Indian Decade

Drawing the Poverty Line

India’s government has caused a storm with its plan to redefine urban and rural poverty levels.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is having a serious rethink after an initial proposal to set the rural poverty line at about half a dollar a day and the urban poverty line at 32 rupees (60 cents) prompted public anger.  

The latest criterion for determining poverty, presented by the Planning Commission to the Supreme Court in an affidavit last month, shocked the nation. In the affidavit, the Planning Commission had said a person consuming eatables worth Rs 32 per day in urban areas and Rs 26 per day in rural areas couldn’t be considered poor and would thus not be entitled to benefit from government subsidies and welfare schemes.

The Planning Commission yardstick prompted a national outcry, and the opposition slammed the government for its insensitivity. Indeed, the main opposition Bhartiya Janta Party went so far as to send a draft for the amount of Rs 32 each to the Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, mockingly challenging them to survive on this amount for a single day. 

The government rethink is believed to have been triggered by Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to succeed Manmohan Singh as prime minister. Rahul Gandhi has taken a strong stand against the affidavit and wants the government, which returned to power in 2004 pledging to support the common man, to file a revised affidavit before the Supreme Court.

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Several union ministers including Jairam Ramesh and Ambika Soni have also criticized the government’s new definition of the poverty line. Rahul Gandhi is believed to have strongly pitched for a substantial increase in the proposed definition, which is going to come under thorough review at a meeting of the Planning Commission on October 3.

Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and discussed the issue Sunday, although no details of the meeting were forthcoming. Ahluwalia is scheduled to meet Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh on Monday, and one of the two is likely to issue a statement on Monday.