The first two decades of Indian planning relied on the “filter down hypothesis.” This implied the automatic top down flow of the benefits of economic growth. It was popularly known as “growth with distribution” philosophy. The first shadows of doubt on the consistency between growth and distribution in the Indian economy were cast in the 1960s with the release of the Hazari Report, the findings of the Mahalanobis Committee and the conclusions of the Dutt Commission. These reports proved on a professional level, the existence of a reasonably decent economic growth along with growing inequality and poverty. Hence, from the 4th Five-Year Plan onwards, distributional justice occupied attention at the official level.
Introduction of anti-poverty programmes demanded quantification of the challenge of poverty, popularly referred to as the poverty line. To calculate the value of this poverty line, minimum food expenditure per adult was calculated for both urban and rural populations. These two estimates were then scaled up to accommodate the non-food requirements. This in turn yielded the measure of the poverty line. Households or individuals with annual incomes below the annual poverty line estimate were officially recognised as poor and considered eligible to partake in the benefits of anti-poverty programmes. This has been the simplest measure taken against poverty, though more efficient measures like the P-Measure have subsequently been developed. Once the target population for these schemes had been identified using one of the many measures of poverty, the government went ahead with a number of anti-poverty programmes, some of which are discussed in this article.
In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched the Twenty Point Programme. For the first time in India’s history, it promised gainful employment and some minimum public services to improve the quality of life of the poor and the under privileged population of the country. The programme covers various socio-economic aspects like poverty, employment, education, housing, health, agriculture and land reforms, irrigation, drinking water, protection and empowerment of weaker sections, consumer protection, environment etc.
Another important programme launched in 1977 was the Food for Work Programme. Under this programme, the government accumulated food stocks greater than the minimum necessary buffer. The excess food stock was then used to make payments in kind to poor workers who would work in the rural areas to build rural infrastructure. Hence, the aim of this programme launched by the BJP government was two-fold. The plan aimed to not only alleviate poverty but also create some rural assets. When it began in 1977, the government had massive food grain stocks of 15.4 million tonnes. Some of these were earmarked, initially at the rate of one million tonnes a year, for payment as wages in kind to workers who came forward to help build roads and water ponds during the lean employment season in the countryside. Although the conceptual framework of the programme and strategy depending upon the requirement at the time of enactment was excellent, the project suffered from some shortcomings with respect to planning and monitoring of its work. Due to poor supervision through governmental channels during the time of its introduction, most of the works were allotted through contractors in the initial stages, which led to mismanagement.
This programme has now been subsumed into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which was the next major milestone in poverty alleviation in India. It first began in 2005 as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The first employment guarantee programme was initiated in Maharashtra. Subsequently, it statutorily committed hundred days of gainful employment per year to one adult per family below the poverty line. The Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been subsequently extended to the urban sector also. Apart from alleviating poverty and creating rural assets, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act also helps in protecting the environment, empowering the rural women and fostering social equality.
These anti-poverty measures that have been in practice in our country so far do not guarantee a permanent solution to the menace of poverty. They can at most provide immediate relief from hunger and destitution at times. Moreover, these programmes are the first ones to be discontinued whenever the fiscal strength of the government weakens. If we recognize poverty as the worst pollutant in any civilized human conglomeration, permanent redistribution of income generating assets is the only solution to the problem.
– Contributed by Vinny
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