The current debate over poverty, if Rs.32 a day is enough for a person, is misdirected and the government should answer why the numbers of poor in the country are on the rise, says National Advisory Council member NC Saxena.
"The government's estimate for poverty in 1972-73 was benchmarked at Rs.1.50 per day. It translates into Rs.32 per day today. There is nothing new with this estimate," said the retired bureaucrat, known for speaking his mind, even in front of prime ministers.
"The government should instead be concerned that poverty has increased in India. The number of people below poverty line has gone up from 32 crore (320 million) in 1947 to 40 crore (400 mn) now," Saxena, whose council is chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, said.
He said there were serious anomalies in the public distribution system -- under which the poor who hold what is called "below poverty line cards" are entitled to subsidised grain. "This needs to be addressed."
His comments follow an uproar after the Planning Commission told the Supreme Court last week that a person spending over Rs.965 per month in urban India and Rs.781 in rural areas cannot be deemed as poor and should be denied access to welfare schemes.
Saxena -- who has published many critical papers on poverty and tribal welfare -- said 60 percent of the people with cards for getting state doles were actually above poverty line and 20 percent of the genuine poor in the country did not have such a card.
"Many tribals and people living on the margins were left out in the last poverty survey. They are not getting the benefit of the public distribution system and other such social security schemes. The government should look into this," he said.
"Vietnam, Myanmar and Bhutan have reduced poverty. But we have failed to do so despite much effort," he said, adding as much as Rs.80,000 crore (USD 17.5 billion) is spent every year on various welfare schemes in India.
According to Saxena, who has also been a member-secretary of the Planning Commission, if the 2002 Census for ascertaining people below poverty had a 60 percent margin of error, the current round could have up to 80 percent error, as it is linked to caste.
"People are likely to furnish incorrect answers if they know the survey will determine their poverty status," said Saxena, who had suggested a methodology to ascertain poverty numbers, followed by a letter now to Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.
India currently has at least three estimates of poverty.
Economist Arjun Sengupta said 70 percent Indians were living on less than Rs.20 a day, and Saxena's own report pegged it at over 50 percent of the population. A third study, by economist Suresh Tendulkar, pegged poverty in India at 37.5 percent.
Correct estimates are important to ensure welfare schemes reach the needy alone.