Poverty test awaits CM
Calcutta, March 21: The controversial poverty data from the Planning Commission has a message for Mamata Banerjee: the Marxists have brought down the number of destitute in Bengal but much more needs to be done.
Latest data suggest that the number of poor has dipped by 7.5 percentage points in Bengal between 2004-05 and 2009-10, which covers the last five years of Left rule in the state.
Poverty in urban areas in Bengal came down from 24.4 per cent to 22 per cent while the decline in rural areas was steeper, from 38.2 per cent to 28.8 per cent. The overall decline was from 34.2 per cent to 26.7 per cent.
The data is drawn up on the basis of a disputed new measure suggested by the Tendulkar committee. But since the same yardstick has been used to measure all states, the numbers can be used to compare the performance of different states.
Here, the Bengal picture does not look too pretty.
If the decline in poverty in Bengal is compared with that in other eastern states like Tripura, Odisha and Sikkim and fast-growing ones like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the performance cannot be ranked among the best.
All the other states mentioned before have reduced poverty by 9.7 to 22.6 percentage points in five years, compared with Bengal's 7.5 points. (See chart)
However, if Bengal does not want to be compared with the high-performers, it can claim its achievement is not negligible. Some states like Assam and Meghalaya have reported a rise in poverty while Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have posted only a marginal decline in poverty.
The performance of the Mamata Banerjee government, whose Ma-Mati-Manushsignature tune makes it incumbent upon it to reduce poverty, will be known in June, though a year is too little time to bring about fundamental changes.
"As 2009-10 was a drought year, it was decided to get a special large sample survey for 2011-12, the results of which will be available in June. The next estimates will come after 2014-15," said Saumitra Chaudhuri, a member of the Planning Commission.
The latest estimates, based on a new poverty line, have stirred a debate on the effectiveness of the measure in capturing the actual number of people living below the poverty line, which the Left parties have described as a destitution line.
The Planning Commission's claim that the proportion of BPL persons — who can spend Rs 22.40 per day in rural areas and Rs 28.65 a day in urban areas — has gone down by 7 per cent between 2004-05 and 2009-10 has also come under attack.
"There is some degree of arbitrariness in all poverty lines but once it is defined, it helps as a yardstick," said S. Mahendra Dev, another Planning Commission member.
If Mamata has to bring about dramatic changes, textbooks of development economics prescribe a battle with two components — static, which aim at alleviating poverty through different programmes, and dynamic, which create enabling situations and help people come out of poverty.
"The dynamic element is at the centre of poverty alleviation as people cannot come out of poverty unless opportunities are created for them," said Chaudhuri.
From expanding the base of manufacturing activity to creating infrastructure and putting in place a marketing network for agricultural produce to providing easier access to irrigation, the government can undertake several steps to create the environment to help people find more opportunities.
The question is whether the state government can achieve these targets, given its stand on land acquisition and the condition of its coffers. The regular confrontation with the Centre may also come in the way of flow of funds to carry out poverty alleviation programmes.
"Look at Odisha, which has reduced poverty by over 20 percentage points. There the economy not only grew faster and helped in creating jobs, the government also performed better in terms of providing relief to the poor through the public distribution system and the national rural employment guarantee scheme," Dev said.
Data available with the Bengal panchayat and rural development department show that the average of 45 days of work per eligible household was the best that the Left could achieve in implementing the NREGA in the state. The performance of the Trinamul government has been even worse as the average was 25 days of work per household last month.
"The problem in Bengal is neither the Left nor the new government is willing to admit that there is some problem in agriculture. One cannot battle poverty unless the problems in agriculture are addressed," said a senior state government official.
Land reform was almost the first measure the Left implemented after assuming power in 1977. The bankruptcy of ideas – except for raising rural wages -- became evident since then even as rural poverty, according to old estimates, declined from 61 per cent in 1976-77 to 24 per cent in 2003-04.
If Mamata has to outperform the Left and the other states, she will have to build a fresh bank of ideas or find wiggle room within her stated positions.