Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Poverty Li(n)e!

The Poverty Li(n)e!
It is a pleasure to listen to Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Dy. Chairman of our Planning Commission. Montek speaks so well, with that ‘propah’ accent coming from an impeccable educational background – decent schooling, Bachelor’s degree from St.Stephen’s Delhi, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford’s Magdalen College. His BPhil in Economics at Oxford University is said to have later  ‘re-classified’ as an MPhil. At Oxford, he was the president of the prestigious Oxford Union. (His PhD however, came honoris causa conferred by the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, in 2011) Then a brilliant career in the World Bank, IAS, PM’s Economic Advisor and now in the NPC which a Keralite Christian would say is like a chapel inside the grand Church, if you ask me.
How I wish I could believe him when he defends the recent lowering of the Poverty Line by the national planning body. Ahluwalia was heard mentioning in the interview on a national business TV channel that his people have arrived at the latest poverty line, at Rs.28.65 in urban India and Rs.22.40 in rural Bharat, after a detailed analysis of the state-wise inflation data. He was saying rather flippantly that he could actually have drawn the line a little above or below without making any significant import to the data! Yes, indeed, RK Laxman would have made a stunning piece of pocket carton on the ToI had he been drawing still. But, I think he had done one under similar situation earlier.
Now let me go back to my notes of the poverty line figures - Rs.19.01 for the rural areas and Rs.22-1 to the urban people - the year was 1994. That is great work of poverty alleviation over 18 years of planning and execution of economic programmes! And it irritates me to no end when economic journalists like Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar (he does it all the time the way he sits and almost mocks at the interviewee and the viewer at the same time with his strangely stupid though condescending body language) defend the Planning Commission boss quoting a Marxist economics professor in the JNU. The calculation goes like this: World Bank’s poverty line is at USD 1.25 and Professor Himanshu had put Rs.19 to the dollar in accordance with the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) PPP is a calculation in which the exchange rate adjusts so that an identical good in two different countries has the same price when expressed in the same currency. For example, a chocolate bar that sells for US$1.00 in a U.S. city must sell for Rs.19 according to Prof.Himanshu. Therefore, Planning Commission draws the same line as the World Bank! Well, a media consultant to the World Bank can draw such parallels and gloat over it, but Professor Himanshu must be cringing at Aiyar’s conclusion! I expect a suitable rejoinder from the professor in the next issue of EPW. If he is a genuine Marxist, Professor Himanshu could come out with a confessional self-criticism and go forward to some new assertions and the poor in India wouldn’t know the difference either!
Aiyer, whom I shall not call a butter-boy of the ruling elite, is possible just being a contrarian for the heck of it. Nothing like some sensationalism to brighten your image on the TV channels and of course, in the cocktail circuits. Look at his meticulous calculations: Wheat cost Rs.20/Kg; lentils (Dal) Rs.45/Kg. A meal consisting of 400gm of wheat and 100gm of dal will give the required 2000 calories at the cost of Rs.12.20. And those employed in hard labour, here is 3000 calories at a mere Rs.18.75; go and have a ball with the surplus income jingling in your pockets. Take you wife and kids for a movie, man! Aiyer would insist on something special for the wife, a jasmine garland on the way? Mr.Aiyar has the unique distinction of taking his second name, Anklesaria, from his wife's maiden name as a token of his respect for the idea of women’s with men equality in a society in which women take their husbands. I love him for that.
But, is it the way the UPA II, government of the weaker sections, for the weaker sections, by the weaker sections believe the aam admi should find sustenance in India that is Bharat? I bet we all would like to believe with Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar that the proportion of poor Indians have fallen sharply in the last few years. The fall was sharper than Montek would admit, did you say, Mr.Aiyer? Yes, it was so sharp that many broke their backs, for your kind information.
 My jaws literally fell when I heard the Government spokes persons countering to the view that it was strange for a government to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India barely six months back giving figures at much variance with the current ones, that is Rs.32 per day in urban India and Rs.26 in rural areas on the country. He said that what was given to the Supreme Court were back-of-the-envelope estimates! You and I amy be dismayed by the fact that back-of-the-envelope estimates are given to the highest judicial body in the country. But we do not have the know-how; that is all. One advantage in our so-called Justice-delivery-system is that a defendant in a case can go on filing different affidavits in different times to the same Court or different Courts, with impunity. Well, I have seen Government of India, and the State governments filing an affidavit today, and withdrawing it the next day to file another affidavit with a total negation of ‘facts’ submitted the previous day without any question being asked! I would like to believe if there is a word for it, it is PERJURY. An affidavit is supposed to be a true statement of facts and not your opinions on a subject on a particular day. The other day a senior legal officer to the Central government was heard valiantly defending the Government’s stance against deviant sexual behaviour such as homosexuality while his assistant was frantically trying to tell him that he was reading from the earlier brief; the Government have decided not to oppose the LGBT life style. Lo, and behold! One could hear a few days later none other than the Attorney General Vahanvati telling the Supreme Court that the Union Government had no issues with consensual gay/lesbian sex between adults. In less than ten days the Centre could study history and quote passages  from Lawrance James authored Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, that “for many British onlookers, Indian erotic act was a revelation of practices which were all but unheard of in their homeland, or condemned as deviant and depraved. There was group sex, oral sex, sex in every conceivable position, buggery and masturbation.” So would you accept pre-British social mores including untouchability one day, the Judges did not ask.
I digressed. The point was that the Government of India including the Planning Commission could be expected to come out with what suits them any day, because of “political compulsions” or otherwise. The lies shall be in line with the political necessities.

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