This Article is From Jul 07, 2015

Modi Must Release Caste Survey Findings

The single greatest achievement of the Manmohan Singh regime - which coincided with the Tenth and Eleventh Plans - was pulling 138 million people above the poverty line in that ten-year period. Yet, instead of crowing about this having been the largest number of people to have ever been raised out of poverty in a single decade in world history, and coining infantile slogans to celebrate this as the Modi establishment would have done, the UPA government addressed itself immediately and simultaneously to the larger issue of poverty not being merely an issue of money income and consumption, but a multi-faceted hydra that needed to be tackled on several fronts simultaneously - health, education, mortality, nutrition, sanitation and a host of other parameters.

The principal limitation in defining poverty in terms of a single line, as those above it being APL and those below it being BPL, is that there was no gradation from destitution to deprivation to poverty to vulnerability. Anyone with a consumption of under Rs 10.50 (at 2004 prices) was classified as "poor" and everyone above it was classified as "not poor". This had two consequences. One, a labourer earning Rs 11 a day was placed in the same category as a multi-billionaire: both were treated as "non-poor". And when a person's income rose from Rs 10.49 by two paise to Rs 10.51, he zoomed from being poor to being "not poor". 

And, indeed, a substantial share of those 138 million who had been aided in escaping the poverty trap were those who had merely moved from this side of threshold below the poverty line to the threshold immediately above it. Statisticians discerned the difference. The new boy sprung from poverty had no idea he had escaped into a Brave New World - until they snatched away from him his BPL card.

Acutely identifying this problem, the left-wing economist Dr Arjun Sengupta tried to take the calculation of poverty into the realm of reality by suggesting that between the BPL category and the APL category, there should be an intermediate category which he called the "vulnerable" - say, those with a daily consumption of Rs 10 to Rs 20. He called them "vulnerable" because the least set-back - drought, being thrown out of employment, a failure in petty business, an illness to the income-earner, an illness in the family, an accident - would plunge the person (and his family) back below the singular poverty line. He also came to the startling conclusion that if we add the "poor" and the "vulnerable'", the percentage of India's population desperately in need of poverty alleviation stands at an astounding 77 percent!

Montek Singh Ahluwalia's Planning Commission rejected the Sengupta thesis because the Planning Commission were pushing the argument that India's poor constituted no more than a third of the population (not over three-quarters, as Sengupta suggested) and that the aim should be to reduce the ratio of BPL beneficiaries from a third to a quarter of our people, the better to free resources for a pattern of development which would augment growth rates but widen disparities. The policy alternatives posed by the Sengupta and Ahluwalia approaches were stark. 

Dr. Manmohan Singh and his government provisionally accepted that while we had to go along with the traditional definition of poverty as a thin, singular line, it was imperative that we greatly expand the nation's knowledge of the complex realities of poverty, of the many faces of poverty, if we were to make a really definitive effort at "wiping every tear from every eye" - the injunction of the Mahatma.

In international academic circles, it was being increasingly recognized that poverty comprises multiple deprivations. If you can eat one chapati more, but your child continues going to the same school where the teacher never comes, or your family goes to the same primary health centre which does not stock even aspirin, you are just as deprived before there occurred fortuitously a marginal increase in your income or a marginal adjustment in your daily consumption pattern. You were still poor - wretchedly poor, in your own eyes, in the eyes of your family and friends, in the eyes of the community in which you lived.

Therefore, a much more nuanced, multiple-point understanding of the nature of poverty needed to be arrived at to devise appropriate strategies to really spring people and classes of people from self-perpetuating and mutually reinforcing poverty paradigms. There needed to be quite as much attention to health, education, sanitation etc. as to stepping up monetary earnings.

To this end, Dr. Manmohan Singh's government decided on a survey to ascertain the true nature and composition of poverty in the country on multiple parameters. This they did by commissioning the most massive survey ever of all the accessible data on socio-economic data that they could devise. The economic results show that Sengupta was closer to reality than the Planning Commission. To this, it was decided to add "caste". 

The trickiest part of this survey was the issue of caste. Any overt classification of people on the basis of caste (and its innumerable divisions into sub-castes) was fraught with the danger of provoking caste-conflict and giving a fillip to caste-based politics. On the other hand, to ignore the connection between caste and standards of living, and the quality of life, would amount to hiding from view what is one of the most visible and enduring characteristics of our society. So pervasive has been the role of caste in the evolution of our civilization that non-Hindu communities, like the Muslims and the Christians, have been infected by the caste virus; indeed, reformist religions like Sikhism and Buddhism, born out of a revolt against caste, have subsequently succumbed to the baneful influence of casteism. 

In the circumstances, the UPA government took the incredibly bold, if risky, decision to commission the study as a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) - the first time this has been attempted since the British in colonial times commissioned a caste census in 1933, the more effectively to divide and rule.

SECC was conceived as a necessary precursor to ensuring truly "inclusive growth" - to economic development really being 'sabka saath, sabka vikas'. But even as the Survey has been published, the Modi sarkar had decided not to reveal the caste data. At one level, this is just opportunism - to not upset the political apple cart on the eve of the Bihar elections. 

But, at a deeper level, this is of a piece with the Modi model of development, first implemented in Gujarat. An Oxford scholar, Nikita Sud, has published an extraordinarily detailed and perceptive study of the state titled "Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and the State" that she subtitles "A Biography of Gujarat". 

Before coming to the Modi era in the state, she delves deep into Gujarat's mercantile past, its evolution as sea-faring people with wide contacts ranging across the Indian Ocean, all along the Arab coast and out to the African seaboard. Coming to post-Independence India, she uses the term "developmentalism" to describe the take-over by the State under Nehru of the responsibility for pulling the economy out of the colonial quagmire (average growth rate 0.72 per cent, 1914-47) to put the nation on the path of modernization, with a healthy mixture of growth and social justice linked to social harmony through dedicated adherence to the principles of secularism. She then places Modi's Gujarat in the context of the post-1991 shift from "developmentalism to liberalization", with the special Modi bias on denying "even the smallest concession to the poor" so as to ruthlessly push the rate of economic growth whatever the social consequences. Sud shows the policies adopted to foster accelerated industrialization by the private sector too have been "business-friendly rather than market-friendly", in that large business houses were particularly favoured, especially through land acquisition: "the logic of the market was used to undo even partial measures for wider social protection". 

Staggering confirmation of this anti-poor orientation of Gujarat's economic policies under Modi has been revealed by The Economist of London (27 June 2015) that has scooped a UNICEF report which the Modi government has been withholding from publication since October 2014 when it was submitted for routine clearance to the Modi government. The Economist believes "data were held back for political reasons, to avoid embarrassing Mr. Modi" - which explains why, when one set of figures relating to immunization were in fact released, Gujarat alone was left out. The scooped report shows that this was evidently because the figures for Gujarat showed that Gujarat fell from 16th to 21st position under Modi, and at a time of remarkable national performance, tumbled from over-average performance before Modi, to way below the all-India average once Modi took over the reigns of governance in the state, behind Nitish Kumar's Bihar, and only just above North-Eastern states and UP. No wonder the Gujarat figure was suppressed by Modi's central government. 

The UNICEF report also finds that notwithstanding "Swachch Bharat", two-fifths of Gujarat under Modi were defecating in the open - well above the national average. "Gujarat", says The Economist, citing figures from the report "is also worse than the average for stunting (42%), severe stunting (18.5%) and wasting (18.7)".  

Dr. Sud emphasizes that this is not a statistical aberration but the inevitable consequence of a policy that, under Modi, married "economic liberalization" to "political illiberalism" as the BJP rejected the KHAM alliance and raised a Savarnas' "revolt against the widening of democracy, as well as a potentially redistributive state, with Hindu nationalism and gradual, business-friendly liberalization being vehicles for reasserting control over the polity as well as the economy". Dr. Sud further views programmes like Modi's "Aapnu Gujarat" and "Aagvu Gujarat" as designed to "neatly sidestep questions of redistribution and repackages the current economic and political path as a collective, nationalist venture". To reinforce this, "anybody challenging this path is immediately condemned as anti-Gujarat and an 'anti-national terrorist'....The continued deployment of Hindutva and its parochial corollaries is, thus, a response to a narrow business-friendly development in a procedurally institutionalized democracy". 

Thank you, Nikita Sud, for warning us.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

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