Fresh Data on Inequality and Deprivation in India

The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) survey, carried out in 640 districts, was slated to provide fresh figures to update our understanding of India’s social and economic realities. The Central Government is however controlling the public’s access to the survey, allowing information to trickle out in small portions measured out by the Government. It is highly unfortunate that the caste census data has been suppressed by the Government for the time being. The caste census data and in fact all the findings of the survey should be made public, and the flow of information on the findings should not be controlled by the Government to suit its political and pragmatic considerations.

The SECC data on the rural households is an eye-opener about the extent of poverty, deprivation and inequality in rural India, even after the tall claims of transformation and poverty alleviation by Governments, especially the promises of the past two decades of liberalization policies. The SECC parameters for measuring deprivation also need to be critiqued, however, and the Government must not be allowed to use this data to further slash welfare measures in the name of ‘targeting.’

Stark Poverty and Acute Deprivation

The survey confirms that the vast majority of rural Indians live in acute deprivation.

Wages are abysmally low in rural India. In 75% of rural households, the highest-earning member earns less than Rs 5,000 in a month. Just 8.3% of rural households have a member earning Rs 10,000 or more a month.

Fewer than 5 % of SC and ST households have a main earner who makes more than Rs 10,000 per month – for the category of “others”, there are twice as many households.

Only 9.7 % of all rural households in total, and 7.3 % of SC households, have a family member with a salaried job.

More than half of rural Indians are landless and are employed as casual or manual labourers. Another 30% survive by cultivation.

Only 3.96 % of rural SC households and 4.38 % of ST households are employed in the government sector. A mere 2.42 % of SC households and 1.48 % of ST households are employed in the private sector.

More than 95% of rural households pay no income tax.

Agriculture remains at a subsistence level. Among households who do own land, 40 % is not irrigated. Just 4 % own any sort of mechanised agricultural equipment, and just 10 % own any irrigation equipment. Fewer than four per cent have an agricultural credit card that entitles them to at least Rs 50,000 per month.

The situation of housing and shelter is dire. 3 out of every 10 rural families live in one-room houses. 2.2 crore households live in makeshift shacks made of grass, bamboo, plastic or polythene, with thatched or tin roofs.

Literacy and education levels too are extremely low. 23.52 % of rural households have no literate adult above 25 years. Fewer than 10 % study beyond the higher secondary level, and just 3.41 % of rural households have a family member who is a graduate.

Denying ‘Deprivation,’ Excluding Poor From Welfare Benefits

The SECC survey threatens, however, to exclude crores of poor Indians from the ambit of welfare schemes, by restrictive adopting ‘deprivation’ criteria.

The SECC concludes that 40% of the 17 crore rural households surveyed face no “deprivation” because they satisfy at least one of its 14 “parameters of exclusion”. The Government is indicating that they will use this conclusion as a basis to guide ‘targeting’ of beneficiaries for welfare schemes, and reduce coverage of those schemes.

7 crore of the 17 crore households were automatically excluded from the SECC’s definition of deprived households, while around 2 crore households ‘reported no deprivation’ according to the SECC data. A mere 16 lakh households were automatically included.

But the SECC recognizes that more than 90% of rural Indian households have no member earning at least Rs 10000 a month; and that 95% of rural Indians pay no income tax: can such households be anything but ‘deprived’? How can 40% of rural households be said to face ‘no deprivation’ when the highest earning member of 75% of the rural households earns less that Rs 5000 a month?

This irrational and politically motivated conclusion is due to the narrowly defined deprivation parameters adopted by the SECC. For instance, one of the parameters for deprivation was “households with only one room with no solid walls and roof.” As K P Kannan notes in ‘Five Questions the New ‘Caste’ Census Raises But Doesn’t Answer’ (July 8, 2015, The Wire), “an unacceptably low threshold has been set as a measure for housing deprivation … In plain language, this means a household suffers from deprivation if it is shelterless or has a shelter that is more like a shack in a small space. One room is defined in the population census as 4 sq. metres i.e. 43 sq.ft. This is less than half the size of a college hostel room for a family of five persons!”

Fast Growing Inequality

A report prepared by the Oxfam titled ‘Even It Up’, presents a report on inequality worldwide. Its observations on the growing gap between the poor and the rich in India are worth noting.

The report observes that “India, China and Nigeria are three of the world’s fastest growing, and most populous, developing economies. …their national income is shared between the richest 10 percent and poorest 40 percent….the benefits of growth have increasingly accrued to the richest members of society, pushing income inequality ever higher. In just these three countries, more than 1.1 billion people – 16 percent of the world – are getting an increasingly smaller share.”

The report comments, “Many believe that inequality is an unfortunate but necessary by-product of globalization and technological progress. However, the different paths taken by individual nations belie this view. Brazil has reduced inequality despite being part of a globalized world, while, over the same period, India has seen a rapid increase. Rising economic inequality is not the unavoidable impact of supposedly elemental economic forces – it is the product of deliberate economic and political policies.”

It observes that “Despite being a country ravaged by poverty, the number of billionaires in India has soared from two in the mid-1990s to more than 60 today. A significant number of India’s billionaires made their fortunes in sectors highly dependent on exclusive government contracts and licenses, such as real estate, construction, mining, telecommunications and media. A 2012 study estimated that at least half of India’s billionaire wealth came from such ‘rent-thick’ sectors of the economy. The net worth of India’s billionaires would be enough to eliminate absolute poverty in the country twice over, yet the government continues to underfund social spending for the most vulnerable. For instance, in 2011, public health expenditure per capita in India was just four percent of the OECD country average in per capita terms. As a consequence, inequality in India has worsened.”

The report notes that “The Indian government spends almost twice as much on its military as on health.” Pointing out that “Recent and more detailed evidence from India has shown that among the poorest 60 percent of women, the majority turn to public sector facilities to give birth, while the private sector serves those in the top 40 percent,” the report emphasizes that “Private services benefit the richest most, rather than those most in need, and have the impact of increasing economic inequality.” Inequality in health is further aggravated by greedy corporations: “There have even been victories over the pharmaceutical industry’s stubborn efforts to block access to affordable medicines. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court rejected a patent on Glivec®/Gleevec®, a cancer treatment developed by Novartis. Patients suffering chronic myeloid leukaemia can now take generic versions of Glivec for only $175 per month – nearly 15 times less than the $2,600 charged by Novartis and a price that should make it possible for the government to afford to treat patients.”

Commenting on inequality in education, the report notes that “there is a growing enthusiasm for so-called ‘Low-Fee Private Schools’ (LFPS). However, these schools are prohibitively expensive for the poorest families and are widening the gap between rich and poor. …For the poorest 20 percent of families in Pakistan, sending all children to LFPS would cost approximately 127 percent of each household’s income. The trends are similar in Malawi and rural India. Poor families will also often ‘hedge their bets’ by prioritizing one or two children and it is usually girls who lose out. A study in India found that 51 percent of boys attended LFPS, compared with just 34 percent of girls.”

Hunger and Malnutrition

A recent UN report titled 'The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015' found that India home to the highest number of hungry people (194 million) in the world. This is in spite of some progress by India in reducing hunger – which still lags far behind the efforts of China and other countries in reducing hunger.

It is shameful that instead of facing facts, the Modi Government is suppressing the data of fresh child malnutrition data of a Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC). This survey conducted by the UNICEF in collaboration with the GoI, had been commissioned by the precious Government and covers the 2013-14 period.

Overall, the survey suggests a drop in child malnutrition rates in India in the past decade. However, even with the improved data reported by the RSOC survey, India remains one of the poorest performing countries when it comes to child malnutrition, lagging behind even sub-Saharan Africa.

Why is the Modi Government seeking to suppress the survey report, which has been ready since October 2014, even though the report speaks of some improvement in India’s performance?

The reason seems to lie in the fact that Gujarat, touted by Modi as his personal success story, has performed extremely badly, on all three indicators - stunted, wasted and underweight children.

Gujarat is the worst state when it comes to ‘wasted’ children, in spite of being amongst India’s wealthiest states in terms of GNP. Gujarat lags behind Rajasthan in all 3 indicators, behind MP and Odisha in 2 indicators, and behind Bihar, Jharkhand and UP in one indicator.

Exposing the tall claims of “good governance”, the study shows that Gujarat is worst among all states barring MP and UP when it comes to immunization coverage, and is the worst when it comes to the rate of dropouts in vaccination coverage.

Fudging Farmers’ Suicide Data

Just as the Government is seeking to artificially reduce the figures on deprivation in rural India, it is also seeking to reduce the figures for farmers’ suicides.

The NCRB data for 2014 shows a 50% drop in farmers’ suicides number as compared to the previous year. This miracle was achieved by recording only those suicides that had ‘farm distress’ as the cause, and it has failed to count suicides by agricultural workers as ‘farmers’ suicides’! So, landless tribal farmers and leasehold tenancy farmers who committed suicide have not been counted among ‘farmers’ suicides.’ Earlier too, NCRB used to omit suicidal women farmers from these numbers, classifying them as ‘farmers’ wives,’ not farmers.

Surely, only suicides directly relating to crop failures cannot be counted as farmers’ suicides? It is well known that farmers facing agricultural distress, become suicidal when faced with indebtedness due to marriages, health problems, drug and alcohol addiction and other travails of life. To exclude such suicides from the count is irrational and mischievous, since it is obviously agricultural distress that is the primary cause, even while the immediate trigger might be something else.

The evidence of deprivation and inequality and rural distress is overwhelming. And the fact that it is the current economic policies that are the cause, is also overwhelmingly obvious. How long will Governments be in denial?

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