck to the indirect method. Therefore, the problems of the indirect method persist.
With regard to reducing the calorie norms TCR cites the example of Bihar with high calorie intake but low outcomes in child malnutrition, infant mortality etc., whereas, Tamil Nadu and Kerala with low calorie intake have high outcome indicators. This indeed is a puzzle and the book could have broken new ground by engaging with this debate in detail. However, for Bihar, one may point out that higher ‘entitlements’ need not necessarily translate to greater ‘capabilities’. As for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, they also rank very high on account of farmers’ suicide—evidently more research is needed on this front.
Does 21.9 percent aggregate poverty estimate in 2011-12, employing TCR methodology, inspire confidence? The authors could have dealt with this question more deeply. However, evidence compiled in section 3 and TCR’s own logic point otherwise. For example, the same outcome variables used by TCR to debunk calorie norms, cast doubt on the poverty figures obtained by it. With 21.9 percent poor in 2011-12—how could NFHS-4 in 2015 record among children, 36 percent under weight, over 40 percent malnourished, 29.4 percent chronically malnourished and 58 percent anaemic? More so when the nutritional requirement of children is less than adults and probably shows that reducing calorie norm is premature.
Broadening the definition of deprivation, chapter 8 explains the widely popular Human Development Index (HDI) and its components. The section on HDI computation suggests arithmetic mean is used to obtain the aggregate index (p. 89). This technique, however, was abandoned in 2010 and geometric mean is used now. Finally, India is compared with other countries and how different States within India stand on the HDI scale. The chapter ends with the promise to ‘delve deeper into three major indicators that make up the HDI—health, gender and literacy’ (p. 92). The next three chapters discuss these topics. Although there is a separate gender index computed by UNDP, however, gender is not a component of HDI.
The chapter on health discusses standard topics in the area and contains a wealth of information. Gender is discussed in chapter 10 and the hypothesis that India’s sex ratio has stabilized after 1961 is challenged with the evidence on child sex ratio. The material and sociological explanation of female infanticide in northern States and Tamil Nadu is illuminating. Discussion on literacy in chapter 11 is mostly descriptive and self-explanatory.
The final section of the book gives an overview of the Indian economy. Chapter 12 compares the ‘trickle-down’ theory with the ‘inclusive’ growth theory at some length. However, the hypothetical example in page 125—with Rs 800 as nominal poverty line—showing poverty eradication with ‘inclusive growth’ approach is incorrect. The critique of Ricardo’s trade theory is incomplete and silent on the material fallacy that afflicts it. The relation between population and poverty is discussed in chapter 13 and the Malthusian view is contrasted with the demographic transition theory—emphasizing the role of women’s agency in controlling population. The concluding chapter provides a panoramic view of the economy covering diverse topics like agriculture, food security, employment, credit, among others. It calls for universalizing welfare programmes for a people-oriented development project.
In this development trajectory journalists have to play the role of a watchdog and authors appeal to their good intentions. However, the recent revelations of Cobrapost raise deeper questions about the basic revenue model of media houses and careful scrutiny of their accounts should be on the agenda.
Anamitra Roychowdhury teaches at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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