In recent years, the definition of poverty has moved away from calorie-based measurements and monetary values to those that take basic needs into account. This has led to new measures of poverty beyond the ‘below poverty line’ or World Bank ‘dollar a day’ standard.
One such measure, published in the Global Multidimensional Poverty report, which goes beyond consumption and expenditure of the household, is a Multidimensional Poverty measure. It includes three key variables — health, education and standard of living.
According to this measure, there were 36.4 crore poor individuals in India in 2015-2016. The period 2005 to 2015 saw a reduction in multidimensional poverty with 27 crore individuals, including the poorest, coming out of poverty.
The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, published by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme, pointed out that the period 1998-2005 saw an increase in poverty amongst the poorest groups.
Focus on the poorest
Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA-I government, while India saw the pace of market-friendly economic reforms pick up, development seems to have left the poorest out of the country’s growth story.
‘India Shining’, from which the poorest were left out, was seen by some to have contributed to the electoral defeat of the NDA in the 2004 elections.
One lesson the BJP seems to have learnt from that defeat is the importance of wooing the poorest voters. Narendra Modi’s first government dropped ‘India Shining’ and focused on ‘Antyodaya’, or improving the life of the last person in the line.
Economists complained about the BJP not merely continuing the Congress’ welfare schemes like MNREGA, Right to Food, Right to Education, etc., but actually increasing the number of schemes, budgetary allocations and the importance the government was giving them in its work and campaigns.
The UPA had focused on health and education, and launched various maternal and child health and nutrition programmes like the Janani Suraksha Yojna and the mid-day meal scheme.
Under Modi 1.0, while attempts to improve health and education did increase, they were not the main focus. Such reforms are normally slow and difficult to achieve. Institutional challenges related to public health and education remain issues all over the world. It is difficult to bring rapid changes in the public or private health and education systems that could improve standards quickly. Neither school vouchers/scholarship programs, not health insurance schemes have offered adequate answers anywhere.
Standard of living
The third measure — standard of living — includes cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing and household assets. A poor household cooks with dung, agricultural crops, shrubs, wood, charcoal or coal. It does not have proper sanitation facilities or access to drinking water. It has a kutcha house and does not own household assets like TV, fridge, car etc.
The BJP’s strategy was for the government to focus on schemes that directly impact the poorest families. Further, this was done in a manner that reduced corruption and leakages, so that many more people could be reached with the same amount of money. These were followed by party workers contacting the beneficiaries.
Four of the biggest schemes of Modi 1.0 directly addressed the standard of living. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna distributed LPG gas connections to poor families. Ujjwala’s website shows that by now, more than 7.4 crore LPG gas connections have been given under this scheme.
There are difficulties, as would be expected: Distribution networks are poor, the poorest cannot afford the subsidised cylinders. But even if half the families have not yet got a second cylinder, the point is that at least half of them have. In other words, 3.6 crore families, or about 17 crore individuals, benefited, while another 17 crore stand to benefit once they are able to buy the second cylinder. This means that about 34 crore people, almost as many as the number identified by the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index as ‘poor’, will have likely got a direct intervention to improve their living standard through a prime ministerial scheme between 2014 and 2019.
Similarly, the Swachh Bharat Gramin mission website shows that so far, 9.7 crore toilets have been built under this scheme. Another 58 lakh toilets have been built in urban areas. The main criticism of the Swachh Bharat Scheme is that about 40 percent of the toilets built are not being used as there are no water facilities and there are issues of habits, maintenance, waste management, etc. Again, even if only 60 percent people are using them, that is an improvement in their living standard and these individuals will attribute the change to the Prime Minister.
The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is the third scheme to address poverty. More than 1.5 crore houses have been constructed, or are being built, under this scheme. This addresses the ‘quality of housing’ aspect of the standard of living of, say, roughly 7 crore people, who had lived in kutcha mud houses with thatched roofs, but are getting houses constructed under a prime ministerial scheme.
In programmes throughout the five years of its government as well as in election campaigns, BJP activists took the message to the voter. The effect was not sought to be achieved as much through newspaper headlines but through the party connecting with beneficiaries. Elections and politics are a complex phenomenon, and there were no doubt many factors such as national security issues, caste, religion and identity issues and many more that contributed to the BJP’s massive victory.
Yet, one mechanism that allowed the party to connect with people who were beyond its traditional voter bases seems to have been by directly providing them something through the various Pradhan Mantri schemes.
One lesson that the party is likely to take away from its success in the 2019 elections was the focus it put on its anti-poverty schemes, which directly touched the poorest families.
Looking forward, the government has already announced goals and schemes to provide drinking water to all households under the ‘Nal se Jal’ scheme. This is going to be a flagship scheme for the government, and the BJP will undoubtedly be able to reach millions of families if it can make the scheme succeed.
The challenges are huge. But even if the scheme does not succeed a hundred percent, as the opposition will be quick to point out, there will be millions of voters whose lives will be touched.
The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.