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Who is UNDP trying to fool? SCs and STs haven’t escaped poverty

The UNDP recently released a report that said some 271 million Indians had escaped ‘multidimensional poverty’ in just ten years. But the latest data pertaining to SCs and STs, available in the public domain, tells a different story, says Ashesh Swar

The United Nations Development Programme released the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) on 18 September 2018. It attracted widespread attention. The Indian government and the media played up the reference in the report to a phenomenal achievement of reduction in poverty among its citizens. The poorest groups – across states, castes, religions and ages – had the biggest reductions in the decade, showing that they have been “catching up”, the report said. “In India alone, some 271 million have escaped multidimensional poverty in just ten years.” The media specifically elaborated on how the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims were “catching up” with the rest of society. This was a revelation to me and many others, and when I dug into the relevant data available in the public domain, I found that these claims were indeed baseless.

The 2018 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) evaluates poverty on three dimensions: health, education and living standards, with focus on access to clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and primary education. Those deprived in at least a third of the index’s components are defined as “multidimensionally poor”.The MPI has replaced the earlier Human Development Index (HDI) as the measure of poverty.

The UNDP said in its press release that its positive assessment was based on a comparison of the National Family Health Surveys carried out in 2005-06 and 2015-16. However, when we collate the various relevant data from Census 2001 and 2011 (Table No 1) – which are censuses and therefore reflect the reality more accurately – and data from World Bank and Planning Commission, and compare data for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations, an altogether different picture emerges. These figures show how many marginalized people are still left behind by development, but they also demonstrate that progress can happen quickly with sustained right intervention in the right direction.

Table No 1: Comparison between 2001 and 2011 Census

Population102.8 Cr121.0 Cr16.2%16.6%8.2%8.6%
Per Capita Income (Rs/Yr)20,36236,342    
Literacy Rate (%)64.874.0454.766.0747.158.95
Life Expectancy (Yr)62.566.1    
Sex Ratio (2011 Census)933940869945978991
Below Poverty Line (%)28.322.0

39.933.045.9 (Rural)47.1 (Rural)

Source: Census 2001 & 2011, World Bank

Here, we find that SC and ST population percentage contribution has grown but there is a significant lag in growth in literacy among them (66.07 per cent and 58.95 per cent, respectively) as compared to the national average of 74.04 per cent. Both of these disadvantaged groups have a substantial percentage of people living below the poverty line. In fact, the percentage of STs living below the national poverty line[1] has increased substantially in rural areas.

On the positive side, sex-ratio among SCs and STs is much better than among the others, the reason for which is that the women work, often alongside the men, and supplement the meagre income of the family and therefore the birth of a girl child is not considered a liability as among the upper castes.

While Infant Mortality Rates and Maternal Mortality Rates for these communities are available, two important figures are not. First is the Per Capita Income for STs and SCs, which is not collected but an insight into it can be had from average monthly incomes of these households. which we will see later that is very low, with more than 90 per cent of SC and ST households earning less than Rs 10,000 a month . Second is life expectancy, which is collected but is not available in public domain; however, we can safely assume that it would be lower than the national average because of poor access to health care, discrimination and poor nutritional and economic condition. A study released by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) on 26 September 2017, found that 32-33 per cent of SC and ST boys under 5 years of age are underweight, compared to 21 per cent in the general population. This is one of the many studies that indicate prevalence of dire poverty.

Table No 2: Rural-urban population distribution

National Figure377,105,760 (31.16 %)833,087,662 (68.84 %)1,210,193,422 (100 %)
SC47,527,524 (23.60 %)153,850,562 (76.40 %)201,378,086 (100 %)
ST10,461,872 (10.03 %)93,819,162 (89.97 %)104,281,034 (100 %)

Source: Census 2011, Planning Commission (PCA Final Data)


Table No 3: Urban population distribution & households

PopulationHouseholdsAverage Family Size
National Figure377,105,76065,130,0005.79
SC47,527,524 (12.60 %)7,900,269 (12.13 %)6.02
ST10,461,872 (2.77%)1,654,302 (2.54 %)6.32

Source: Census 2011


Table No 4: Rural population distribution & households

PopulationHouseholdsAverage Family Size
National Figure833,087,66217,978,74544.63
SC153,850,562 (18.47 %)33,164,085 (18.45 %)4.64
ST93,819,162 (11.26 %)19,737,399 (10.98 %)4.75

Source: Census 2011


Table No 5: Households and average family size

Rural HouseholdUrban HouseholdTotal HouseholdPopulationAverage Family Size
National Figure179,787,45465,130,000244,917,4541,210,854,9774.94

Source: Census 2011


Segregation and social discrimination has been the defining character of Indian life for ages. Urbanization and a modern, Western way of life offered great hope that the country would be able to transcend the walls of caste, religion and language. Dr B.R. Ambedkar expressed the same hope when he exhorted Dalits to flee the countryside and move to cities to escape the shackles of caste. “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village and for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic. What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?” wrote Ambedkar.

It’s a cliche to say that India resides in its villages but it is increasingly undergoing urbanization. About 69 per cent of Indians still live in its rural areas and a chunk of them are SCs and STs. The two communities together make up 30 per cent of the rural population. Out of total SCs and STs, 76.40 per cent and 89.97 per cent, respectively, reside in rural areas (see Table 2). Only 10 per cent of STs reside in urban areas, while 23.60 per cent SCs do so.

We all are aware that urban areas have better housing, educational institutions, health care, roads and sanitation and electricity connectivity, thus improving not only the quality of life but also increasing life expectancy. The urban areas also have better employment opportunities and offer a comparatively less discriminatory milieu.

The majority of SCs and STs living in rural areas face negative effects of segregation and discrimination in schooling and employment, thus hampering earning capacity and reinforcing the century-old poverty trap. Add to this the decades of systematic neglect of the agriculture sector – which is the backbone of rural economy. All this runs contrary to the claim that the “poorest groups – across states, castes, religions, and ages – have been “catching up”. At the most, the whole national social pyramid itself has moved up with people at the bottom still at the bottom.

Yashwant Bhashkar Damle, a prominent Dalit sociologist from Pune University, and others have shown that social identity has an impact on economic performance. Despite well-intentioned laws and policy interventions, caste continues to be an aspect of the modern Indian economy, shaping labour markets, access to nutrition, services, health care, education, job opportunity and wellbeing.

Table No 6: Main profession of highest-earning member of rural household

CultivationCasual LabourDomestic WorkForaging/ Rag-Picking /BeggingOwn EnterpriseOthers
National Figure %3051.182.500.601.6713.97
SC %18.3767.262.170.651.0310.41
ST  %40.1754.242.120.480.677.99
Non SC/ST31.6746.552.630.591.8815.77

Source: Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011

In rural areas, where caste prejudice and discrimination are much more present in everyday life, landholdings, job opportunities and access to common social space is unfavourable to lower castes. As evident from the census data, 18.37 per cent of SC and 40.17 per cent of ST households are engaged in agriculture for livelihood (Table No 6). Ninety per cent of these agriculturist households have less than 2 hectares, indicating subsistence cultivation.

The majority of SCs and STs are engaged as casual labour – 67.26 per cent and 54.24 per cent, respectively. Only 1 per cent of their households have a self-owned non-agricultural enterprise. Thus it seems that a majority of them are wholly dependent on the upper castes for economic survival and living a life of penury and are definitely below the poverty line.

In the rural areas, according to the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011, only 9.65 per cent households have salaried jobs, of which only 4.98 per cent are government jobs. Only 7.3 per cent SC households have salaried jobs, of which 4.88 per cent are government and public-sector jobs. A miniscule 2.42 per cent SC households have private salaried jobs. Similarly, only 6.43 per cent ST households have salaried jobs, of which 4.95 per cent are government or public sector jobs, and a miniscule 1.48 per cent have private salaried jobs.

The same can be said about urban areas. That is where a majority of salaried jobs are located. However, detailed findings of the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 in urban areas have not been released till now. We assume that the condition of SCs and STs in urban areas would be as gloomy as it is in rural areas, especially given a general lack of availability of jobs. “Unemployment levels have been steadily rising, and after several years of staying around 2-3 per cent, the headline rate of unemployment reached 5 per cent in 2015, with youth unemployment being a very high 16 per cent,” said the State of Working India 2018 (SWI) report released by Centre for Sustainable Employment of Azim Premji University. “This rate of unemployment is the highest seen in India in at least the last 20 years,” the report added.

In the last four and a half years not only has the total number of jobs available reduced, but the wages offered have also contracted. Add to this the increased cost of living, giving rise to an increased number of people facing abject poverty.

Table No 7: Rural household income

Less than Rs 5,000 per monthMore than Rs 10,000 per month
National Figure79.96 %8.25 %
SC76.96 %8.78 %
ST86.53 %4.48 %
Non SC/ST70.29 %9.77 %

Source: Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011

In the rural area, 76.96 per cent SC and 86.53 per cent ST households have an average monthly income less than Rs 5000 (Table No 7), which, we all would agree, is not sufficient enough to make ends meet. A recent National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) study has shown that at the national level 82 per cent of the men and 92 per cent of women are earning less than 10,000 per month. So, we can safely conclude that the same would apply to the working SCs and STs. However, there are also high unemployment rates among them.

The rate of unemployment among youth and those who have completed higher education has reached 16 per cent, according to the State of Working India 2018 report. The rate of “open unemployment” is now more than 5 per cent. Nitin Gadkari, the cabinet minister, himself has asked, “where are the jobs?”

Table No 8: GDP, Per Capita Income and average family size

National GDP$ 493,934 million$1,823,052 Million
Per Capita Income (Annual)Rs 18,450Rs 54,000 (Rs 1,12,835 for 2017-18)
Average Family Size5.24.94
Monthly Income (Needed to remain above Poverty Line, with international poverty line of 1.9 $ per day per person) {1$ = Rs 70}1.9 x 70 x 30 x 4.94 = 19710.60

Rs 19710.60 (per family per month)

Source: World Bank

The minimum monthly salary recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission (CPC) is Rs 18,000. This suggests that a large majority of Indians are not being paid what may be termed a living wage. Nationally, 67 per cent of households reported monthly earnings of up to Rs 10,000 in 2015. According to the 2011 Census, about 92 per cent of SC and 95 per cent of ST households had reported monthly earnings less than Rs 10,000 (Table No 7). With the economic meltdown since 2013, disruptive economic policies like demonetization and hasty implementation of half-cooked Goods and Services Tax (GST), the situation has worsened.

With an average family size of 4.9, each household would need at least Rs 19,710 per month just to survive (Table No 5). This is barely enough to survive because one is exposed to emergency expenditures on ill health and natural calamities. According to the World Bank in 2011, 4.1 per cent Indians slipped into poverty, earning less than $1.90 or Rs 84 (2011) per person per day, due to out-of-pocket health expenditure, which is the second highest proportion in the world after Bangladesh.

Given this grim income scenario, people facing “real” poverty is certainly more than what has been admitted by the Government of India or by the UNDP and the World Bank. Hence, it is established beyond doubt that 270 million might have escaped Multidimensional Poverty but have not escaped “real” poverty in their day-to-day life. Poorest groups have not had the biggest reductions in the decade, “catching up” is not visible, and the poverty rate among the tribal population has in fact increased. Marginalized sections are still at the bottom of socio-economic hierarchy.

The economic growth has not touched everyone equitably and many groups like SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities have been left behind amid improving living standards. There is not only the growing income inequality between the rich and the poor but also between the dominant castes and socially marginalized sections. This is the contradiction in India’s modern economic life, which needs urgent redressal.

“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril,” said Dr B. R. Ambedkar. The nation should listen to him. The government needs to refocus attention on socio-economic inclusion for all. It is high time the government examined the relationship between caste and development.

Copy-editing: Anil/Lokesh Kumar

[1] In India, the poverty line is the ability to afford that minimum expenditure that meets the needs of an individual per day. It has been reviewed every few years in India by different committees. The United Progressive Alliance government (2004-2014) used the (Suresh) Tendulkar method to arrive at poverty line of Rs 27 in rural areas and Rs 33 in urban areas and this led to widespread public outcry. The government relented and formed a committee under C. Rangarajan to decide on a new poverty line.  The Government of India currently uses Rangarajan committee’s recommendations made in 2014, according to which the poverty line has been fixed at Rs 32 in rural areas and Rs 47 in urban areas, levels at which getting two meals may be difficult. Without accounting for inflation rates the same poverty line is still in use after almost four years. The current global poverty line is $1.90 (Rs 123.5) per day, up from $1.25 (Rs 81). The new global poverty line is set at $1.90 using 2011 prices in accordance with the recommendation of the World Bank.

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About The Author

Ashesh Swar