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Vol. XXVIII No. 19, January 16-31, 2019

Poverty reduction – how fare we?

by A Special Correspondent

Poverty is generally identified by income level. Another way of adjudging poverty is by the degree of deprivation of basic public facilities and services that make for a life of dignity. Income test is not enough because there could be income above poverty line but with basic facilities still absent or inaccessible to such segments. It would be interesting to see where Tamil Nadu stands in containing deprivation.

The measurement of deprivation has assumed significance since the United Nations proclaimed the Sustainable Development Goals for the world, with the agenda to eradicate poverty in “all its forms and dimensions” by 2030. The results of the new way of studying the incidence of “poverty” is available to policy makers in the form of a Global Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). The Study on India is built on the data platform of the National Family Health Survey series published periodically by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. The findings are of important diagnostic significance as they gauge the effectiveness of on-going government policies and pin-point deficiencies. The deficiencies identified are of high precision in terms of specific district and service.

Based on data available, households are rated for deprivation. Those above a deprivation mark are deprivation-wise poor, termed “multi-dimensionally poor”. It is in the sense that they are poor not by just one dimension (income) but by many dimensions in terms of access to facilities like hospitals, schools etc. The ratio of those who are multi-dimensionally poor multiplied by the average intensity value of deprivation gives the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) for the country, region or globe (as a decimal, the full being, ONE). The higher the index, more is the prevalence of deprivation. It breaks the evaluation down to specifics covering Health, Education and Living Standard. The indicators to measure deprivation in the three aspects are – nutrition as opposed to mere food, child mortality, schooling, cooking fuel, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, cooking fuel, housing, assets. NITI Ayog has constructed the index for India based on the same principles.

What is the MPI rating for Tamil Nadu in India and what does it imply? The good news is that India has made substantial progress in reducing multidimensional poverty. The incidence of multidimensional poverty has almost halved between 2005-06 and 2015-16, falling to 27.5 per cent from 54.7 per cent of the population in ten years. When the full impact of extending electricity, cooking gas, toilets, banking services and rural roads in the subsequent three years are realised, the MPI will have fallen still further.

Tamil Nadu has acquitted itself well in the national league table. Through the years 1992-93, 1998-99, 2005-06 and 2015-16 – in a space of 17 years – multidimensional poverty has been reduced to about 10 per cent, with acceleration in the last ten years of this period. (Index falling from 0.37 in 1992-93 to 0.03 in 2015-16). It indicates that access to many public facilities has been extended substantially. In Tamil Nadu, the ratio of population suffering (i.e. incidence) multidimensional poverty fell from 61 per cent in 1992-93 to 38 per cent in 2005-06 and to 7.4 per cent in 2015-16.

During the same period, by registering 0.3 MPI in 2015-16, Tamil Nadu did better than Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala regarding reduction of multidimensional poverty and better than only Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, but yielding the first place to Kerala, in respect of incidence – Tamil Nadu bringing it down to 7.4 per cent and Kerala to a bare 1.1.

Figures are available only for 1992-93 to 2005-06 to adjudge Tamil Nadu’s attention to rural areas as opposed to urban segments. Overall, it halved multidimensional poverty, but the reduction was faster in the urban sector, cutting down by two-thirds, the reduction in rural areas being much slower. Similarly, in the same period, multidimensional poverty of women got reduced by only one-thirds compared to more than half for the overall population.

Tamil Nadu has also done better than the total country performance. In 2015-16, India’s MPI was 0.121 whereas Tamil Nadu’s was lower at 0.028. The incidence of multidimensional poverty for the country was 27.5 per cent of the population and Tamil Nadu’s only 7.4 per cent.

The foregoing concept implies that merely creating incomes or giving doles is insufficient to remove poverty in terms of deprivation. Also needed are facilities that make for dignity of life – and making them work to potential, quantitatively and qualitatively. India’s “income-poor” were 270 million whereas, about the same time, its “multi-dimensional poor” were higher at 364 million. Targeting only the “income-poor”, we may leave out others who just pass the income test but are deprived of elementary facilities. For instance, a district could be above income-based poverty line but multidimensionally poor.

There are lessons in these numbers. The development effort still suffers from an urban and male bias suggesting the need for greater investment in education and health for the rural and women segments. Low MPI index is indicative of existence of infrastructure but not necessarily of its effectiveness and easy access. Especially in the case of education and health, the indicators used in the MPI Study are insufficient to assess the quality of existing facilities and services.

Overall, Tamil Nadu’s record is good, spanning, as it does, varying hues of ruling governments, giving comfort that deprivation reduction efforts did not fall a victim to political differences. There is still scope because “outcomes”, that is, resultant benefits experienced by people, are not satisfactory. The educational system, for example, still churns out a high percentage of unemployables. The reason is not constraints of infrastructure or teacher strength or salaries. It seems to do with poor teaching standards, teacher commitment, methodologies. Having invested in infrastructure, the task is to make schools, colleges, hospitals and health centres and related institutions work better and achieve expected outcomes. Governance must move beyond investment and make the investment work effectively and ensure the deliverables. Improved upkeep, higher efficiency and fuller extraction of potential of the already installed infrastructure and, above all, accountability have to now become the focus.

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