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Poverty Census: Relevance and Futility

Sunday July 10, 2011 08:47:26 AM, Shahidur Rashid Talukdar

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The Indian government’s nod to carry out the below poverty line (BPL) census and enumeration of castes for determining the socio-economic backwardness of different sections, castes and religious groups in India is redoubtable. However, the timing of the census and preparedness of various stakeholder-agencies regarding the methodology for data collection and analysis of the enumeration puts both the relevance and efficacy of the whole exercise in question.


A critical look at the situation reveals that the whole census-exercise, in the first place, could have been avoided and unless certain pertinent considerations are made the entire effort could turn out futile.


Recently, I came across the news that ‘nationwide census to identify Indians living below poverty line and the caste census begins with Tripura’. The census questionnaire reportedly has seven questions for determining the socio-economic backwardness of a household. It investigates whether a household has 1) a house with one room with kutcha (not concrete) walls and roof, 2) no adult member between age 16 to 59, 3) a female headed family with no adult male member between age 16 to 59,  4) disabled member(s) and no able bodied member, 5) membership to SC/ST, 6) no literate adult above 25 years,  and/or 7) a landless household deriving the major part of income from manual casual labor. Started in June, this mammoth exercise, covering both rural and urban India, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.


My instant reflex to the news was: What? Didn’t we just finish the titanic task of completing the Census 2011? Perhaps the ink hasn’t yet dried from the Census 2011 questionnaires and now another country-wide census! Why are we going to carry out a second census in the same year? Is it required to carry out an extra round of census solely to reveal the socio-economic backwardness of the populace? Shouldn’t this have been covered in the Census 2011, which was a comprehensive exercise covering the entire nation and all the strata of the Indian society?


The Census 2011, carried out at the staggering cost of Rupees 2,200 crore (approximately $490 million), covered 7,936 towns and over 6,41,000 villages from 35 states and union territories, recorded a whole range of information including personal, religious, educational and occupational status – with more than 60 items in total. Naturally, therefore, the question arises: Why weren’t the seven questions specified for determining the poverty and caste status - to be covered in the new census, also asked in the same questionnaire?


In this case, this whole census-affair could have been avoided and the state exchequer could have been richer by another 2,000 crore rupees! Which option seems better: including a few more questions in the census schedule or conducting another census by knocking at over 20 crore (200 million) households, wasting an exorbitant amount of money, and taking another 6 months to one year?


Regarding the efficacy of the census, serious questions have been raised. The first set of questions pertains to the BPL criteria. Although the census is expected to provide the much needed criterion for considering a household below the poverty line – based on which various affirmative actions would follow, owing to the limitations in defining the appropriate level of poverty, the exercise may not be able to offer much relief.


Who will be considered poor enough to be included in the BPL category? If the authorities consider the Planning Commission’s criterion for poverty (a per capita urban spending of Rs 578 (~$13) or a rural expenditure of Rs. 450 (~$10) a month), then most beggars will find it difficult to enter the country’s list of poor people. The comparative ranking method based on the seven-point questionnaire does not solve the riddle either. If one fails to meet one or more of the seven-point criteria, then the person may not be considered poor enough. It has been rightly observed that even a destitute may not qualify as poor, following this criteria.


Based on these criteria, although the beggars-on-the-street might be able to get into the list of BPL, however, majority of the country’s poor may still remain outside the extremely conservative BPL list. That’s why a prominent parliamentarian Ms Brinda Karat has rightly labeled the census as ‘an exercise in undercounting the poor’. Thus, there must be some modification of the criteria for determining the BPL category so that people living below a relatively decent standard of life can be included in the BPL category.


The second set of questions probe into the criteria for determining the social backwardness. Since this is the first ever caste census being carried out after the independence, the caste being a major determinant of social status, this census is likely to have significant impact on the lives of those belonging to the backward castes/classes. However, much of the effectiveness of the census depends on the authorities’ ability to recognize what constitutes backwardness. Do the criteria for determining backwardness succeed in identifying the actually deprived and marginalized? Because of the faulty definitions of socio-economic backwardness based on predefined caste and religion, a huge portion of the marginalized section may end up remaining outside the backwardness bracket.


The three standard categories that designate social backwardness are: Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). The constitutionally defined criterion for the SCs does not allow Muslims and Christians, who constitute about 20% of the population, to be in this category. Further, Muslims are excluded from the STs as well. Only about 39% of the Muslims belong to the OBC category. Consequently, about 60% of Muslims are considered socio-economically better off, as opposed to only 26% of Hindus.


The truth, however, is different. The Sachar Committee report (2006) finds that as of 2004 – 05, Muslims recorded the second highest incidence of poverty with 31 per cent people below the poverty-line while the Hindu-General is the least poor category with only 8.7 per cent living below the line and the OBCs hold the intermediary level of 21 per cent living below the poverty line. Their social backwardness is evident from the Muslims’ low attainment in education, abysmal representation in politics, and an overall vulnerable condition. A foremost reason for Muslim community’s underdevelopment has been cited as inadequate affirmative action favoring the community.


This shows that estimations based on predefined criteria leads to miscalculation of actual socio-economic backwardness. If affirmative actions are implemented based on such unrepresentative criteria, as they have been so far, it will lead to further deprivation in the Muslim community which is already touching the trough of the Indian society. Hence, there needs to be some modifications to ensure further inclusion of Muslims into the SCs, STs and OBCs. Similar arguments may also hold for Christians and other excluded minorities.


So at its present format, without the necessary modifications in the definitions of “who is a poor” and “who can be considered as socio-economically backward,” the census does not promise much in terms of effectiveness to determine the socioeconomic backwardness of the people. Hence it calls for immediate attention of the authorities towards the aforesaid modifications. Further, if the census authorities keep in mind the timing, then, in future, this entire census can be included in the regular census, i.e., Census 2021 and all subsequent censuses and thus the extra-effort, excess-cost and time-lost in the double-enumeration can be avoided.



The writer is a PhD student in Economics at Texas Tech University, USA.

He blogs at









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