Sunday, May 9, 2021

Poor human development

It has been said that the idea of poverty is always relative. The questions of purchasing power in defining poverty are not straightforward. India’s poverty debate, like elsewhere, will always have to address inconsistencies. Despite tremendous economic development, poverty line in China continues to be a matter of debate. When it comes to our state, our poverty figures and ground realities are paradoxical. The need is to address that paradox head-on. Here we cannot deny that inflating one’s poverty always pays – states get more money under a range of state and central schemes. People get more benefits – incentives, jobs and much more. In the face of such benefits, we fail to realize or plainly ignore the fact that stating plain facts pays in the longer term. Importantly, that saves money from being wasted, like we have been doing in the name of pursuing misdirected poverty alleviation programmes. And stating of plain facts first requires political will. That requires robust information collection as well – something that is not easy in our state. People generally don’t tell the truth about their incomes and sources. Perhaps for obvious reasons. But that does not mean the state cannot have a mechanism of sound information collection. Sound benchmarks – guided by socio-economic rationale rather than political interests, could make it possible to arrive at realistic figures. Most countries do that. Understandably like in Nagaland, there is no uniform measure of poverty in the rest of India either. Different bodies all cite different numbers of poverty. But now that the Government of India is seeking to address the discrepancies, we need to do the same also. Various economic surveys have shown that our state has a large number of people in the BPL category. However, there are credible reasons why our poverty is likely to be less than projected. Many families that hold BPL cards to get subsidized rations are normally far above BPL, and can afford market purchasing. Our minimum wage is another indicator. Our unskilled labour rate is now over Rs 400 per day, much higher than the rest of India. It is another matter that most of the BPL card holders are government servants, retired employees drawing pensions, professionals and contractors, etc. One just needs to go to a fair price shops at the time of release of BPL ration to see the reality – the number of people coming to get the subsidized rice in high end vehicles, including SUVs and government vehicles are a regular sight. Also take the NREGA scheme – it is such a mismatch with our rural realities. We can’t find local domestic helps anymore. Almost all our menial jobs are done by imported workers from outside the state. The most likely reason for all this is that people have better and alternative economic opportunities. The Rs 400 minimum daily wage means our poverty line is different. Here the fundamental reason why we need to revisit our poverty figures is that we need to target our public spending – especially those of the centrally sponsored schemes – better. NREGA, for instance, could be restructured to do more meaningful jobs. Indira Awas Yojana could be redesigned. There are hardly any homeless people in our state. Homes built under this scheme are generally rented out by most of the beneficiaries. The point is acknowledgement of the fact that our problem is not abject poverty but poor human development will be useful. The money which goes waste in misdirected poverty alleviation schemes could be better utilized in building quality public infrastructure. We need to drastically improve our primitive health care facilities. Quality of education needs to be improved. Most rural areas do not have safe drinking water. Acute lack of other basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, etc. impedes human development. Money redirected from misguided poverty alleviation schemes could also be used to enhancing productive employment of our youth. In fact our economic foundations are sound primarily because of our quality natural resources and human skills. Decades of conflict has not aggravated poverty, it has impeded economic development. Clearly an honest definition of our poverty and its extent will pay us in the long term.