Sunday, August 16, 2015

SECC Shows Shocking Picture of Poverty in Rural India


Partial findings of the Socio-Economic & Caste Census (SECC) conducted by the government of India during 2011-12 were released in July this year by the Modi government. The urban component and the caste component has not been released yet – only the rural data is available. There has been much confusion about the data because it seems to be contradictory. ‘Deprivation’ (a euphemism for poverty) appears to be lower than what other disaggregated data on income of employment shows. The SECC was the biggest ever exercise of its kind, equivalent to the Census because it covered the whole population. But it went where Census has hitherto not gone: incomes, more details of employment, and so on. And its results are revealing.

The SECC was carried out from June 2011, after the enumeration work for the main Census was finished. The objectives of the SECC were: to “rank” households on the basis of their socio-economic status; to do a caste-wise enumeration; and to make available information about the socio economic condition and education status of “various castes and sections of the population”.

Why was it necessary to “rank” households? Because the policy imperatives of the government drove it towards targeting its welfare schemes rather than universalizing them, and for targeting, you need to identify ever lower sections in the economic ladder, who would receive the benefits. The earlier estimates of poverty had become embroiled in a shameful controversy since the 1990’s with the Planning Commission pushing the poverty line lower and lower while the rural development ministry’s Below Poverty Line (BPL) survey (organized with State governments) came up with substantially higher results. So, there was a general opinion that there must be an authentication of numbers.

The caste angle got involved in it because another weighty issue hanging over successive governments had been of the Other Backward Castes reservation in government jobs and educational institutions, currently pegged at 27%. No caste census had been done since 1931 and it was reasonably estimated that OBCs would constitute a much larger proportion than currently thought. So, it was necessary to settle the matter once and for all. Once the data on socio-economic conditions was available caste wise, the vexed issue of who was economically advanced enough to get the benefit of reservation could also be addressed.

A Flawed Way of Identifying Deprivation

The SECC had a complicated methodology that needs to be understood before the results are studied. Various criteria were deployed to include, exclude or assess the households. These are:

1. The Exclusion Criteria: If a household fulfills any one of the following conditions it will automatically be considered not deprived: i. Owns motorized 2/3/4 wheeler/fishing boat; ii. Owns mechanized 3-4 wheeler agricultural equipment; iii. Have Kisan credit card with credit limit of over Rs. 50,000; iv. Household member government employee; v. Run a non-agricultural enterprise registered with government; vi. Any member of household earning more than Rs. 10,000 per month; vii. Paying income tax; viii. Paying professional tax; ix. Owns 3 or more rooms with pucca walls and roof; x. Owns refrigerator; xi. Owns landline phone; xii. Owns more than 2.5 acres of irrigated land with 1 irrigation equipment; xiii. Owns 5 acres or more of irrigated land for two or more crop season; xiv. Owns at least 7.5 acres of land or more with at least one irrigation equipment.

2. The Inclusion Criteria #1: After you remove all the households falling in the above ‘Exclusion’ category, from the remaining ones, some will get automatically counted as deprived. These are the ones that fulfill any one of the following five parameters: 1. Households without shelter; 2. Destitute, living on alms; 3. Manual scavenger families; 4. Primitive tribal groups; and 5. legally released bonded labour.

3. The Inclusion criteria #2: Of the now remaining households, any household that meets any one of the following seven criteria will be considered deprived: 1. Households with one or less room, kuccha walls and roof; 2. No adult member in household between age 18 and 59 years age; 3. Female headed household with no adult male member between 16 and 59 years age; 4. Households with differently abled member with no other able bodied adult member; 5. SC/ST Households; 6. Households with no literate adult above age 25 years; 7. Landless households deriving a major part of their income from manual labour.

The lacunae in this maze of exclusion-inclusion parameters are obvious. Are all SC/ST households deprived? No, because first you will apply the 14 exclusion criteria and those fulfilling any one of them will get excluded. If a tribal household got a two room pucca house made with help from some NGO or govt. scheme, they get booted out of the deprived category. If an SC household got a Kisan credit card or a fisherfolk family took a loan and got itself a motorized boat (to compete with mechanized trawlers) then they are out.

It doesn’t matter what your present income is or how many people are doing what kind of work. Ownership of certain ‘assets’ will disqualify you. As we shall see shortly, these exclusionary conditions blow up in the face of data collected by the SECC itself.

The SECC enumeration continued for two years mainly because of another methodological feature which distinguished it from the Census. Information on socio-economic condition for each village was publicly displayed and people had the right to file objections or changes. Only after this was it finalized. For the urban areas, this process has yet to be completed and so, urban data has not been released.

Ironically, the caste part of the SECC data has also not been released by the government. It appears that this part of the exercise has collected names of various castes as reported by surveyed households but as everybody knows, caste names vary from region to region. If any beginning is to be made at enumerating and categorizing OBCs, a harmonizing exercise will have to be done throughout the country. That’s a tall order and the ORGI, which was charged with this part of the task, is reportedly baulking at the idea. So, the caste data is stuck, along with the urban data.

So, why did the govt. release the rural data only? Remember the rationale for poverty or deprivation counting? It was so that welfare schemes could be targeted better. Now, the Modi govt. has conjured up a whole fairy tale kingdom of ‘Jandhan Yojana’ and Aadhar linking, and cash transfers and ‘Digital India’ and other trickery. Time is passing fast and they need to start delivering on something. The Food Security Act is in abeyance, the loans promised to zero balance account holders are not disbursed. On the other hand, their compulsion to drive down govt. spending by cutting down welfare expenditure is meeting with resistance. So, there was need to get the SECC data out quickly and then base their schemes on it. That is why, strangely, it was finance minister Arun Jaitely who released the data with the rural development minister sitting quietly on his side. This is not really about deprivation and poverty, it is about fiscal policy.

So, here are some of the salient features of the rural data, released by the govt. 

Out of a total of just over 24 crore households in the country, about 18 crore live in rural areas, that is, about 73%. All subsequent data pertains to these only.

The SECC found that 7.05 crore households, about 39% of all, met any one of the 14 criteria listed above and hence they were counted as not deprived (which means not poor). Just 16.5 lakh households –0.92% of all - met the criteria of automatic inclusion.

Of the 10.69 cr eligible households remaining after automatically excluding ‘not deprived’ ones, about 2 crore (11.2%) did not report any deprivation. This means that none of the inclusion criteria #2 were reported by them during the survey. With these eliminations, 8.69 crore (about 49%) of the rural households were discovered to be suffering deprivation.

Shocking Picture of Deep Poverty

Contradicting these findings, the SECC’s own findings on income and asset ownership paint a shocking picture of far more extensive and multi-dimensional poverty.

In about 74.5% of rural households the income of the main breadwinner is less than Rs.5000 per month. That’s about 13.34 crore households out of total 17.9 crore rural households. In another 3.08 crore households or about 17% of the total, the main breadwinner had incomes between Rs.5000 and Rs.10,000. Adding these two up – in some 92% rural households, the highest earner is getting not more than Rs.10,000 per month.

What is this ‘highest earner’ or ‘main bread winner’ business? This is a peculiarity that the SECC inflicted upon itself by asking the question in this way instead of asking for the family’s income. Perhaps they thought that this would reflect – more or less – the large chunk of family income. If that was the case then they would largely be right. Women’s incomes (visible or accounted ones) are as a norm quite low, if any. So chances of household incomes being very substantially different from the main bread winners’ incomes are low. In any case the proportions are staggering. So, even if a Rs.5000 main income household earns another (say) Rs.3000 through subsidiary work by a woman member, they would still be below Rs.10,000.

There are other indicators of the staggering depth of poverty. Over 51% of households are dependent on manual casual labour for livelihood. Note that the work they do is ‘manual’ which means backbreaking work ranging from women transplanting rice to families making clay bricks to labour gangs making roads and bridges to migrant labour cutting sugarcane and so on. Note also that this is ‘casual’ labour – that means it is not regular, there is no security, no supportive benefits, outside the pale of labour law protection and definitely very low paid. Also, it means that work is sometimes available sometimes not.

Over 10 crore households – 56% of all – have no land. In Bihar and Punjab this figure goes up to 65%. In West Bengal it is 70%, in Kerala it is 72%, and in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, it is 73%. This information on its own indicates the deep deprivation suffered by the mass of rural households.

Just 37% of cultivated land have assured irrigation facilities for two crops. About 40% has no irrigation facilities (it is rain fed) while another 23% has some uncertain facilities. Just about 10% of households own irrigation equipment – pump sets, drip or sprinkler systems etc. These are in all probability the otherwise propertied and richer sections and they would be selling water to all the others deprived sections.

In case you think that many landless and other poor sections might be working in some kind of non-agricultural enterprises or salaried jobs, think again. Just 2.7% households were associated with any non-agricultural registered enterprises. Just over 6% households had members employed in govt. or public sector jobs and just 3.6% households had a member working in a private sector establishment paying salary.

Nearly 70% rural households live in one or two room houses. 45% stay in kuchcha houses, built of mud, thatch, stone, wood or plastic.

Put all these fragments together and a horrifying picture of the real India emerges. It is difficult to see find this India when Narendra Modi is giving speeches in Madison Square Garden in New York, or Beijing, recounting his dreams of smart cities, bullet trains, paperless digital governance, and so on.

What this data also does is demolish the ‘deprivation criteria’ based figures worked out by the SECC for the purpose of enumerating poverty stricken households. Against a 49% deprived rural households identified by the deprivation criteria, we have over 92% of the rural households with less than Rs.10,000 monthly income of the highest bread winner. Clearly, the govt. is set to use the limited figure to unroll its schemes – that will suit its perspective of cutting down welfare expenditure and subsidies.

The SECC data on employment and incomes shows glimpses of the deep agrarian crisis in India. Over half the rural population is earning its livelihood through manual labour, while just a third is actually involved in cultivation. A small fraction is working in salaried jobs, that too with the government footing the bill. The depth of income poverty is staggering. Successive NSSO reports have indicated this fact but apologists for the neoliberal policies have been refusing to accept this. Urban data is not out but it will bring to light other dimensions – growing urban poverty as also growing inequality. After 25 years of grinding down the people with neoliberal policy prescriptions, this shows the spectacular failure of such policies.

The author works for a prominent daily newspaper

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