SECC – Shocking Picture of Poverty



Once again, a massive survey of our country’s people has thrown up a picture of extreme poverty. One part of data collected under the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was released this month by the BJP led government. This data relates to poverty and deprivation in rural areas. The caste part of SECC has not been released. Neither has the urban component.

The SECC was carried out from 2011 (after the general Census) with two objectives: to identify people who suffer poverty and deprivation, and to identify various castes. The first part was necessary because the UPA government of the day wanted to further fine tune its ‘targeting’ of welfare schemes and subsidies. Previous data on below poverty line (BPL) people was under dispute and the government wanted a fresh count. The second part of SECC related to caste count has become necessary because it is unclear which castes coming under the Other Backward Castes (OBC) category had how many members. This created confusion about reservations. The last caste Census was carried out by the British in 1932.

Shocking Picture of Deep Poverty

According to the released data, in about 74.5% of rural households the income of the breadwinner is less than Rs.5000 per month. That’s about 13.34 crore households out of total 17.9 crore rural households. Another 3.08 crore households or about 17% of the total, had incomes between Rs.5000 and Rs.10,000. Adding these two up gives a shocking picture of rural poverty and deprivation – in some 92% rural households, the highest earner is getting not more than Rs.10,000 per month.

There are other indicators of the staggering depth of poverty. Over 51% of households are dependent on manual casual labour for livelihood. Note that the work they do is ‘manual’ which means backbreaking work ranging from women transplanting rice to families making clay bricks to labour gangs making roads and bridges to migrant labour cutting sugarcane and so on. Note also that this is ‘casual’ labour – that means it is not regular, there is no security, no supportive benefits, probably outside the pale of labour law protection and definitely very low paid.

Note also that the SECC reports that 38% of rural households are landless. This means that those doing manual casual labour are not just landless but also a big number of small and marginal farmers. And the work is not agricultural labour alone. It is a mix of various kinds of labour which the desperate families piece together to survive.

Nearly 70% rural households live in one or two room houses. 45% stay in kuchcha houses, built of mud, thatch, stone, wood or plastic.

Put all these fragments together and a horrifying picture of the real India emerges. It is difficult to see this India when Narendra Modi is giving speeches in Madison Square Garden in New York, recounting his dreams of smart cities, bullet trains, paperless digital governance, and so on.

But the story of SECC is not complete yet. Despite this alarming data on poverty and deprivation, the SECC also says that about 48.5% of rural households were found suffering from deprivation. This seems contrary to the SECC’s own findings described above. If 92% households earn less than Rs.10,000 per month then how can only 48.5% be deprived? This is where the real damaging intent of this survey is revealed.

Flawed Method of Finding ‘Deprivation’

The SECC devised a complicated methodology to find out who is deprived and who is not in India. They said that if you fulfill any one of the following conditions you are not deprived – 1. Own motorized 2/3/4 wheeler/fishing boat; 2. Own mechanized 3-4 wheeler agricultural equipment; 3. Have Kisan credit card with credit limit of over Rs. 50,000; 4. Household member government employee; 5. Run a non-agricultural enterprise registered with government; 6. Any member of household earning more than Rs. 10,000 per month; 7. Paying income tax; 8. Paying professional tax; 9. Own 3 or more rooms with pucca walls and roof; 10. Own refrigerator; 11. Own landline phone; 12. Own more than 2.5 acres of irrigated land with 1 irrigation equipment; 13. Own 5 acres or more of irrigated land for two or more crop season; 14. Own at least 7.5 acres of land or more with at least one irrigation equipment.

The SECC found that 7.05 crore households, about 39% of all, met any one of the 14 criteria listed above and hence they were counted as not deprived (which means not poor). The CPI(M) had protested in 2011 at these unjust criteria. For example, it is possible to have a motorized fishing boat (bought by taking loans) and yet be poor. It is possible to register an enterprise with the government and then fall into poverty. But the story doesn’t end there.

After removing the above households from consideration, are all the remaining households to be considered poor and deprived? No! There are more criteria to meet. Firstly, some households get automatically counted as deprived. These are the ones that fulfill any one of the following five parameters: 1. Households without shelter;2. Destitute, living on alms;3. Manual scavenger families;4. Primitive tribal groups; and 5. Legally released bonded labour. The SECC found that 16.5 lakh households – just 0.92% of all - met these criteria.

There is more. The SECC said that any household that meets any one of the following seven criteria will be considered deprived: 1. Households with one or less room, kuccha walls and roof; 2. No adult member in household between age 18 and 59; 3. Female headed household with no adult male member between 16 and 59; 4. Households with disabled member with no other able bodied adult member; 5. SC/ST Households; 6. Households with no literate adult above age 25 years; 7. Landless households deriving a major part of their income from manual labour.

But don’t forget the 14 conditions mentioned earlier! They over-ride these 7 deprivation conditions. For example, a household belonging to an SC community will meet the above 7-point deprivation criterion but if they have a Kisan credit card, they will get excluded. By this method just 8.69 crore households finally became identified as deprived, that is, poor.

These 7 deprivation conditions have other pitfalls. For example, a family with a widow and her 17 year old son two younger daughters will get disqualified because the son is now 17 not 16. A landless household that in better days built a two room house with pucca walls and roof (perhaps through govt. help) would not qualify. And so on.

This whole exercise has been rushed through because the BJP government is hell-bent upon launching off its pet schemes of cash transfer, linking to Aadhar card and mobile banking etc. and that can’t happen till you have identified beneficiaries, that is, the deprived and the needy. For them it doesn’t matter if people are left out, as long as they don’t have to universalize various schemes, especially provision of food. This was clear from the fact that it was finance minister Arun Jaitley who took the center stage in releasing the SECC data although it was the rural development ministry that carried out the survey.