Friday August 3 2007 08:30 IST
YOGINDER K ALAGH
India lacks an operative socio-economic vision. The Poverty Line which was developed by a task force that I had chaired in the late seventies has recently been the subject of critiques that were not always based on a reading of the task force’s report. Nevertheless, the debate among economists on the Poverty Line — which goes back three decades — is not very relevant to India today. After all, the country is not living from ship-tomouth as it was in earlier times. Hunger here is much lower now and literacy and awareness, much higher. In fact, the times call for the junking of the Poverty Line of which I was the author and the operationalisation of a working vision on a desirable future for the aam aadmi.
There is, first of all, the question of popular aspirations. Coming as I do from Gujarat, which had witnessed both an earthquake and riots, there is also the question of protecting people who may not be poor but are nevertheless living in great insecurity — both in physical and social terms. Is it possible to configure ways of looking at these problems in a fruitful manner, as a prologue to solving them?
New developments have overtaken controversies over the economic statistics on poverty. Policy-makers find it impossible to work with odd results such as urban poverty being higher than poverty in rural areas. Studies done by the Planning Commission have shown that poverty estimates are very sensitive to price data variation and this feature — overlooked by economists keen to settle scores with each other — led to confusing results at the state levels. The department of rural development undertook independent studies of Below Poverty Line groups and scholars like R. Radhakrisna came out with devastating findings on deprivation levels in specific age groups and sections of the population like women. A number of interesting efforts have been made at the local level to develop online identification of poor households in states like Gujarat and Kerala. But these efforts have not yet been used for poverty remediation although they could represent a commendable beginning. The casualness with which they are treated suggest that they need validation at the national level.
We need to unequivocally define the rights of sections of the population. What is entailed are not just questions of resource use but also those of resource governance. Indeed, resource-conserving, if well-designed and implemented, will lead to fairer treatment not just for the historically underprivileged but for victims of marketisation as well. This requires transparency and instruments like the right to information law. Of course, this is not going to be automatic or easy. The 1979 Poverty Line has endured, not only on account of the persistence of a few statisticians, but because governments resist attempts at creating new rights. For five decades the Ahmedabad textile workers got an old dearness allowance-linked wage because Gandhiji had worked out a truce between the Majdoor Mahajan led by Anusuya Sarabhai and the millowners led by her brother Ambalal Sarabhai. Nobody dared to disturb it.
Apart from courage, we will need to remember that social progress needs mutually conceived and engineered social goals. Reform has to be a social compact in a country which has by now almost a century-old history of political rebellion.
What we need, it seems, is to develop local strengths through milk cooperatives, self-help micro-finance agencies, producer associations and farmer-managed cooperatives along with efficient local governance. The Asian meltdown threw up many strategic reform models. India needs to study them. Who knows such fresh mobilisation could unleash strengths within us that we had not known earlier.
The writer is chairman, Institute of Rural Management, Anand firstname.lastname@example.org
THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS