In our daily lives, we come in contact with many people who we think are poor or may be poor. They may be landless laborers living in a village or in a city slum, daily wage laborers in construction work or forced laborers in small hotels.
Poverty is a special consequence of a variety of economic conditions. That is why to solve the problem of poverty, one must first move away from the concept of poverty. It is more important to understand ‘how poorer the poor are’ than to know how many are poor. Just as we are thinking about the poverty line, should we also think about the graph of rich people? The government should be able to raise the living standards of its citizens, which fall within the definition of poor.
The thought of just crossing the poverty line is like the thought of bringing a drowning person to the shore and releasing him. Failure to have even the minimum availability of fundamental rights stipulated in the constitution of Nepal would be considered as ignoring the basic point of state failure. Only a few decades ago, poverty was not even measured in Nepal. It was customary to interpret poverty only thematically. Later, when the Central Bureau of Statistics started conducting Living Standards Survey, the debate on what constitutes a poverty line began to intensify. Following the belief that poverty can be measured in both monetary and non-monetary terms, poverty was measured in Nepal from necessities.
In Nepal, poverty statistics were first compiled by the National Planning Commission in 1977. Under this, employment, income distribution and consumption have been formally received from the household surveys.
Poverty of data
Nearly five years have passed since the formation of three levels of government under the federal democratic constitution. But even now, to understand the poor and the social, economic and political status of these three spheres—local, provincial and federal—one has to rely on the census conducted ten years ago. Few I/NGOs and various donors have collected data related to their projects but such studies cannot be generalized.
The fact is that local governments do not prioritize research and studies. Similarly, it is difficult to find the provincial governments’ study on poverty. Last year, this scribe had in-depth discussions with some of the concerned ministers and secretaries of Province-2 (now named Madhesh) government. During the discussion, I asked: “How has the provincial government measured and mapped poverty?” Their answer: “We haven’t done anything like that.”
Humanitarian economist Amartya Sen has called poverty a lack of capacity to meet human needs. Poverty is also understood from the dimension of deprivation. Poverty means being deprived of food, drinking water, health care, sanitation, housing, education and information. Lack of access to these eight kinds of needs means that such a person is deprived of human needs. Sen argues that since the definition of poverty is linked to income rather than classical thinking, it should be measured based on income. Similarly, some schools think that poverty is a multifaceted issue. The argument that poverty is measured in relativity and neutrality considering the social, economic and political dimensions of any country also has its legal basis.
The highest poverty is in Madhesh. According to the Policy Commission report of Province 2 released in 2020 the poverty rate was high and the Human Development Index (HDI) had declined significantly in the province. The highest multidimensional poverty rate in the province is about 48 percent. Problems with food, shelter, clothes and inability to get treatment for illness are included in the list of multidimensional poverty. According to the five-year plan of the state policy commission, the multidimensional poverty rate is 47.9 percent. Nepal’s multidimensional poverty rate is 28.6 percent.
The provincial government should be able to define poverty from its level based on primary statistics and studies by establishing a standard of poverty.
Madhesh ranks second in multidimensional poverty as well. The economic poverty rate in the province is 27.7 percent. Nepal’s overall economic poverty is 25.2 percent. Madhesh ranks third in economic poverty. The Human Development Index is at the bottom. According to the commission, the overall human development index rate in Nepal is 0.490 but it is 0.42 percent in the province. These figures are based on secondary sources such as the National Planning Commission and the National Census.
What should Madhesh do?
The government of this province has been claiming all along that it is a pro-poor government. On what basis is the government evaluating the poverty situation? Is it based on secondary data? Even engineers make estimates by monitoring the site for road construction. The provincial government does not seem to have understood the importance of primary data. The provincial government has set the goal of reducing economic poverty to 21 percent from 27.7 percent in the next five years in its five-year plan. Good luck with that but, again, on what basis has the government identified the poor of the province? Has it collected the poverty data of the province by itself or it has identified the poor based on the same ten years old data? Poverty data collection is important for Nepal in times of disasters such as Covid-19, floods and landslides. But it is difficult to get updated statistics in Madhesh when you need it.
Consider this. A poor man went to the Gulf countries to earn money by taking out a loan at high interest. Within three years, he repaid the loan and built a one-story house. Due to the pandemic, the situation became such that he no longer had the money to manage the house and was short of running expenses for three months. He has no job, nor any income. No one thinks about such families. In Madhesh, those who have a concrete house are considered to be ‘rich.’
Because we have no updated data of poverty, the governments have failed to provide assistance to the real poor. Probably all of us have read the news that the leaders at the local level and the intermediaries of the leaders in the society have failed to provide relief to those genuinely poor around them. The real poor are deprived of relief. There is also the challenge of conducting a realistic monitoring and comparative study of how much of the various indicators under the Sustainable Development Goals have been achieved. Having updated and credible statistics will help the governments to know whether the huge chunks of money being spent in the name of poverty or for poverty alleviation have actually helped to change the lives of the poor on the ground. This will also help us know whether the money spent by the government for the poor has gone to the real poor. This is true to all the provinces of the country.
Madhesh, in particular, may promote the concept of ‘Below Poverty Line’ like in India. The provincial government should be able to define poverty from its level based on primary statistics and studies by establishing a standard of poverty. And then it should move forward in coordination with other governmental, non-governmental organizations and various donor agencies which are working for poverty reduction. It may seem, then, that we are trying to do something real in the name of poverty.
Randhir Chaudhary is Executive Director with the Peace Development Research Center (PDRC).