The Poor Don’t Count So Why Count the Poor?

Two questions are integral to any discussion on poverty: How many people are poor, and who are they? Finding answers to these questions needs different approaches and methodology. Whereas the number of poor can be fixed simply through a sample survey, identifying them would need visiting each and every household.

The erstwhile Planning Commission was the official agency tasked with estimating the percentage of the population below poverty line (BPL) once every five years based on the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data on consumption expenditure. However, the states have been conducting a village-wise census to identify the BPL households, with financial and technical assistance from the Union Ministry of Rural Development (MORD), in order to implement the MORD’s targeted welfare schemes.  These surveys which have taken place three times (1992, 1997 and 2002) in the last 25 years have hardly attracted media attention, compared to the exercise determining the number of poor and fixing the poverty line.

A large number of flagship programmes are universal, such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Mid Day Meals (MDM), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), NREGA, etc. Then there are programmes which could be called ‘BPL Plus’, such as Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), a cashless health insurance cover of the Union government, as well as funding for construction of household toilets. Here the subsidy is available to all BPL families plus many others such as artisans, domestic workers (for RSBY), and small and marginal farmers, SCs, STs, and women headed households (for toilets). Similarly, the rural housing programme gives weightage to other indicators besides being BPL, such as being houseless, or belonging to other specially deprived categories.

In the third category are programmes, such as Old Age Pension, PDS, etc. that are specifically directed to the BPL population. In addition, each state has a plethora of schemes that benefit the BPL. Hence it is vital to evolve a workable methodology to separate them from the non-poor and identify them truthfully.

Inclusion and exclusion errors

There has been acrimonious discussion in India about ‘how many poor’, but not on the more important issue, ‘who are the poor’ and how are they being identified. Many studies have shown that the practice of including those who should not be included, while excluding those who should be included is widespread. Errors of exclusion are those that misclassify the poor in the non-poor category, while errors of inclusion include the non-poor in the poor category.

According to the XI Plan (volume 2, chapter 4), there are huge exclusion and inclusion errors in identifying the poor. More than half of the poor in 2004-05 either had no card or were given above poverty line (APL) cards, and were thus excluded from BPL benefits. Presumably, these are the poorest tribal groups, women headed households, and people living in remote hamlets where administration does not reach, and who are unable to claim their rights. Thus the people most deserving of government help are deprived of such assistance.

On the other hand, almost 60% of the BPL or Antyodaya cards had been given to households belonging to the non-poor category. There is a great deal of clamour amongst all people to benefit from government welfare programmes, and obviously the non-poor are able to get their names included in the list by using political pressure or through bribes. Identifying the poor correctly and the criterion for inclusion is thus central to poverty alleviation.

In view of the inadequacies pointed out by the state governments and others about the methodology followed in 2002 for identifying the poor, the MORD constituted an Expert Group under my chairmanship in 2009 to recommend a more suitable methodology for conducting the next BPL census. The aim was to provide simple, transparent and objectively measurable indicators for identification of BPL.

My report submitted in August 2009 suggested dividing all rural households into three categories:  the first would be families who need to be automatically excluded, such as those owning three or four wheeled motorized vehicles or mechanized farm equipment, drawing a salary of over Rs. 10,000 per month, or employed in government. Those automatically included would comprise the homeless, destitute households, ‘Particularly vulnerable tribal groups’ (PVTG), households with disabled persons as bread-earners, and bonded labour. The rest of the households were to be graded on pre-determined deprivations, and ranked accordingly.

Method flawed from the beginning

The Ministry of Rural Development accepted the above categorisation with some changes. However, the most important recommendation of conducting the census and collecting information openly in a gram sabha meeting with video graphing so as to promote transparency and avoid backdoor influence was not accepted. Instead, the Ministry decided to send a surveyor to each person’s house to fill up a detailed format. It accepted the Home Ministry’s offer of combining a caste census with compiling data on economic deprivations; the scheme was named the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC). Figures for urban areas and on caste are yet to be declared.

In the decennial Census, the information provided by each household is confidential, such that neither the respondent nor the surveyor has any vested interest in giving false information. In a situation where inclusion determines access to privileges, the temptation for the respondent to give false information to the outsider surveyor who has no knowledge of that village would be very high. The surveyor too may use this opportunity to extract a bribe for recording answers that may place the respondent in the category of the poor.

Although on paper, the surveyor’s information is to be checked by his or her supervisor and the sarpanch, we all know how collusion between supervisors and the ground staff encourages distortion in preparing such lists of beneficiaries. Therefore, the chances that the SECC would continue with large errors of inclusion and exclusion cannot be ruled out. There should have been greater transparency and closer involvement of gram sabhas and civil society in the identification process.

Contradictory data

Coming now to the most important question: how reliable and authentic is the SECC data? One would be able to pass judgment on this only when the SECC lists are verified by objective ground level tests by civil society and professional organisations. However, a cursory look at the macro data raises some doubts about its veracity. For instance, for Kerala it shows that only 3.63% households own a landline phone, but the number of households owning both landline and mobile phones is shown as 28.33%!

Interestingly, the data shows that 87% of households in UP have a mobile, whereas only 61% of families in Kerala have one!  Moreover, according to the SECC, only 7.17% of households in Kerala have no phones at all, which does not jell with the other numbers on phone ownership.

The most disturbing data is about those poorest households who were automatically and compulsorily included. These comprise: households without shelter; Destitute, living on alms; Manual scavenger families; PVTGs; and legally released bonded labour. Their total number is shown as only 16.50 lakh, or much less than 1 per cent of all rural households in India.

This gross under-estimation of the poorest of the poor does not tally with other government figures. For instance, the overall number of 16.50 lakhs is far less than the number of houseless estimated by the Ministry of Rural Development. The Ministry’s target in the next four years to provide Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) housing for all rural homeless is 2 crore families! According to the 2011 Census, 4.3% households (74 lakh) in rural India are homeless whereas another 39.4% (6.6 crore) live in just one room. As against 6.6 crores, the SECC identified only 2.37 crore households, including not just households with one room but also those who had kuccha walls and kuccha roofs.

A survey done by the Ministry of Labour in 2014 shows that in about 5 per cent of households, there are no workers aged 15 years and above. These 90 lakh households should have been automatically included in this category. This number is shown in the SECC as only 6.7 lakhs, or 0.37% of the population as opposed to the 5% estimated by the Labour Ministry.

Coming to the number of manual scavengers, according to a 2013 Lok Sabha report, 7.70 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents were identified by States/UTs during implementation of the National Scheme for Liberation and Manual Scavenging in India in 2007. The SECC admits far less, only 1.8 lakhs.

The inference is inescapable; the poorest have not been able to convince our enumerators to recognise them.  According to SECC itself, 13.35 crore households (74.5% of the total) have a monthly income of less than Rs 5000, whereas there are only 8.69 crore households with any one of the 7 deprivations. Does it mean that almost one-third of those earning less than Rs 5,000 (Planning Commission’s poverty cut-off line was Rs 4080 per month per household in 2011-12) are not deprived in any manner?

These are my initial reactions. Either the definitions of deprivations have been deliberately kept narrow so as to exclude a large number of people, or enumerators have lived up to their past reputation of collusion with the rich. In the process a large number of poor will be denied access to targeted programmes. The government has not been able to eliminate poverty, but it has certainly succeeded in eliminating the poor from its radar.

N.C. Saxena is an expert on poverty and rural development, former Member of the Planning Commission, and former Secretary, Government of India.


    This article is
    thought provoking. It will definitely make readers sit up and think. Indeed it
    is really difficult to reach every citizen of our country who lives in remote villages
    and hamlets in many of our states. In fact recently when I read an article
    about a social worker who works for ‘Thakars’, a tribal community in Maharashtra I came to know
    of problems of very survival faced by our poor. I wonder how many millions are
    there in our villages who live a life without a ration card, without a minimum of
    shelter and who are often exploited by others. India is a huge country but for
    many of these Indians, concept of nationality has no meaning. The social worker
    mentioned earlier had to fight with government officials to prove that the villagers
    she was fighting for were indeed living in remote parts, as they cannot
    communicate with the officials or submit any proof of their existence.

  • Vinay Tandon

    True as the observations and inferences made by Mr Saxena are (and they are not something new), it is a wonder that such blatant fudging and biased surveys have been done over and over again by government agencies with impunity. Data on national and state level is not of much use anyway, except for writing papers etc. Micro level, dis-aggregated data is simply not available or is published so late that it is already outdated, (Census data for example). There is clearly something very wrong with the way our governments work, but rarely have analysts dared to call a spade a spade! Finding out who are the poor and where they are is far, far more important than getting their numbers. Governments are simply incapable of doing that and because of vested interests are not open to letting others (civil society groups for example) carry out such work. Meanwhile the really poor will remain a good topic for discussion!