You can also view our most recent newsletters to learn what the ASAP network has been delivering. Links to the most recent editions are listed below:
Winter 2018: https://mailchi.mp/137b832448ff/asap-winter-533471
You can also view our most recent newsletters to learn what the ASAP network has been delivering. Links to the most recent editions are listed below:
Winter 2018: https://mailchi.mp/137b832448ff/asap-winter-533471
In this featured article, Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics (Retired) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, argues that the Indian government massively undercounts the poor because the consumption standard against which poverty is measured has itself been allowed to fall over time. If the original definition of poverty line is used then three-quarters of India’s population today are poor. China also would see a dramatic increase, and the World Bank’s global poverty numbers would be revised far upward.
Poverty estimates from India’s Planning Commission recently stated that a person was to be considered ‘poor’ in 2009-10 only if his or her monthly spending was below 22.4 Rupees per day – the equivalent of 48 U.S. cents — in rural areas, and 28.7 rupees per day in urban areas. This has exposed how unrealistic ‘poverty lines’ are.
Some television channels assumed that these figures covered food costs alone and showed how they could not meet even a fraction of a persons minimal nutrition needs at today’s prices. These paltry sums, however, are supposed to cover not only food but all non-food essentials, including clothing and footwear, fuel for cooking and lighting, transport, education, medical costs and rent.
Even a school child knows that working health cannot be maintained, nor basic necessities obtained, by spending so little. Amazingly, however, 350 million Indians subsist below these levels. They can hardly be said to ‘live’ in any true sense: their energy and protein intake, and consumption of cloth and other necessities, is far below normal. They are underweight, stunted, and subject to a high sickness load, but without the means to obtain adequate food or medical treatment. The official poverty lines do not measure poverty any more; they measure destitution.
The outcry against calling these destitution lines, ‘poverty lines’, is justified, for true poverty lines are much higher and show 75 percent of all Indians to be poor. Per head energy and protein intake, as well as cloth consumption, has been falling for the last two decades. Despite a good growth rate of per capita income, this result is because of worsening income distribution, with a small minority monopolizing all the gains while the majority has suffered loss of purchasing power. With 80 million tons of unsold public food grain stocks — 50 million tons in excess of normal levels — piled up by July 2012, the sensible policy is to do away with targeting and revert to a universal distribution system, combining it with an urban employment guarantee scheme.
Unfortunately the neo-liberal policy makers today ask the wrong question: ‘How can we reduce the food subsidy?’, and not the right question: ‘How can we lift the masses of India from the current level of the lowest food consumption in the world, even lower than the least developed countries?’
The poverty line for rural India has been revised upwards by 15 percent by the Tendulkar Committee, whose brief in 2009 was to review poverty measurement, but it still remains absurdly low. Members of the Planning Commission and the Tendulkar Committee are academic experts, so how have such laughable figures of minimum cost of living emerged from their statistical labors? The fact is that over thirty years ago the then-Planning Commission made a mistake of method, and the present Commission stubbornly continues to cling to that mistake despite its being repeatedly pointed out, including by this author (The Republic of Hunger, 2004). The mistake was to change the definition of poverty line and de-link it from nutrition standards.
The original definition of ‘poverty line’ was a sensible one, based on an Expert committee recommendation in 1979, and was applied to the National Sample Survey data on consumption spending. The NSS presents, every five years, data on 12 groups of spenders ranging from the poorest, able to get only about 1300 calories per day to the richest with about 3000 calories, The poverty line was defined as that particular level of total spending per capita on all goods and services, observed from these data, whose food spending part satisfied the nutrition level of.2400 calories of energy intake per day in rural India, and 2100 per day in urban areas. The rural norm was scaled down soon to 2200 calories. Both nutrition norms are modest. The Commission accepted the Expert Committee’s nutrition-based definition but applied it only once, to the 1973-4 data, to obtain correct monthly rural/urban poverty lines of 49 and 56 rupees per day. At those levels, 2200 and 2100 calories, respectively, were accessible. Some 56 percent of rural and 49 percent of urban persons spent less than this, and so were poor.
Then the Commission, for reasons unknown, changed the definition in practice, and it never again directly looked at the total monthly spending on all goods and services which permitted nutrition norms to be accessed. This was despite the fact that every five years the required information on this for every spending level was available – the physical quantities of food intake, and the corresponding daily average intake of energy, protein and fat. The definition the Commission actually adopted was that the 1973-4 poverty lines were to be adjusted for inflation using a price-index, regardless of whether the lines so obtained still allowed nutritional standards to be met. This amounted to taking a fixed 1973-4 basket and merely adjusting its value for price change.
The 1993 Expert Committee also opted to continue with this mistaken method. Price index adjustment to the fixed basket has been followed for nearly 40 years since 1973-4, including after the minor modification by the Tendulkar committee. It produced the absurdity of 22.4 and 28.7 Rupees as the rural/urban daily poverty lines by 2009-10. Indexing for two more years raises it to Rs. 26/32 per day for 2011-12. But Rs.32 today will not buy even a single kilogram of sugar on the urban open market.
Why these economists should have such faith in the ability of price indices to capture the long-term rise in the cost of living is not clear. Price indices are useful for short period dearness allowance calculation, but they do not reflect the actual rise in the cost of living over longer periods of time. This fact is of great importance for all labour unions and occupational associations.
As an example from personal experience, the starting gross monthly salary of an Associate Professor in a Central University – those established by Acts of the Indian Parliament — in 1973 was Rs. 1,000. This was quite adequate, since ration cards could be used; on this income one even ran a car. Applying the Consumer Price Index for Urban Non-Manual Employees, which had risen seventeen-fold by 2011, the equivalent monthly salary for an Associate Professor joining now should be Rs.17,000 (US Dollars 340) on the Planning Commission’s logic. But this would not support the most modest professional life-style of four decades earlier. The newly appointed Associate Professor’s actual salary today is three times higher, thanks to the Pay Commission, which every ten years has hiked salary grades to maintain living standards of government servants and employees in publicly funded institutions.
Yet, denying all experience and evidence, these economists assert that mere price-index adjustment is enough to obtain current poverty lines from those of 40 years ago. No wonder they have created such a mess with their unrealistic estimates. By 2005, a rural person needed Rs.19 per day total spending to access 2200 calories; at the official Rs.12 per day poverty line, she could obtain only 1820 calories. (The Tendulkar Committee merely tinkered with the problem, raising the Rs.12 marginally to Rs.13.8). An urban consumer needed Rs.33 per day in 2005 to meet 2100 calories, whereas the official Rs.18 permitted 1790 calories. At the 2009-10 official poverty lines of Rs.22.4/28.6 rural/urban, the minimal cost of living is even more seriously understated.
Yet, in March 2012, the Indian Planning Commission once more claimed a decline in the percentage of those living in poverty. It said in a press release:
The all-India HCR (head-count ratio) has declined by 7.3 percentage points from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10, with rural poverty declining by 8.0 percentage points from 41.8% to 33.8% and urban poverty declining by 4.8 percentage points from 25.7% to 20.9%.
This claim is as false as all previous claims by this and earlier Commissions on poverty decline, because the standard has been continuously lowered over time. A person living at the official 2009-10 poverty lines would have been able to consume 1880 calories in rural areas and 1720 calories in urban areas. Compare that to the 1993-94 figure of 1980/1885 calories, which already had fallen well below the 2200/2100 norms for minimal caloric sufficiency, satisfied by official poverty lines only in 1973-4.
State poverty lines vary in India, and in a number of states, the daily energy intake the unrealistic official poverty line can command has fallen below 1500 calories. For example, the official poverty line for urban Delhi state for 2009-10 is Rs.1,040 monthly, or 34.7 per day. That trivial sum permitted only 1400 calories daily energy intake while the observed spending level on all goods and services satisfying the nutrition norm was five times the official one.
We cannot accept a claim by a school of improved academic performance citing that the percentage of failed students has declined over time, if we discover that the pass mark has been lowered substantially, and at the original pass mark more students have actually failed. For any valid comparison, the standard has to be kept unchanged. Actual poverty, measured by keeping the standard unchanged, far from declining, has risen, with 76/73 percent of the rural/urban population unable to reach the modest nutrition standard of 2200/2100 calories by 2009-10, compared to 68.5/58.5 percent five years earlier.
Not only energy, but also protein intake has been falling for all except the top population decile and so has cloth consumption. The rise in poverty is not surprising, given the twin impact of global recession from 2008 and severe drought in 2009-10. Per capita annual food grains consumption for all uses (including feed for producing animal products, processing and so on) at 174 kg. in India by 2008, touched the lowest level in the world, lower than the average for Least Developed Countries. People are being forced to cut back on food and other necessities, including the poorest deciles of consumers, not only owing to high food price inflation when their money incomes are not rising in tandem, but also owing to higher cost of health care and utilities as these are privatized.
China’s official poverty lines are equally absurd, and for the same reason as in India. A nutrition norm was applied in 1984 to obtain a correct 200 yuan annual rural poverty line, which thereafter was merely indexed, giving 1274 yuan by 2011, or 3.5 yuan per day. This is supposed to cover all living costs but would not have bought even a single kilogram of the cheapest rice (information provided by China residents). Actual poverty in China is far higher than claimed.
One wonders if we will ever see honest estimates from official sources anywhere, since by now hundreds of economists are closely imbricated within a vast global poverty-estimating structure with the World Bank at its apex, producing increasingly misleading estimates every year in its glossy Reports. The World Bank’s global poverty line is an equally large underestimate, for it is derived using “purchasing power parity conversion” from local currencies to US dollars, of these very same absurdly low local-currency official rural poverty lines of developing countries, including India and China. The World Bank claim of poverty decline is equally unsound.
What are the realistic poverty lines in India today applying the Planning Commission’s own original definition and method, namely directly observing what level of current spending satisfies the modest nutritional norms? From the 66th Round, 2009-10 nutrition data of the National Sample Survey, the actual spending levels on all goods and services allowing per head daily norms of 2200/2100 calories rural/urban to be met in that year, were Rs.1,090 per month (Rs.36.3/day) and Rs. 2100 per month (Rs. 70/day). The percentage of persons falling below these poverty lines was 76 in rural and 73 in urban India. This high level of deprivation is the rationale for going back to a non-targeted, universal food distribution system, but this will not be enough. The purchasing power of the poor has to be raised at the same time through employment generation schemes. The proposed draft National Food Security Act, if it stays with the 46 percent figure of total population to be covered on ‘priority basis’ will be arbitrarily excluding from its ambit 350 million poor persons.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published in The Hindu in 2011. This revised version incorporates the Planning Commission’s March 2012 estimates.
We are happy to announce that ASAP and the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) have agreed to launch a collaborative effort to jointly execute the GPCR project over the next years. CROP is a program of the International Social Science Council (ISSC), hosted by the University of Bergen.
On April 7th, ASAP hosted a symposium bringing together academics and practitioners to discuss the future of poverty alleviation after the expiration of the MDGs. Among those who participated in the discussion were:
Ravina Khela, the incoming Chair of the ASAP Students-Birmingham Chapter, speaks to Sophia Ireland about her role as Midlands Youth & Schools Coordinator, Oxfam. Ireland shares insights on Oxfam’s approach to poverty alleviation and offers some tips for students who may want to apply for an Oxfam internship or pursue a career in development more generally.
Oxfam is well known to most people, but could you give a brief introduction of the organisation, and what makes it different from other NGOs?
The main aims and objectives are outlined in Oxfam’s Mission Statement, but it basically comes down to overcoming poverty and suffering — so, really big issues! There are a few ways we go about that, all are equally important. The first is humanitarian emergency relief. For example, in the wake of natural or manmade disasters such as earthquakes and wars or conflicts Oxfam is a leader in providing clean water. Oxfam is also often one of the first organisations on the ground to provide clean water, hygiene kits and other things you need to stay healthy. When you have a lot of people in close proximity in a camp it’s really important to have access to things like clean water to prevent disease spreading.
The second way Oxfam goes about reducing poverty is in terms of Development. We are involved with long-term programmes in which we work with communities for 5-10 years to embed practices such as work and education schemes, and try to ensure the sustainability of the work we start there. At the moment the majority — and the aim is for eventually all — of our projects to have someone from Oxfam, a representative from partner organisations and members of local government and the local community on the organising committees. This is particularly important so that when we move out the work we started has been embedded within the local government and community. When we stop delivering a project the work is then able to continue, for example livelihood projects could be continued by ensuring proper infrastructure in terms of adequate transport and government support.
The third way we work in is Campaigning, putting pressure on governments all around the world. We work with pressure groups and support people in order to have an impact in their local communities. One aspect of what we do at Oxfam is getting involved with high level research, so that what we say and what we ask for is well backed up and substantiated. A lot of our activity involved working in partnerships, for example on of our current projects involves helping women who grow onion plants to get realistic and sensible money and adequate support.
A lot of the work we do crosses over all of these three areas. In our UK based work we do a lot of policy and research, and advocacy work with the private sector and government to ensure development policies are appropriate. Our public campaigns try to make sure that the general public understand issues relating to aid, climate change, food security and other poverty related issues. These campaigns try to ensure people are taking action and really shouting about issues that matter to them and that they can speak with credibility about them.
What is your role at Oxfam?
My role really consists of ‘two hats’. My main role is as the Youth and Schools Coordinator in the Midlands. My job involves working with schools and youth organisations to develop global learning and campaigning. I work with volunteer speakers who deliver workshops, assemblies and lessons on topics spanning healthcare, climate change and food justice.
I support teachers to understand issues and how they can pass them on to their students. We use a participatory learning methodology: Learn, Think, Act. It’s about students using their own critical thinking and really developing that and getting them to engage with issues, thinking about how to take appropriate social action and how to deal with controversial issues, and ultimately acting – being an active global citizen.
My remit is to make sure that there is good strong learning that underpins the social action that young people take. The workshops we deliver meet the national curriculum so can fit into a regular school timetable and be delivered in class time.
How would you define poverty?
A lack of power, choice and agency. We can look at it as not having much money, but more than this it is also not having enough money to feed your family, or to get an education for yourself or your family, not enough money to see a doctor or enough money to ensure your home is watertight. It’s really about the lack of power to change things in your life, that’s poverty. If you are a farmer and are experiencing drought but you have poor education then there may be very few ways for you to work your way out of poverty, or a farmer whose land has been grabbed by a company, the ability to engage with a legal process.
How do you think the issue of poverty alleviation can be best addressed, on an individual level and also at the national and international level?
I have recently been involved with some really interesting work on poverty and shame, with the University of Oxford. Some of the reasons people aren’t able to move out of poverty are partly to do with shame and the sense of not being able to come forward and admit it or feel stigmatised by the community around them.
Often other people in a community will look at people in poverty and make a judgement, in the UK for example there’s this ‘chav language’ and a lot of looking down on people who are not working, who can often be labelled ‘benefit cheats’ or the deserving and undeserving poor. We need to overcome this stigmatisation and rhetoric; this is what will be so important in overcoming poverty.
I did a workshop a few years ago with some young people about youth participation in governance and their view was the young people need information in a language that is accessible to them. This is not just the case for young people – information needs to be accessible to all. To the average person if a document is in very technical language they will most likely become disengaged or not understand elements of a piece. Furthermore, this kind of information needs to be in a location that is easy to access. You really need to think about how to get information out to people, don’t just assume that everyone who may be interested in what you have to say will have Twitter or Facebook, although these are often great places to start.
It’s really about education, and developing education for all people so that there is the possibility of choice. Education really opens up opportunities and for people who are, for example, struggling with a traditional way of making a living, it can allow them to change their livelihood, or adapt their work to be able to provide for themselves and their family. Referring back to the Poverty and Shame work with the University of Oxford that I mentioned before, educating the general public is so important in reducing the ‘shame’ surrounding poverty to open up honest debate and more tolerance.
In your work, in what ways and in which areas are you able to see the crossover between academia and practical action?
Academia has a really important role to play in good quality, long term research. It gives us the ability to look at comparative studies, to undertake the deep research that is needed to understand the deep underlying causes of poverty. I studied Anthropology and am interested in how poverty alleviation programmes look at what people need in specific locales, what are the causes and how can these be overcome, and ultimately what is the impact on the people involved.
Also in terms of advocacy, academic research is essential for advising government and policy development. It can also really help when advising private sector companies on their actions, and for looking at the ways in which the impact they are having is positive and negative and how opportunities can be created for developing good practice.
We definitely need rigorous research, but a lot of academic books and reports, are often complex and not very accessible. We need to look at communicating this research to the general population. It’s about making it easy for ‘Joe Bloggs’ on the street to think that they can really learn something and engage with the theories. One way this can be achieved is to simplify the language but not the message.
What kind of voluntary experience have you had and what made you decide to work within a development organisation?
I had worked in schools and theatres as a drama and creative education practitioner and delivered community theatre projects across England and in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India before I decided to make the move into a development organisation. I spent some time researching education departments in development agencies and was successful in gaining an internship with Plan UK whilst I studied for my masters in anthropology (development and rights) in the development education department. This gave me the chance to use my existing skill set and learn more about development/global education and global youth work, the area I had decided I was most interested in. I was then successful in gaining part time work with Plan whilst I completed my MA as their youth coordinator, which gave more opportunities to develop a solid base of experience in the field. However it is important to remember that completing an internship is not a guarantee of a job at the end of your placement.
What do you think is the most important or useful thing to know about poverty alleviation as a student?
For anyone, it is such a complex and difficult area. I don’t think that alleviating poverty is really about raising GDP. Overcoming poverty is about power and freedom and the ability to have a better life.
For students I would say, think about what area you are interested in and what work you are interested in. You don’t have to be in Malawi building toilets in order to make a difference! At Oxfam, for instance, we have working for us lawyers, auditors, stock-takers, campaigners, academic researchers and policy advisors. It’s about having an efficient organisation. Think about the impact you want to have. You don’t have to live in another country to do development work. It’s about thinking about the impact of your choices and actions, for example in making the choice to buy really cheap clothes what message are we sending to the manufacturer whose workers may be in appalling conditions. You could pressure those companies to have better working conditions, for example the War on Want Campaign pressuring Adidas.
Keep an eye out for jobs, not necessarily with a mind to apply for but to give ideas for areas you may want to apply to. A great site for that is bond.org.uk, it has loads of jobs listings from a good range of organisations here and overseas. Most development organisations will advertise internship roles here, and all Oxfam internships are advertised on Oxfam’s website – there are new opportunities posted regularly so check back to find something suited to your interests.
Could you give a brief outline of the internships and volunteering opportunities available with Oxfam?
Oxfam recruits a large number of volunteers across the UK so there is lots of opportunity for people to gain more experience in the NGO sector. Applications will vary from post to post and are either based on an application form or covering later and CV. We get large amounts of applications so check carefully how you need to apply, in order to be asked to interview.
Internships are created to support specific areas of work and as such we are looking for people with interests and skills that match, for example, I primarily work with schools and young people so am looking for people with experience of working with young people and an interest in the British education system as well as understanding of development issues. When you are looking at internship adverts please do think carefully if this is an area of development that you are really interested in, ‘I just want to work for Oxfam’ is not all that we are looking for.
What advice could you give to prospective applicants?
When completing your application do answer very clearly how you meet all the competencies we are asking for, paying specific attention to the essential criteria. Within excess of 30 applications for each post you need to communicate clearly how well you fit, and how committed you are. These are generally voluntary positions but we also want to know you are reliable, enthusiastic and will stick the course of the internship. In return you’ll normally get a great development opportunity with the chance to take a lead on new ideas and projects, some form of training process, a reference for future jobs, support in your future jobs and ‘a foot in the door’.
Do: Your research – on the organisation and role. Narrow your area of development interest… programmes, campaigns, policy, fundraising, marketing… Pay close attention to the person specification and competencies required. Be adaptable and ready to try new things.
Don’t: ‘Just want to do development’ – focus. Don’t write a very brief covering letter… or an essay! Think they should be happy to have me work for free… it is a competitive process and most staff have done an internship or two themselves. We do value all interns but you have to meet expectations.
Final thoughts: If you want to have a positive impact on global issues you don’t just have to work in development. Teachers, for example, have such an important and valuable role. You can go into business or social enterprise and have an emphasis on ethical practices. You can be part of this movement to overcome poverty by being part of a local campaigning group and getting involved with raising awareness.
Members of the new ASAP Students chapter at Delhi-area universities staged a successful launch workshop bringing together experts on food security and exclusion. Students from the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University Delhi came together on the Delhi University campus to engage on crucial issues of poverty, to strategize and elect officers for the new chapter.
They were joined by a five-member delegation from the ASAP Students chapter at the University of Birmingham in the UK, as well as by ASAP Board Chair Thomas Pogge, who was visiting Delhi to speak to various audiences about his Health Impact Fund initiative. Pogge led the students in dialogue about current and potential ASAP projects, and ways in which the two chapters could work together to have concrete impact on poverty-related issues in India, the UK and elsewhere.
Suparna Priyadarshini, a PhD student at Delhi University, was selected as the first Chair of the Delhi ASAP Students chapter, and several other members were chosen for officer posts. The group will be advised by Dr. Ashok Acharya, ASAP Board member and Associate Professor of Political Science at DU. An initial emphasis at the chapter will be the inauguration of the All Rights India project, aimed at helping the very poor learn about and actually claim their social entitlements.
At the July 19 workshop, discussion focused initially on problems with the way India’s government counts the poor. Utsa Patnaik, professor emeritus of economics at JNU, provided detailed evidence showing that the number of those unable to buy sufficient food has dramatically increased in recent years, even as government poverty-line figures have decreased. Dr. Arindam Banerjee, assistant professor of economics at Ambedkar University, provided further detail on ways in which the government’s counting methods ignore recent worsening of conditions in how the poor actually live. In terms of access to food, shelter, decent housing and other indicators, he said, India’s new economic dynamism has not filtered down to the poor.
Narayan Sukumar Associate Professor at Delhi University, gave an impassioned talk about the persistence of discrimination against lower-caste persons in universities across India, as well as outside the academic sector. Despite laws formally banning caste discrimination, he noted, it remains pervasive in virtually all aspects of university life and the broader Indian social context.
For information on the ASAP Students Delhi chapter, including on how to join, contact Suparna Priyadarshini at email@example.com