TomJoad: Lies, damn lies, and counting the poor

In the wake of the Indian Planning Commission's dubious move to manufacture a 7 percentage point drop in the number of people living below the poverty line by changing its definition of poverty, Shivam Vij makes a convincing case for scrapping the exercise of counting the poor altogether.

"Counting the poor leads us to ask, what about the only -slightly-better-than-the-poor?" Vij writes for Kafila.org. "Counting the poor leads us to compare poverty numbers and give us relief. Ah, only 30% Indian poor now, as opposed to 50% in such and such decade, nice! Great job India! No, this is not what the poor deserve, whether they are 30% or 50%. Perhaps we should stop counting the poor."

There are, after all, many other handy ways to keep track.

"Here’s a better benchmark of poverty figures, if we really need them. The mobile phone is today a necessity and when you travel in rural India you realise only the very poor don’t have a mobile phone." So since the latest Census says that 37 percent of India's don't have access to this necessity, "you could say nearly 37% Indian households are poor, not 30%, as the Planning Commission would have us believe."

On the other hand, the same Census informs us that "53.1% households do not have a toilet – for the simple reason that it costs much more to build a toilet than to buy a mobile phone," Vij goes on to point out. "For those among them who can afford a phone, what use being thought of as non-poor?"

The reason for the counting, as I pointed out earlier, of course, is that the counting defines the spending -- especially on the upcoming food subsidy bill. But maybe we should think a little harder about what Vij is saying, anyway. After all, the brilliance of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was that it allowed the poor to self-select: Nobody who didn't need the work would turn up for 100 days of manual labor.

Perhaps there's a way to make other subsidies work the same way.