By Sanjay Jha
( One of India’s proud moments of growth, reduction of poverty by a significant 15% percentage points got tragically lost in media’s TRP targets obsession. Of course, the BJP did not even conceal their sly grin. )
Self-flagellation , I assumed , has certain natural frontiers beyond even the access of incorrigible pessimists. Not really, I discovered to my acute dismay. As the Planning Commission released the landmark findings of a massive 15% reduction in poverty between 2004-12, bringing down the poverty line from 37% in 2004-05 to 21.9% in 2012, instead of celebrating India’s extraordinary success in ameliorating economic conditions of 138 million people out of abject penury, there was a vociferous contra reaction. As is the predilection of India’ principal opposition , the Bhartiya Janata Party , before you could say Bangaru Laxman, they had already rubbished it as a “ Congress conspiracy”. It was an asinine statement, deserving of prodigious contempt. The well-respected NSSO survey was promptly castigated , as if the Planning Commission “ manufactures data” to suit the ruling government. This incongruous saga being played out at prime-time on news channels was accentuated by certain observations made by party spokespeople, including that from the Congress, who said, in certain places food could be bought at fairly affordable rates at Rs 12/-. Even lower. TV anchors, frantically desperate for TRP’s, found in those figures, the outrageous outrage that they surreptitiously worship . “ Callous, insensitive, selfish” circulated at rapid velocity , and any attempt to focus on the impressive economic uplift of fellow citizens within a short span was promptly dispatched; personal observations of a few political leaders, spoken from their own experience was meant to make the entire political class appear egregiously scornful. Of course, the 138 million Indians were given the cold shoulder, after all they are not the urban middle-class audience vulnerable to the magical spell of fairness cream advertisers or buyers of the latest sedan model. It was one of Indian media’s shocking low moments where they played tomfoolery for TRP’s. A melodramatic environment was created by interviewing restaurant-owners without realizing that retail purchase from random shops is not the standard measure of poverty. But frankly, who cares when apparently serious news degenerates into sublime sit-down-comedy?
So what is the truth? The Suresh Tendulkar poverty line was instituted to give a fair representation of poverty; it is the responsibility of governments to arrive at authentic , accurate poverty estimates, this is one number where self-delusions are self-defeating. Interestingly, the earlier survey done under the NDA as per NSSO 59th round survey pegged the minimum consumption of poverty line at Rs 16.73 only; that perhaps explains why former PM Mr AB Vajpayee-Pramod Mahajan combine believed India Shining. The consequences of that hubris is well documented. To make a comparative study over a period of time one needs a statistical measure that is constant. Thus, the Tendulkar Poverty Line is a fair measure that has at no point underestimated poverty.
Now the fact is that as per the UN/World Bank, the norm is $1.25 for extreme poverty and $2 for moderate poverty. At $ 1.25, the Indian equivalent of how much would it cost in local currency to buy the same goods of a similar amount is Rs 22 only, far lower than the Rs 27.20 for rural , and Rs 33.22 for urban in the Tendulkar report. But the UPA bit the bullet and took the pragmatic decision to acknowledge an enhanced 37% poverty line, recognizing the genuine gargantuan challenge ahead .
What is befuddling is why the carping cynics are feigning surprise at the poverty reduction. For over 4 of the 9 years under UPA, India has grown at a staggering 9.35% , in 3 other years it averaged over 7.5% . It is only in the last two years that we have felt a perceptible slow-down , exacerbated by a global crisis reflected in the American cliff, Euro-zone meltdown and the uncertainty in financial markets . No country , especially emerging market /BRIC nations could remain unscathed; globalization is not just about unrestricted capital inflows , FII investments in stock-market booms, and branded consumer goods. It has a flip side, if your neighbor gets bronchitis, you will inevitably get afflicted by a viral fever too, even if you can delay it or keep its tenure short. That is the China/India dilemma. Secondly, the UPA has spent the largest sums in social welfare allocations unlike any previous government through MNREGA, RTE, NRHM, Bharat Nirman etc whose salutary impact is being felt in rural wages, self-confidence and changing consumption patterns. And lastly, despite recognizing some leakages in implementation in various states, it has improved delivery mechanism. It is this three-pronged structural shift that is impacting poverty. Once Aadhaar is fully operational, the effectiveness will rise exponentially as it will reduce middlemen and unwarranted intermediation.
The ecstasy of schadenfreude of BJP was obvious as they gloated as TV anchors made merry by mocking their own country’s indisputable statistics with predictable clichés like , “ political motives” behind poverty reduction. What they conveniently forgot to tell the nation was that the UPA had itself appointed the Rangarajan Committee to review the poverty line definition to make it more market-realistic; be as it may, that would not alter rate of poverty decline. The fact that the UPA has extended the Food Security Bill to cover 67% of India’s population as a right, an entitlement was quietly sidestepped. Honestly, it was a travesty of justice.
The Indian media perennially cribs about self-regulation being the best method to manage their internal affairs. But what they really need to do is some serious self-introspection. While daily slugfests at 9 pm may provide entertainment value, a vast part of India has quietly , imperceptibly progressed ahead.
( The author is National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. The views are personal).