Another Kind Of Welfare


The term that has been in the news recently is “direct benefit transfer” (DBT). This is meant to make the transfer of some welfare benefits transparent and more efficient. DBT has been successful in the case of LPG subsidy and, in one year, the government has been able to save as much as Rs 12,000 crore. While DBT is aimed at improving the efficiency of the management of subsidies, UCT or UBI is an alternative way of thinking about welfare assistance itself. It is an attempt as much to improve delivery as it is to address inclusion and exclusion errors that plague the current targeted social assistance. Swamy takes none of these nuances into account and asserts that “Cash transfers are now being positioned as a magic solution to achieve development goals in health, education, nutrition and food security…” What type of cash transfers is she referring to? And who is positioning it as a magic solution? Which of the pilot studies say so?

Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian has said DBT is a “gamechanger”. As far as subsidy management is concerned, this is indeed true. Saving nearly $2 billion  without hurting any of the stakeholders certainly qualifies for a…continue reading



Neither BPL nor APL

Socio-Economic and Caste Census can help identify welfare beneficiaries without falling into a binary trap.


Urban poor, BPL, urban Indian households, SECC, Socio Economic and Caste Census, Hashim committee, BPL urban India, Nation news, India news
The last BPL census had been conducted in 2002 and the procedure then adopted was to collect information on 13 indicators for every rural household and assign a mark for each of these. / Picture from Indian Express

Not many know that the SECC grew from an almost routine exercise to perhaps one of the most ambitious of its kind ever conducted anywhere. The original intent was to simply update existing BPL (below poverty line) lists. The last BPL census had been conducted in 2002 and the procedure then adopted was to collect information on 13 indicators for every rural household and assign a mark for each of these. Households were ranked on the basis of their total marks, and the cut-off for BPL selection was the mark at which the total number of BPL households in a state was equal to the Planning Commission’s poverty estimate for that state. Since the latter was based on surveyed per capita consumption, completely different from the BPL census indicators, the result was a conceptual hotchpotch. It also lacked transparency — no one really knew why they had or had not been classified as BPL — and was therefore subject to manipulation. The outcome, as is well known, was…continue reading

The measure of poverty

Estimates based on SECC and NSS data have different purposes



JULY 20 2015



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Poverty estimates provide the proportion and size of the poor population and their spread across states and broad regions. But they can’t be used for identification of the individual poor. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) – / Picture from Indian Express

Recently, the government released data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011. There has been comment that hereafter, we need not have consumption-based poverty estimates using NSS (National Sample Surveys) data. It is thought that

SECC data will alone be enough to estimate poverty and deprivation. Here, we briefly examine the differences between the two and clarify that NSS consumption-based poverty estimates are still relevant. SECC-based estimates are important, but no substitutes for NSS-based poverty ratios.

In India, we have a long history of studies on the measurement of poverty. The methodology for the estimation of poverty used by the erstwhile Planning Commission was based on recommendations made by various expert groups. In June 2012, the government of India appointed an expert group (with C. Rangarajan as chairman) to take a fresh look at the methodology for the measurement of poverty.

The Rangarajan expert group has gone back to the idea of separate poverty line baskets for rural and urban areas, unlike the Tendulkar Committee, which took urban poverty as a given and used it as the common basket for rural and urban households. In defining the consumption basket separating the poor from the rest, the new expert group took the view that it should contain a food component…continue reading


Why Marathwada is becoming a graveyard for farmers

Season after season of failed crops is pushing farmers to the brink of desperation, while the inaction of the Maharashtra government is allowing agriculture to slip into a steep decline



MAY 19 2015

Farmers spend lakhs of rupees for digging bore wells, many of which do not yield water anymore
Farmers spend lakhs of rupees for digging bore wells, many of which do not yield water anymore / Picture from Down to Earth

In Talavada village in Beed district of Maharashtra, farmer Sahibrao Athole made one last attempt to call for help. Lying alone in his field on the night of June 12, 2014, Athole was gasping for breath. He had consumed a litre of pesticide. Athole used his mobile phone to call a friend and left a message for his family. He told him he had gulped down a bottle of pesticide and that he was dying. At first, Athole’s brother, Rahul, did not believe the message. But he soon realised that it was too late in the night for his brother to play a prank. He rushed to the field, about four kilometres from their house, and found Athole lying unconscious. He was frothing at his mouth. Rahul picked him up and ran a kilometre to reach the road. From there, he was taken to a private hospital. Athole showed some signs of recovery initially, but lost consciousness again after two days. On the ninth day, doctors declared him dead.
At 33, Athole was the only breadwinner of his family which included his wife and three children as well as Rahul, his wife and child. “He was extremely hard-working. He would work in the fields early mornings and late evenings and earn daily…continue reading

Why poverty is development’s best friend



JULY 13 2015

THE VIEW FROM BELOW: “Defining poverty in terms of income limits solutions to those that can raise income.” In the photo, a girl studies at the doorway of her house in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.
THE VIEW FROM BELOW: “Defining poverty in terms of income limits solutions to those that can raise income.” In the photo, a girl studies at the doorway of her house in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. / Picture from The Hindu

Or will it be business as usual? Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s reaction to the SECC numbers offer an unambiguous answer: “The way to eliminate deprivation is to achieve rapid economic growth of 8 percent to 10 percent.”

Mr. Jaitley’s words reflect the prevailing wisdom on the best way to battle poverty. Sample these editorials from the business press on the SECC data: “India needs to grow fast…move ever more people from agriculture to industry” says one. Another asserts that “this database provides the strongest foundations…to comprehend the nature of deprivation in different parts of the country. This is the starting point for an understanding of its causes”.

Really? Did we have to wait 67 years, and for this particular set of SECC data, to understand the causes of deprivation in India? Or is it possible that the question is not about understanding causes at all? That what really concerns policy-makers here is not the problem (poverty) but the solution (growth/development)?

The poverty-development tango

Human beings at different points in time have had diverse cultural conceptions of poverty. Not all of them have been negative. Indeed, at a time when India is witnessing a sort of post-modern, pseudo-Vedic revival, it might be pertinent to point out that the sub-continent is home to a long and ancient…continue reading

Food for nutrition, nature & livelihood



JULY 5 2015

Sunita Narain, Director Centre for Science and Environment
Sunita Narain, Director Centre for Science and Environment / Picture from Down to Earth

What societies eat reflects their position on the modernity trajectory. Poorer countries have health problems because of lack of food. Then as people get rich, they end up losing the health advantage of food availability. They eat processed food that is high in salt, sugar and fat, which make them obese and ill. It is only when societies get very rich that they rediscover the benefits of eating real food and value sustainability.

In India, ironically, it is happening all at once. We have a huge challenge of malnourishment and now a growing battle with the bulge and its associated diseases, diabetes and hypertension. But we also have an advantage: we still have not lost our culture of real food. The nutrition, nature and livelihood connection still exists as Indians eat local, nutritious, home-cooked meals, which are more than often frugal. But this is because we are poor. The question is whether we can continue to eat healthy meals sourced from bio-diverse nature and built on rich culinary cultures even as we get rich. This is the real test.

But to do this, we must get food practices right. We must understand that it is not necessary or accidental that the richer societies tend to lose the health advantage because of bad food. It is because of the food industry, and…continue reading

Is NREGS significantly reducing poverty?




JULY 8 2015


Desilting of Supply Channel, Chokalingaputhur Panchayat, Sivaganga District
Desilting of Supply Channel, Chokalingaputhur Panchayat, Sivaganga District / Picture from

Indeed a much better strategy will be to transfer funds worth Rs 10,000 per year to job card holder for a period of 5 years and help them to get out of the grip of poverty by providing them seeds and other inputs, linking banks with Self Help Groups, etc. The amount of time that is spent to implement MGNREGS is simply not worth the end results. It will be much better to go for direct cash transfer to needy families. This will reduce corruption as well. At least one can do a pilot project in a few districts to see what happens.

As far as asset creation is concerned, it will be best to allow Gram Panchayats to use 14th Finance Commission funds to create whatever assets they want to without giving them…continue reading

Chuck the BPL card


MIHIR SHAH /Picture from Indian Express


JULY 10 2015

The formulation of the SECC was characterised by a long process of widespread consultation with experts and stakeholders and led to a fairly robust methodology, not flawless but certainly better than anything similar we have attempted in the past. Enumerators used 6.4 lakh handheld electronic devices in this paperless census. And there was a transparent data verification process. The decennial population census is governed by the Census Act, 1948, which has strict requirements of confidentiality. These do not apply to the SECC. And since one of its major aims is to determine entitlements for various government programmes, the data were subject to verification by the families themselves, as also by gram panchayats and gram sabhas. After the data…continue reading