Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Critique on the Process of Identification of Poor Under the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011

Shantanu De Roy



Introduction

The data of Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC 2011) was partially published by the Union Rural Development Ministry on July 3, 2015. The Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India had initiated the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 in June 2011 for both rural and urban areas. Information on large number of social and economic indicators was collected from households across the country. The three stated objectives of SECC 2011 were following:
·  Ranking of households according to their socio-economic status thereby enabling state governments to prepare a list of families living below the poverty line.
·    Caste wise population enumeration of the country.
·   Ascertaining socio-economic condition and education status of various castes and sections of the population.

A total of 17.91 crore households were surveyed in rural India. Data released from SECC 2011 shows dismal economic condition of rural economy in India. Substantial sections of population in rural areas are leading a life of acute distress, misery and economic insecurity. Almost 56 per cent of households in Indian villages are landless, in that they did not own agricultural land; about 51.14 per cent of households received major portion of income from manual casual labour; 44.52 per cent of households lived in Kuccha houses; only 5.4 per cent of population has passed higher secondary level of education (10+2) and 3.5 per cent of population are graduates; only 9.68 per cent of households were employed in salaried jobs and members of almost three fourth of total number of households (74.49 per cent) has a monthly income of less than Rs 5000.[1] These figures have shown not only acute destitution in Indian villages but have also exposed the hollowness of claims of policy makers in India regarding improvement in living standards through higher growth rates that the Indian economy had witnessed in recent past.

Usefulness of the survey

While SECC 2011 data has produced some glaring evidence of deprivation and distress in rural India, the issue now is whether the data is authentic to meet its stated objectives. Saxena (2015) had argued that SECC 2011 has under-estimated the number of poorest of the households in rural areas. He has argued that the estimation of poorest of the poor does not tally with other government sources of data. He mentioned that 20 million households, who should have been included in the list of below poverty line families, were excluded due to deprivations being narrowly defined. On the other hand, he had argued that over-reporting on the number of rich households whose number was reported as 70.5 million. These are all valid reasons to question the authenticity of SECC 2011 data, particularly on the question of identification of poor families, these are no means the only one.

The survey for SECC 2011 was done between June 30, 2011 and December 31, 2011. In other words, the data, when it was published was more than 3 years old. Meanwhile, the numbers under different socio-economic indicators is bound to change. Thus, by the time the government starts making a ranking of socio-economic status of households and prepares a list of families living below poverty line on the basis of data collected in 2011, more families can become worse/better off in terms of their access over resources. However, due to lack of updated data, these families will automatically be excluded from the list of families who are living below poverty line. In other words, identification of ‘poor’ in urban as well as in rural India will be defeated. Thus, exclusion of large number of potential beneficiaries from government schemes is a realistic possibility if at all the state governments in India prepares a list of below poverty line families in 2015 or later on the basis of SECC 2011 data. This essentially implies that an important stated objective of the SECC 2011 will be defeated. By the same logic, the third objective of collecting (reliable) information on socio-economic condition and education status of various caste groups will be defeated since the figures across socio-economic indicators will change with time. A way to tackle these problems is to undertake SECC surveys after regular intervals; say for instance after every 5 years or may be lesser than that. However, is the government willing or serious in collecting and updating the existing data so that actual beneficiaries are not excluded from government schemes that are specifically meant for the poor people in this country? As of now, we have not heard anything from the government on conducting SECC surveys at regular intervals.

Is correct identification of poor families possible?

In SECC 2011, rural local bodies, Panchayati Raj Institutions, were involved in the following ways,

v During the process of collecting information in villages, “enumerators can be accompanied by members of Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha and other citizens to ensure that data collection is done in a fair and transparent manner”…
v    Data thus collected will be made public. It has been mentioned that, “all data will be read out in the Gram Sabha and Panchayat following the draft publication list being printed. Additionally, at Gram Sabha meetings, the names and responses of each household will be read out and all objections raised will be taken care of.[2]

Panchayati Raj Institutions can play a crucial in identifying correctly the beneficiaries of government schemes. In other words, the actual beneficiaries of government schemes in a village can be identified by a democratically elected Panchayat. Issues like identifying socio-economic status of households in a village, identification of households in the village who need pucca houses, identification of households in need of clean drinking water facilities, identifying households who need toilets and so on can be properly done by well functioning and democratic Panchayati Raj Institutions. The overall need of a village can be decided by the villagers themselves through their participation in Gram Sabhas. However, SECC 2011 undermines this important role of Panchayats and Gram Sabhas.

Kerala has one of the best functioning democratically elected system of Panchayat Raj Institutions in India. In a study on Decentralized Planning Experience in Kerala by the Planning Commission of India, the following were noted,[3]

(a)   About 66 per cent of beneficiaries of various projects had been demanded through Gram Sabhas.
(b)  According to about 82 per cent of beneficiaries, projects were taken up based on their demands raised in Gram Sabhas. 
(c)  Approved projects by and large originated from the needs articulated by villagers in Gram Sabhas.

Thus, under Decentralized Planning Experience in Kerala, Gram Panchayats through regular meetings in Gram Sabhas can identify potential beneficiaries in the village. This arrangement also ensures transparency and accountability in the process of identification of beneficiaries.

The role of local self-governments in rural areas, Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas under SECC 2011, will be limited to accompaniment of Gram Panchayat representatives with enumerators in the surveys and reading out responses of households in Gram Sabhas and incorporate objections raised therein. Beneficiaries under SECC 2011 will be determined on the basis of indicators decided by Union Government without taking into account specificities and unique characteristics of village economies, demands and wants of villagers. Thus, under SECC 2011, ordinary villagers will have no role in articulating their demands through Gram Sabhas. It would lead to undermining of a de-centralized form of governance with centralization which is antithetical to the federal polity of India.

It can be argued that Panchayati Raj Institutions also suffer from improper functioning. A study conducted in selected districts of Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh noted certain problems in the functioning of Gram Panchayats. These include lack of initiatives in implementing development programmes on the part of Gram Panchayat leadership, arbitrary and undemocratic functioning on the part of the Panchayat Pradhan/Mukhia, lack of participation of ordinary villagers in Gram Sabha meetings resulting in non-assessment of the needs of villagers, dominance of landed and richer sections of the population in the decision making process in Gram Panchayats, thereby manipulating proceedings according to the needs of the minority and cornering disproportionately greater benefits and exclusion of deprived sections of population like Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Muslims and Women from the proceedings of Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas are some of the glaring problems in the functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions in India.[4] All of these, in effect mean that vast majority of the population will be excluded from the benefits of government schemes and government sponsored projects.

The way out of this is to improve the functioning of Panchayats through greater participation of people, ordinary villagers, in the decision making process. More participation of ordinary villagers in the decision making process of Gram Panchayats can only be ensured through continuous empowerment of people. A prerequisite for this is to break monopoly of power enjoyed by landed sections and rural rich who also belong to dominant castes in rural areas. Agrarian reform is an effective way to tackle and break the concentration of power enjoyed by these sections. It is only through constant empowerment of people that will ensure that the deprived and marginalized sections of the population, SCs, STs, Muslims and women receive benefits of government schemes and projects. It can also lead to effective monitoring of schemes. Decentralized Planning Exercise in Kerala can be a model to emulate in this respect.

Any kind of bureaucratic ‘top down’ approach which is, in this context, a statistical exercise is a short-cut approach and a poor substitute in identifying the really poor and needy in rural areas. In other words, if the Union and State Governments in India are serious in identifying potential beneficiaries of government schemes through a list of families living below the poverty line in rural areas then it should try to empower people through agrarian reforms and a democratically elected Panchayat system with adequate representations from marginalized and deprived sections that constitute the majority in India. In such a context, the importance and usefulness of a survey like SECC 2011, in terms of identification of beneficiaries, will increase manifold. Otherwise, no matter how sound the method of this survey is, bureaucratic top down approaches will only add to the long list of failures in terms of identifying poor families/households and thereby will lead to potential exclusion of a substantial section of marginalized population.

Should incomes be used as a criterion for automatic exclusion of households?

SECC 2011 did not collect data on household incomes from respondents. Respondents were asked, (a) main source of household income and (b) monthly income of the highest earning household member. In other words, income earnings from different occupations were not derived in the SECC data. This raises serious doubts about the accuracy of these data. Questions regarding accuracy and reliability of SECC 2011 data on incomes can be raised on the following grounds:

(i)        SECC 2011 data shows that members of only 9.7 per cent of households were employed in salaried jobs. Assuming that incomes of all these households are stable and indexed with the cost of living; there are more than 90 per cent of households whose incomes are not indexed and suffer from fluctuations due to the impact of larger macroeconomic forces. According to SECC 2011, a household can be excluded automatically from government schemes, if any member of a household earns more than Rs 10,000 per month even if other parameters of inclusion are met.[5] However, an economy characterised by the overwhelming presence of an unorganised and informal sector with no security regarding tenure of jobs, absence of social security enhancing measures and stability in income, data on income can lead to erroneous conclusions especially if it is used to target beneficiaries of government schemes. In other words, income of the highest earning member of a household, declared in 2015 can be lower than 2011, and hence the concerned household cannot be automatically excluded in 2015, even if incomes declared in 2011 and 2015 are assumed to be true. However, this may not happen if exclusion is done on the basis of 2011 data.  

(ii)    Income is a derived variable. Moreover, income is a flow variable and has to be estimated for a uniformly specified period, unlike assets which are stock variables and valued at a certain point of time. According to Rawal (2008), ‘A large number of rural households are self-employed, particularly in crop production but also in a variety of non-agricultural occupations. Accounting for these activities is very complex particularly because a substantial part of the produce is not marketed and a large part of the inputs used in the process of production are also not purchased from the market. For some of these products and inputs, in fact, either no markets or only very thin markets exist. Most rural households are unable to directly report their incomes. As a result, in the context of rural households, it is necessary that income be treated as a derived variable. That is, one cannot directly ask the households what their income over the specified reference period was. Income has to be derived on the basis of a detailed accounting of output and costs in the economic activities that the household was engaged in. To achieve this, detailed data have to be collected on input use and production particularly in activities like crop production and animal husbandry.’[6] It can be argued that in a survey as large as the SECC, it is impossible to estimate incomes of different occupations and thereby determine the main source of income as well as household incomes. In view of these limitations, if income of the highest earning member of a household (>Rs 10000) is used as one of the criteria for automatic exclusion of households from government schemes, then it will lead to incorrect exclusion of households on the basis of declared income at a certain point of time even if the concerned household did not possess other assets used as criterion for exclusion.[7]    

Conclusions

SECC 2011 data has shown existence of extreme misery and distress in rural India. However, the data will have limited applicability in meeting its objectives if data of SECC 2011 is not updated continuously. In other words, listing of families below the poverty line in 2015 or later based on data collected in 2011 will lead to large scale exclusion of households who are genuinely poor and needy.

Also, a correct listing of households below poverty line can be done only by incorporating the Panchayati Raj Institutions that are not only democratically elected but also has sizeable representation of marginalized and deprived sections of the population. It is only through constant empowerment of people in rural areas that that will ensure correct identification of poor people and beneficiaries of government schemes. Any bureaucratic top down approach, no matter how meticulously it is planned and implemented will only lead to failure.  

Household income has not been computed in SECC 2011; data on incomes of highest earning members were collected on the basis of their declaration at a particular point of time. Income based criterion can potentially lead to exclusion of households from government schemes if identification of households in 2015 is done on the basis of data collected in 2011. This is because incomes of almost 90 per cent of workforce in India are subject to fluctuations and hence can decline with time. Moreover, income is a derived variable and has to be estimated. In view of these limitations, income should not be as a criterion in SECC 2011 for excluding households from government schemes. 

Reference:
Drishtee Foundation (2007): ‘Report on Understanding Capacity of Gram-Panchayats in the BRGF Districts of Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh’, available at http://www.panchayat.gov.in/documents/10198/370581/Drishtee.pdf

Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India (2011): ‘Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 in Rural India’, available at http://rural.nic.in/sites/downloads/BPL_Census/Guidelines%20and%20Correspondence/Caste%20Census%20book%2017-11-2011.pdf

Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India (2011): ‘Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, available at http://www.secc.gov.in/reportlistContent

Planning Commission of India (__): ‘Decentralized Planning Exercise in Kerala’, available at http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peoevalu/peo_kerla.pdf

Rawal, V (2008): ‘Estimation of Rural Household Incomes in India: Selected Methodological Issues’, Draft Paper presented at the Conference on Studying Village Economies in India: A Colloquium on Methodology, December 21 to 24, 2008, Chalsa, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, available at http://www.agrarianstudies.org/UserFiles/File/S5_Rawal_Estimation_of_Rural_Household_Incomes_in_India.pdf

Saxena, N. C. (2015): ‘Socio Economic Caste Census: Has it Ignored Too Many Poor Households?’, Economic and Political Weekly, 50(30), July 25, pp. 14-17.




[1] See SECC 2011 available at http://www.secc.gov.in/reportlistContent
[2]See the SECC 2011 booklet available at
[3] See for instance, Planning Commission study on Decentralized Planning Experience in Kerala available at http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peoevalu/peo_kerla.pdf for a detailed discussion.
[4] See the Report on Understanding Capacity of Gram-Panchayats in the BRGF Districts of Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh available at http://www.panchayat.gov.in/documents/10198/370581/Drishtee.pdf.
[5] See the SECC 2011 booklet for a detailed discussion. 
 [7] See Socio-Economic Caste Census booklet. 



Dr. Shantanu De Roy is an Assistant Professor of Economics. He is with the St. Stephen’s Collge, Delhi.

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