Thursday, February 29, 2024

Poverty paradox- a new chapter in the North East

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By Phrangsngi Pyrtuh

A global partnership started in 2000 to reduce poverty among other things within a time frame of 2015 ushered a pro-active government intervention which was unprecedented. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have become the benchmark to judge development and progress by countries the world over. With the deadline approaching the Indian government has unleashed various schemes and what have you to meet this target without giving much thought whether the programmes are sustainable or even reasonable in the long run. The MGNREGS for instance has been criticized for its extensive emphasis on non-productive activities which are temporary in nature without enhancing skills and capabilities. Though novel in concept it lacks the teeth to empower the beneficiaries who unquestionably are the most marginalized and downtrodden.

Poverty estimates in India is consumption (expenditure) based and not income based. The NSS collects data on expenditure on food and non-food items based on calorie intake wherefrom the average calorie equivalent of different food is known. Using the 28th round of the NSS the per capita monthly expenditure of food was fixed as 2400 (rural) and 2100 (urban). This direct inspection of calorie intake to estimate poverty was accepted as the most precise measurement. Then inexplicably the Planning Commission abandoned the direct estimates and instead used the price-adjusted poverty line on the 28th round to arrive at the following calorie intake-1890 (rural) and 1860 (urban) which dramatically reduces the numbers of poor in the country by 2000. Revisions have been made but there is no turning back to the previous method of estimating poverty (using the direct calorie intake estimates). The recent brouhaha regarding the Planning Commission’s controversial stipulation of daily minimum wages at 32 (urban)and 26 (rural) in 2011 is a fallout of the price-adjusted poverty line recently revised to 28.65 (urban) and 22.40 (rural).

Of most interest (or disinterest) is the recent release of poverty data by the Planning Commission which is most remarkable as it pertains to rising poverty in the North East region which was never seen as being affected by the rising income gap (since it was assumed that the prevailing socio-economic institutions from the region mitigate poverty incidence). Five states including Meghalaya manifested rising poverty from the last estimates. They are the only aberrations in a very positive outlook of poverty estimates in the country. To what extent are these data reflecting ground realities and what do they mean in the context of the social and political structure of the region should be taken seriously. Unfortunately this has not attracted any public attention from any section of the society from the region. Not being vocally expressive certainly vindicates the Planning Commission’s findings. So the question is what do we do about it if this is assumed as true? And a more grave and disquieting question is what went wrong with all the crores of rupees pumped to the region from a perennial flow of central funds and schemes which have accelerated in recent times since the UPA assumed power way back in 2004.

Poverty is a multi-dimensional complex phenomenon. In official circles development impedes poverty since development is synonymous with increased per capita income. No development, means no change in income. If this were true then development should be allowed to take place to remove poverty. But there is no development activity at all in the north east. Central anti-poverty schemes are not to be confused with development though they are all that the seven states rely on to feed and employ their people. Development cannot occur through food for work schemes or employment guarantee schemes. All these programmes do not contribute to development owing to their temporary nature which are non-sustaining. If they were to stop, the vacuum created would have a drastic impact on the social fabric of the region sans development.

The central government needs to address the problem head on. It should stop step-motherly treatment and give more autonomy to these regions as far as financial issues are concerned. Development is not only about infrastructure. They have a lot to do with capability and skill sets which are decisive factors in a competitive world- in other words development should be embedded and not enforced. People centric development may address some of these problems which of course is at variance with the big infrastructural projects whose aim is open up the region in order to smoothen the flow of goods/services from the rest of India to South East Asia. Spin offs from such massive projects will not enhance development in the region since the objective is to make the region an intermediate player in this arrangement, with maximum end gains going to the states from the plains where development has taken deep roots. We will on the other hand continue to rely on pittance schemes and projects which will only increase the income gap and of course poverty incidence.

Development in the North East is only meant to rid the region of the scourge of militancy and reactionary elements. It was never meant to be a capability oriented one and therefore it was never meant to rid poverty from the region. The release from the Planning Commission should therefore be a wake up call to shift the development approach (for whatever name it’s worth) to poverty centric approach.

Meghalaya does not have a poverty eradication programme and the recent assembly sitting has not debated on the disclosures of the Planning Commission. It is perilous and discouraging news (for the poor) that not a single legislator seeks a debate on such critical issues. Of course maintaining status quo (and thereby perpetuating poverty) is necessary to ensure their vote banks. There is no study on the income gap which is beyond doubt increasing. Much needs to be done in the economic arena as well. The state is not a producer but rather an import dependent economy. The absence of surplus production implies that distribution does not take place. The logic is rather simple. Production if it takes place should be distributed. This is how most developed nations have managed to contain and even erase poverty problems altogether. Their focus is in fact not so much on minimum needs to tackle poverty like India does but on reasonable standards of living.

As the country debates on these dipping numbers (amidst increasing farmers suicide due to agricultural crisis and social unrest, unprecedented rampant malnourishment etc) we cannot fault the Planning Commission for trying its best to meet the MDGs. However, the policy makers are playing ball with fire. The latest economic census predicts declining food availability in the years to come and India may have to depend on imports to feed its people once again. These are harbingers of bad times to come but poverty will not be the reason for any of it as far as the neo-liberal politics is concerned.

(The writer is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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