New Delhi: In a damning reflection of how India’s most vulnerable sections continue to remain at the bottom of the pyramid, fresh data shows that the so-called ‘lower’ castes, tribals, Muslims, and children aged below 10 are among the poorest in the country.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)’s global multidimensional poverty index (MPI), 2018, every second person belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and every third person belonging to the Scheduled Castes remains poor. Similarly, every third Muslim is multi-dimensionally poor as are two in five children under the age of 10.
The term multidimensional in the report, which was released Thursday, defines poor not only on the basis of income but on other indicators such as nutrition, health, education, living standards and assets.
The report covered 640 districts across the country and compared data over a 10-year period between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Its methodology determines the unit of analysis (a household) and identifies the set of indicators in which they are deprived at the same time, summarising their poverty profile in a weighted deprivation score.
The report found that 50 per cent of all tribals in the country are poor as are 33 per cent of Dalits and 33 per cent of Muslims.
Overall, the report shows India still has the largest number of people living in multidimensional poverty in the world at 364 million or around 27 per cent of the country’s population. Of this, as many as 34.5 per cent are children. Moreover, 8.6 per cent of the country’s population lives in “severe poverty”, as per the report.
While the report ranks India as having the largest number of poor in absolute numbers on account of its population, in terms of the proportion of poor, India is the 54th poorest country among the 105 surveyed. Niger tops this list.
Upper castes best performing
In contrast, the report found that the so-called upper castes fare far better on the MPI scale — only 15 per cent of the ‘upper’ castes are poor.
The good news, however, is that the poverty rate has gone down significantly in the 10 years — from 55 per cent in 2005-06 to 28 per cent in 2015-16. This trend has especially been observed among the traditionally disadvantaged sections, the report notes, adding that the poorest groups — spanning across states, castes, religions and age groups — have had the highest reduction in MPI in that period.
According to the report, for instance, while 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe had been poor in 2005-06, the figure has gone down to 50 per cent in 2015-16.
Similarly, multidimensional poverty among children under 10 years of age has also fallen the fastest, with a 47 per cent decrease in poor children witnessed in the period of study. “When considering the durable and lifetime consequences of childhood deprivation, particularly in nutrition and schooling, this is a tremendously good sign for India’s future,” the report states.
This appears to be a welcome development considering the period from 1998-99 and 2005-06 saw the opposite trend with the poorest groups showing the slowest progress.
Bihar, followed by Jharkhand, are the poorest states with 52 per cent and 45 per cent of their population respectively identified as living in multidimensional poverty. In Kerala, which is the best performer, only 1 per cent of population falls in the category.
Much like the trend in marginalised groups, however, the poorer states have also witnessed significantly high improvement — possibly a factor of the low base. According to the report, Jharkhand has seen the greatest improvement, with Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Nagaland only slightly behind.
This, meanwhile, has not meant the better-off states have been stagnant with no reduction in poverty. For example, Kerala — one of the least poor regions in 2006 — has managed to reduce its MPI significantly.
The causes of multidimensional poverty across states seem consistent — while poor nutrition is the largest contributor and responsible for 28.3 per cent of India’s MPI, not having a household member with at least six years of education is the second largest contributor at 16 per cent.
To address the former, the Food Security Act was introduced in 2013 by the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to provide subsidised foodgrains to the poor. Lack of education, meanwhile, may have led to the inability to access employment, thus contributing to poverty.
However, inadequate access to clean water and child mortality contribute the least, at 2.8 per cent and 3.3 per cent respectively. These, in fact, are more likely to be manifestations of poverty than causes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has decided to ensure piped drinking water to all rural households by 2024.
Among the worst performing districts in terms of the population living in multidimensional poverty, two are in Madhya Pradesh, while three are in Uttar Pradesh. There are four districts in these two states where more than 70 per cent people are poor. Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh has 76.5 per cent of people as poor, which as per the report, is the same as Sierra Leone in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Overall, there are 27 districts where 60-70 per cent of the population lives in poverty. On the other hand, there are 19 districts where less than 1 per cent of people are poor and 42 districts where poverty rates are 2-5 per cent.
Among the top five districts with the least number of poor, four are in Kerala and one is in Tamil Nadu. Kottayam in Kerala has an MPI score of 0, while Ernakulam, Thrissur and Kannur — the other best-performing districts of the state — have less than 0.2 per cent of the population living in multidimensional poverty.
Among these districts, lack of access to clean cooking fuel and nutrition seem to be the biggest contributors to poverty.
The report finds a “clear divide between districts located in southern and north-central India”, with the former representing the least poor population.