(Mr. Arjimand Hussain Talib, 34, was born in Srinagar. He is a columnist/writer and a development professional who matriculated from Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School in 1991. He subsequently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Bangalore University and has a diploma in journalism as well. He is an alumni of the International Academy for Leadership, Gummerbach, Germany and has worked with UNESCO, Oxfam and ActionAid International in some seven countries in Asia and Africa. Arjimand writes regular weekly columns for the Greater Kashmir and The Kashmir Times since 2000 on diverse issues of political economy, development, environment and social change and has over 450 published articles to his credit. He is presently an advisor in international development and based in Beijing.)
Amid India’s Poverty Debate, We Must Redefine Ours as Well
We have got some questions to answer.
No 1: Is poverty in J&K as serious as statistics project?
The idea of poverty is always relative. The questions of purchasing power in defining poverty are not straightforward. India’s poverty debate, like elsewhere, will always have to address inconsistencies. Despite tremendous economic development, poverty line in China continues to be a matter of debate. When it comes to J&K, our poverty figures and ground realities are paradoxical. We need to address that paradox head-on.
Inflating one’s poverty always pays – states get more money under a range of state and central schemes. People get more benefits – incentives, jobs and much more. Stating plain facts pays in the longer term. Importantly, that saves money from being wasted, like we have been doing in the name of pursuing misdirected poverty alleviation programs.
Stating of plain facts first requires political will. That requires robust information collection as well - something that is not easy in J&K. People generally don’t tell the truth about their incomes and sources. But that does not mean the state cannot have a mechanism of sound information collection.
Sound benchmarks – guided by socio-economic rationale rather than political interests, could make it possible to arrive at realistic figures. Most countries do that.
J&K’s economic survey of 2010-11 puts our BPL number at 24.21 lakh people or 21.63 per cent of our total population.
Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) states that out of 1.22 crore people in J&K in 2007, 54 lakh, or 43.8 per cent, lived in poverty. This is the index which is globally highly respected for its accuracy. In J&K’s context, however, its figures are highly questionable.
Like in Kashmir, there is no uniform measure of poverty in rest of India either. The Planning Commission, Arjun Sengupta Report and the N.C. Saxena Committee all cite different numbers of poverty. But now that the government of India is seeking to address the discrepancies, we need to do the same.
There are credible reasons why J&K’s poverty is likely to be less than projected. Many families that hold BPL cards to get subsidized rations are normally far above BPL, and can afford market purchasing. Our minimum wage is another indicator. Our unskilled labor rate is now Rs 300-Rs 350 per day - about 200 per cent more than the general rate in rest of India.
NREGA scheme is such a mismatch with our rural realities that if there was no “special arrangement” between the state agencies and those “who work”, this scheme may just not take off. We can’t find local domestic helps anymore. Almost all our menial jobs are done by imported workers from outside the state.
The most likely reason for all this is that people have better and alternative economic opportunities. The Rs 300 minimum daily wage means our poverty line is different.
The fundamental reason why we need to revisit our poverty figures is that we need to target our public spending – especially those of the centrally sponsored schemes – better. NREGA, for instance, could be restructured to do more meaningful jobs. Indira Awas Yojana could be redesigned. There are hardly any homeless people in our state. Homes built under this scheme are generally used as cow sheds or resting rooms by powerful rural elite.
The acknowledgement of the fact that Kashmir’s problem is not abject poverty but poor human development will be useful. The money which goes waste in misdirected poverty alleviation schemes could be better utilised in building quality public infrastructure. We need to drastically improve our primitive health care facilities.
Quality of education needs to be improved. Most rural areas do not have safe drinking water. Acute lack of other basic infrastructure, like roads, electricity, etc. impedes human development.
Money redirected from misguided poverty alleviation schemes could also be used to enhancing productive employment of our youth.
Kashmir’s economic foundations are sound primarily because of its quality natural resources and human skills. The last 20 years of conflict has not aggravated poverty, it has impeded economic development. The fundamental reason being that the last 20 years of conflict coincided with the economic boom that economic reforms brought to the developing world.
An honest definition of our poverty and its extent will pay us in the long term.