When it comes to India, there are lies, and damn lies, and poverty.
Consider the latest victory of rapid economic growth over the dismal conditions of feudal India. Over the past five years, poverty levels fell by a whopping 7 percentage points, the biggest margin ever! The only problem? To get that success, the Planning Commission moved the goalposts. Already under fire for setting a poverty line of 32 rupees per day for urban India and 26 rupees for rural India ($0.64 and ($0.52) last year, the country's top economic planners lowered the bar a hefty 12 percent to 29 rupees and 22 rupees ($0.58 and ($0.44) to fudge the stats.
There are some practical reasons behind the lie. But they have little to do with an increase in the people's standard of living, considering that the prices of food and other basic amenities have risen sharply over the same five years due to runaway inflation. With economists concerned about India's rising deficit, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee negleted to trim much fat from next year's budget – unveiled last week. And a much-awaited bill to provide subsidized food to the nation's poor is still on the anvil. So what the new numbers represent is a huge stealth spending cut, since many government welfare schemes cover only families classified as below the poverty line.
In that context, the headlines in today's major English newspapers were curious. Out of the four that I receive in print, only the Times of India (perhaps the most business-friendly of them all, at least nominally) focused on the moving of the poverty line. Its above-the-fold article was headlined “Govt dilutes poverty norm” and featured a prominent info box explaining the shift. (Most headlines are different online this morning).
The normally muckraking Indian Express relegated the story to its page one anchor and headlined it, “Poverty levels fall by 7 percentage points in 5 years, faster in villages than in urban areas.” The Hindustan Times wrote, “India sees biggest dip in poverty, but 360m remain poor.” And the Mail Today didn't carry the story at all (perhaps it came in after its print deadline).
What gives? It's hard to say. Maybe some editors are planning a little day trading today – though the impact of the (fictional) reduction of the poor on government spending will please investors just as much as a real one.
But putting aside the change in the poverty line itself, there are a couple more interesting tales behind the numbers, under which about 30 percent of India qualifies as destitute.
As Mint reports, inequality increased and the quality of employment deteriorated – as more workers were relegated to jobs as casual laborers rather than permanent employees – though the paper erroneously insists that “it is obvious that poverty has declined in aggregate terms, both in rural and urban India,” quoting the planning commission's fudged numbers without comment on the shifting of the poverty line.
Moreover, as the Economic Times points out, even with the statistical tinkering, the number of poor people in Bihar actually increased by more than 5 million people over the past five years – despite the state's already low bar and an economic growth rate that ranks second only to Gujarat.
No wonder somebody wanted to dink around with the numbers.