Ambit of economic census to be wider

The next Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) is likely to take a broader view of deprivation parameters to include outreach of public welfare schemes and progress in nutrition, housing, drinking water, sanitation, electricity and connectivity to identify the country’s poor, senior officials indicated on Sunday.

The centre is also considering a dynamic registry, which would be updated regularly, in an attempt to make the state’s targeted interventions more effective, the officials said.

A concept note on “poverty measurement in India” was prepared by the Union rural development ministry last month while the government set up a high-level panel with the mandate of updating the SECC and minimising “exclusion and inclusion errors”.

The panel is made up of the Registrar General of India, director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), chief of the National Statistical Organisation (NSO), the urban and rural development ministry secretaries and a member of the policy think-tank Niti Ayog.

The move comes as the first SECC becomes nearly a decade old. And since the SECC’s results were announced in 2011, several new welfare schemes to provide free connections of cooking gas, power and water for the poor have been rolled out; other schemes such as free housing or skill development programmes have been allocated higher budgets.

“There is definitely a need to take a new look into determining poverty. In the first SECC, kuchcha houses were a parameter but now, the government has completed 11.7 million houses under the Awas scheme for the rural poor. And aspirations for the poor have also changed. We may need to look into the delivery of benefits such as Ayushman Bharat, improved education facilities and Ujjwala {scheme of free cooking gas connections} and observe change in socio-economic status apart from the basic needs,” a member of the panel said on condition of anonymity.

To be sure, the second SECC will take some time for completion; the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed work on the 2021 census, which had been due to get underway. Preparations are underway for the launch of the exercise.

The concept note prepared by the rural development ministry highlights how the C Rangarajan Committee, in its report in 2014, had pitched for a separate all-India rural and urban poverty line baskets to include “food items that ensure recommended calories, protein & fat intake and non-food items like clothing, education, health, housing and transport.”

The note, taking a wider, multi-dimensional view of poverty also highlighted that “the deprivations faced by poor in various fields such as education, health, sanitation etc are not accounted for in the below-poverty line approach. Further, public expenditure on social services like education, health and food security had increased substantially in recent years, which was not captured, by design, in the NSSO’s Consumer Expenditure Surveys and the poverty line derived from these is thus lower than the services actually consumed.”

From a national planning committee in 1938 to the Bombay Plan of 1944 to the 1962 Working Group and in the later stages, the Suresh Tendulkar Expert Group in 2009 has provided ways and means of estimating and addressing poverty.

The sweeping Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown that caused a record 23.9% contraction of the economy in the quarter ended June will also be kept in mind by policymakers when they come up with a new plan for the next SECC.

“Here the role of a dynamic registry is important as we can see how one pandemic or illness is capable of pushing families back to acute poverty. In will help in inclusion of intended beneficiaries,” said the official cited above, noting job losses caused by the pandemic that had forced households to pare expenditure on education and food. “A dynamic registry would help us include families from the protection of public welfare schemes, depending on their current situation.”

The 2011 SECC showed that 107.4 million Indian households are considered deprived of certain basic needs. It also showed about 30% of rural households were landless and depend mostly on manual labour to earn a living.

Himanshu, an associate professor with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), believes that it is not advisable to plan social welfare programmes on the basis of people’s spending habits.

“SECC doesn’t take into account any expenditure data. Also, it is very difficult to collect expenditure data in the country as it varies from season to season or on a monthly basis. So, it is not advisable to plan social welfare programmes on the basis of expenditure pattern of people,” he said.

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