Many decades ago, the World Bank declared me “poor”. They said that they had done so on the basis of a “poverty line” I had developed. I had protested, then. Now my own country has done the same thing and I don’t know what to do. Help me, dear reader. But first my story.
The World Bank’s Poverty Line, originally at a $1 a day at purchasing power parity (PPP) prices was they said, consistent with the then official Indian poverty line in 1975. This was calculated in terms of the money required to sustain consumption levels that provide the required nutrition in terms of calories per person per day in rural and urban areas. But PPP prices, I pointed out, were derived from weights in internationally traded goods. These don’t have much to do with the consumption of the poor, I argued.
I pointed out jokingly that since I was an expert on deputation, the Planning Commission was giving me the salary of an additional secretary to the Government of India at a young age, breaking all its rules. But I was still poor, according to the Bank’s rule. This led to some debate, much mirth and some improvement in concepts. But the conundrum remained.
Now, as we approach 2020, I get the pension of a university professor. It’s not extravagant but is most certainly adequate. It’s a mite below the Rs 66,666 per month (Rs 8 lakh, a year) the government has decided we must all get. I have no choice, like in all the decisions the sarkar has made — these include making me queue up to exchange the notes the lady of the house had saved for a rainy day or for giving a cash deposit to a hospital if either one of us had a heart attack.
But I am now poor. Is this just fun and games? Not really. Because the government has also started many schemes to help poor people. It has abolished Five-Year Plans and begun to work out the planning process, as was being deliberated for some time. But the new planning machinery — the Niti Aayog — can only give advice. It does not have the powers of funding strategic plans that many want it to have.
If the Niti Aayog is to be taken seriously, its agenda has to include demographics, energy, land and water. Like its counterpart in China, the agency should also allocate resources for long-term plans. But the Niti Aayog has decided it would do planning, in spite of planning being abolished. The finance minister is allocating resources amongst the states in the Centre’s schemes. The annual budget’s aim is to allocate more money than by the UPA government in centrally-sponsored projects. The only difference is that in the Planning Commission earlier, resources were allocated in the Annual Plan according to the Gadgil-Mukherji Formula. But now that allocation is ad hoc or as some states say, arbitrary.
Inspite of all this, the Niti Aayog has produced a Three-Year Vision Plan 2018/19-2021/22. The agency does not have the resource allocation function but the plan has sections called “Objectives”, “Expenditure Targets”, “Resource Allocation”, “Sectoral Plans” and “Special Problems” like documents of the Planning Commission. Resource allocation in India was earlier done by the Planning Commission on the basis of socio-economic criteria. These were based on measurable indicators. In some projects funded by the Government of India, “backwardness” at the district level was also used as a criteria.
But now being rich is a criteria.
We are struck by the careful attempt to reconstruct planning. We want the aura of the much-maligned Yojana Bhavan. We want the experts to talk about it and the chief ministers to come there. We want three year-action plans (I suppose as the “Mid-Term Review” of the earlier plans). There is also a long-term vision, which is presented in an attractive chart.
The real issue for the country is to ensure growth across gender, caste or religious lines. For markets cannot function otherwise. Also, the country has to grow fast. The Niti Aayog does say so as well. But it needs to supply more details.
Meanwhile, please make me happy by saying I am rich. Thank you.
— This article first appeared in the January 21, 2019 print edition under the tile ‘Struggling to be rich’