SECC census: The curious case of the vanishing poor

Left in the lurch Kamal Babu’s (60) BPL card—who lives in a cramped one-room jhuggi along with five other members in South Delhi’s JJ Camp Tigri slums—was cancelled in 2010, Photo: Vijay Pandey

A decade ago when her husband died, Uddi Gujjar (45) mourned for months and struggled to get her life back on track in Tikel Purohitaan village of Rajasthan’s Jaipur district. The widow worked as a manual labourer to raise her two sons Hanuman (17) and Prithviraj (15). The family survived on 25 kilograms of rice every month for Rs 2 in addition to wheat and kerosene on cheap rates that was provided by a ration shop against Uddi’s Below Poverty Line (BPL) status. However, the risk of being left out of the BPL list in the ongoing country-wide Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) makes her fearful of an uncertain future, now that the census threatens to deprive her of the status.

“I have worked with my hands all my life. If they take away my BPL card what’ll happen to my children who’re still studying?” asks Uddi, who may lose the ‘priority household’ status owing to ‘deprivation indicators’ on which the SECC score is based.

The widow owns a bigha of un-irrigated land and has assigned another to her two sons. Uddi’s spending sleepless nights worrying over her name being struck off the BPL list since her house may not be considered kuccha as per the SECC census since the roof has a cement mantle, and her BPL status may be determined in the new SECC survey in which she might score 0 or 1 depending on how her house is classified by the census investigators.

Uddi is one of the many thousands across India who may now fall under an unusual criteria fixed by the Planning Commission to count the number of people falling under the new poverty line. In this bizarre exercise that started in June 2011, the results are already known to the Union Government following the Planning Commission’s recognition of the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report that fixed the proportion of BPL persons at 37.2% of India’s population, with respective state-wise caps. The report is based on the consumer expenditure survey of 2004-05 conducted by the National Sample Survey.

Likewise, the percentage of urban and rural poor in each state and union territory was also calculated. Thus even before the BPL census began, the number of poor was already known. All this implies that within a fixed quota mentioned by the Planning Commission, the states must select BPL families among their urban or rural poor even if it means carting thousands off the BPL status. The Planning Commission estimate puts the number of BPL families at 62.5 million, while state governments put this number to a 107 million. States such as Andhra Pradesh, which categorised almost 80% of its people as poor, has been disagreeing with the cap of 29.9% on it. Similarly Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who asserts a large number of people in his state are poor, is finding the cap unfair. In its own survey, the Bihar government has found out over 1 crore BPL persons, while the Tendulkar Committee Report has put the number at only 65 lakh.

Anurag Chand (21), a differently-abled young man from Alawalpur in Patna district in Bihar, is one of those 35 lakh poor people who fear exclusion from the BPL list. Chand, who is pursuing a graduate course in science, lives with his three siblings (all students) and parents. His father teaches mathematics to make both ends meet in a two-room house with one pucca room. The family owns a bicycle and a wheelchair. What makes him a fit case for exclusion is the score (1) SECC surveyors may give his family.

“Those achieving highest points will be included first, followed by the next high scorers. Since our score is only 1, the quota will be full and we’ll be left out,” he says, adding “the survey is being carried out with a ‘pre-fixed mind which is doing no good for poor people like us.”

The method adopted for this census includes ‘automatic inclusion’ of poor, ‘automatic exclusion’ of non-poor and a scoring mechanism for the remaining households. In the automatic exclusion criteria families that are not surveyed for BPL status include those who own double the land of the district average of agricultural land per agricultural household, three or four wheelers, one mechanised farm equipment such as tractor, harvester etc, pay income tax, own refrigerator or landline phones and where at least one person draws a salary of Rs 10,000 or more per month on a regular basis with pension or equivalent benefits. The automatic inclusion includes destitute families, primitive tribal groups, ‘Maha Dalits’, lone women and their dependants, families in which disabled persons are bread winners, households headed by minors, homeless households and households in which any member is a bonded labourer.

In the methodology, there is a scoring mechanism for the remaining households that are ranked on the basis of Caste (SC/ST= 3 points, denotified tribes and designated most backward castes= 2 points, Muslim & OBC= 1 point) occupation (landless agricultural worker=4 points, agricultural labourer (with some land) = 3 points, casual workers = 2 points, self-employed artisans, fisherfolks= 2 points), no adult (above 30 years of age) who has studied up to Class V in the household= 1 point, any member of the household who has TB, leprosy, disability, mental illness or HIV AIDS= 1 point, and households headed by an old person of age 60 and above=1 point. The households getting highest points are included first, followed by the next top score and so on till one reaches the quota given to that state.

Hand to mouth Bholanath Jena fears that he’ll lose his BPL status for owning a landline that was given to him years ago under a BPL scheme
Photo: Vijay Pandey

In Odisha where the BPL survey is being conducted after 13 years (the state government is using the 1997 BPL list), the Tendulkar Committee suggested a cap of 60.8% for BPL in the state accepted by the Central government too, while so far the state was using the NC Saxena Committee report that estimated 84.5% of Odisha’s rural households as BPL.

“The methodology has been designed in such a manner that many BPL families like mine would be left out,” says Bholanath Jena (45) of Thalakusuma village in Orrisa’s Jagat Singhpur district. Jena who falls in the OBC category runs a small grocery shop and owns a two-room kuccha house, an acre of land and a landline phone given in a scheme meant for BPL families, a long time ago. Apart from Rs 200 as disability fund, Jena’s monthly income is around Rs 1000. Jena, whose legs are polio-affected and walks with hand and knee support, says, “I’ll get only 1 point for being disabled and owning a landline will make sure that I am left out of the list. Less points and reduced quota will leave me nowhere.”

Jena’s anxiety mirrors that of several families in Maharashtra’s Thane who were barred to have a BPL card because they had a landline phone under a promotional scheme of some company despite meeting other deprivation indicators such as living in a one-room home with kuchha walls and roofs, not having any literate dweller over 25 years and being landless and involved in casual labour.

Jena’s arguments are backed by an independent pilot study on the entire process of the BPL survey and methodology by Society for Promoting Rural Education and Development (SPREAD). Rajkishore Mishra, who conducted the study, tested two villages (Nuaput and Patraput) of Nandapur block in Odisha’s Koraput district. “The findings are eye opening and confirm our fear of exclusion of extreme poor families from BPL protection,” he confirms.

There are 17 households in Nuaput village, out of which 15 fall under the Scheduled Tribe (ST). In the village of Patraput there are 29 families, out of which five are ST and the rest are from the other backward class group. In both villages, not a single family will be automatically included as the automatic inclusion criteria, according to the study, is “illogical and bare minimum”.

As per the Nuaput survey, eight families scored 1, four families scored 2, three families scored 3 and two families scored 4. If the cut-off score is 3, only five families will come under BPL category (30%) and if the cut off score is 4, only two families will come under BPL category (11%). Similarly, in Patraput village, four families scored 0, 11 families scored 1, six families scored 2, five families scored 3 and two families scored 4. If the cut-off score is 3, seven families (24%) will fall under the BPL and if the cut-off score is 4, two families (6%) will be under BPL.

“One can easily notice the poverty in both villages; the malnourished children with potbellies and the anaemic women. The average income of villagers is a mere Rs 12,000 to 15,000 a year. I have doubt whether India is still a welfare country. There is a need to oppose the survey and condemn the government’s strategy of decreasing the number of BPL families by relying on faulty statistics, thereby reducing expenditure on the poor,” Mishra says.

Tehelka spoke to Planning Commission member Dr Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, who conceded that there are problems in SECC and the Tendulkar Report. However, she said, “No matter what system you’ll put in place, people are going to be left out.” Talking about the huge gap in the estimates of BPL families by the Planning Commission and the state governments Saiyidan said, “Government of India can’t accept the poverty estimation of states. They can inflate the number of poor. However, the gap over the number of BPL families as estimated by Planning Commission and various states can be reduced case by case.”

In Delhi too, the government didn’t issue any ration card for the year 2010 since it hit its cap. This notwithstanding the fact that a government survey in 2008 showed that almost 55 % of Delhi’s legitimate BPL population currently had no cards. To make matters worse, sometimes BPL cards are arbitrarily cancelled. In a written answer to Lok Sabha on August 23, 2011 Consumer Affairs Minister K.V Thomas stated that the Delhi government has stopped ration supplies of specified food articles to 50,534 BPL and Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) card holders who did not turn up for biometric identification and review in 2010. These cards were cancelled despite the fact that applying for Unique Identification (UID) or Adhaar cards is not compulsory for seeking benefits.

The government’s refusal to issue new cards to deserving beneficiaries also causes the poor much hardship. A close look at individual cases shows how often the most vulnerable are at the receiving end of this “inflexible system”. For instance, the BPL card (33090151) of Kamal Babu (60)—who lives in a cramped one-room jhuggi along with five other members in South Delhi’s JJ Camp Tigri slums—was cancelled in 2010. Babu—a tailor by profession, had to wait for almost a year to get his UID card made.

Now flashing his cancelled card to this Tehelka scribe, he says, “My UID card came in September this year. But the decision to cancel my BPL card was never withdrawn. Officials give no reasons over why my BPL card remains cancelled.”

To cite another example, in 2010, Dablu, a manual labourer of Ejamad in Latehar district of Jharkhand, ruptured his backbone after fall at a construction site. The incident left him, the only bread winner in a family of four, bed-ridden. Dablu received a BPL card after a 18-month long wait. Interestingly, the BPL card came after a villager died, leaving a vacancy in the BPL list.

While the system is already fraught with many problems, the caps have added to the agony. The Planning Commission has been for long maintaining that the caps ensure that the states, to seek more funds from the Centre, don’t inflate the number of their poor. However, the picture on the ground is quite different with the poor being counted and fearing that they will be left high and dry once the states hit their quota.

Noted economist and former National Advisory Council member Jean Dreze feels the government doesn’t really know how it is going to identify poor households from the SECC data. “According to the SECC guidelines, it will be used to produce a ranking of households, and then state-wise cut-offs will be applied to these rankings in such a manner that the number of poor households matches the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates. However, this method was effectively abandoned in the joint PC/MoRD statement of 3 October 2011, following the public uproar about the Planning Commission’s affidavit to the Supreme Court. The same statement suggests that an alternative method to identify poor households from SECC data will be worked out by an ‘expert committee’,” says Dreze. “This morass of confusion strengthens the case for giving up this entire approach. Wherever possible, universal coverage (as with mid-day meals) or self-targeting (as with NREGA, or health services) would be better,” he adds.

Another alternative, Dreze suggests, is to target the rich instead of targeting the poor — apply well-defined ‘exclusion criteria’ and include everyone else. “Targeting the poor leads to massive exclusion errors and is very divisive—subsidies and services restricted to poor households tend not to work very well. Recent experience is fairly conclusive in this regard.”

While the proposed National Food Security Bill has been tabled in the Parliament and Union Ministry of Rural Development and the Planning Commission have already announced consultation with states, till experts and civil society organisations reach a consensus on the methodology by the time the SECC is completed, the deprived like Uddi or Jena can only hope to be included in the census’ list of select beneficiaries.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.

Editing by Debashree Majumdar


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