Monday, January 29, 2018

Eliminate Poverty by Empowering the Poor

(with Surjit Bhalla)


  For half a century, the Indian Welfare objective has been to Alleviate Poverty. This objective has changed over the past four five years to eliminate poverty. Both the authors of this article have separately and jointly argued for more than a decade that it is possible to do so even with current expenditure on the numerous separate welfare programs of the Union government into a single umbrella and conversion to Direct cash/benefit transfers. [i]  With issue of #UID to 99% of adult population in India, it is now completely feasible to implement these ideas. This note, reassess the numbers and suggests a practical path to poverty elimination.

Extreme Poverty and New Standard

  If the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) report is to be believed, 60% of the Indian population was poor according to the World Bank poverty line of 3.2 PPP dollars per person per day. For Indians, the PPP conversion is easy because the World Bank, for close to 40 years, has never formally admitted it, but has defined its poverty line to be near identical to the official Indian poverty line. In 2011, Poverty rate based on either Tendulkar or World Bank poverty criteria in India was 14 % (based on NSS survey data with 7 day recall period for perishable food items like fruits & vegetables.)
The WEF result of 60 % poor in 2017 is obtained by raising the poverty line from PPP$ 1.91 to PPP$3.2 (68%) and keeping consumption levels identical to those observed in 2011/12. Correcting this mistake by allowing consumption to increase by the actual nominal compound growth of 10%  in per capita consumption observed in national accounts data, one can calculate the poverty rate by constructing a synthetic NSS distribution for 2017/18 by keeping the real distribution the same as in 2011/12. One then obtains the result that percentage poor in India (using PPP$3.2 poverty line) are 36 %, not 60 %. This contrasts with the percentage of poor of 5% in 2017/18, using the same method, but a  PPP$1.91 poverty line.
This last number is critical to appreciate the transformation that has happened in India over the last two decades. Absolute poverty, from close to 50 % in 1993/94, now less than 5 %. India is now close to a middle economy, not a poor economy. Which means its own Tendulkar poverty line needs to be raised, in real terms, by close to 60 % - to Rs. 2100 per person per month, or Rs. 70 per day, in current prices.  With this poverty line, a third of the population is absolutely poor in India – and this we believe should be the target of a new welfare policy.

Welfare Transfer System

 The gains from a reformed welfare system (cash transfers) are enormous, and the expenditure involved minimal. A central message, for politicians and policy makers alike, is that India is no longer a “poor” country in the traditional World Bank $ a day poor sense. That concept was there in the early 1990s. India is today a lower middle income economy, and should be thought of as such. It is the lower middle class that should be the prime focus of policy, for both moral and political reasons; the lower middle class (the emerging middle class) is about a third of the population.
 That a new welfare policy is needed is also made clear by the following calculation – Total welfare subsidies (food, fertilizer, petroleum, interest rate subsidies etc.) in 2017/18 are estimated to have been 2.73 tr. In 2017/18.  The present leaky and diffuse welfare system reaches only a quarter of the poor and lower middle class; and involves an expenditure level of Rs. 2.73 trillion.
Existing welfare programs (e.g. Public Distribution System of food grains) have a targeting efficiency of less than 30%.  Use of UID/Aadhar and cash transfer programs can significantly reduce the leakage in welfare programs.  Targeting efficiency can increase to 80% from the 30% level at present.  With the target of 33% of the population, and leakage of only 20%, approximate expenditures involved will be Rs. 500 ppm (400 divided by 0.8).  For a third of the population – 430 million – this comes to a total income transfer (or subsidy level) of Rs. 2.6 trillion.
Tax revenues for both corporate and personal income tax are buoyant – both up approximately 19 % in 2017/18, despite nominal GDP growth, at 9.5 %, being the fifth lowest since 1980. This tax buoyancy opens doors for a reformist fiscal policy – doors that can lead to greater tax collection, lower tax rates, and greater, and more efficient, tax redistribution. Doors that can lead to a golden era of fiscal policy. Below we outline some of the reasons why we expect that a blueprint will be laid out for such reforms in the Budget to be presented on February 1st.

Welfare Reform

  The Unique ID number (UID)/Aadhar provides the base for a comprehensive reform of the Welfare expenditure system of the Union government.[ii] Elements of this have already been put in place, through the conversion of LPG and 84 schemes across 17 departments using direct benefit transfers (DBT). A comprehensive reform, will ensure that every deserving person is identified and gets his/her welfare entitlement, with leakages minimized.
    Latest available data shows that 88.5% of the total population and ~99% of the adult population over 18 years of age is with an Aadhar number. The budget must make an allocation usable by all welfare departments and district collectors to ensure that this residual 1% gets an Aadhar number, using photo ID if there are finger print problems.  This provides the basis for a comprehensive Tax-Transfer system, which can be layered (for ID protection and Privacy reasons) by providing a separate Welfare Identification Number (WIN) or Welfare Entitlement Number (WEN), linked confidentially and within the firewalls of Government to Aadhar. The Welfare Entitlement Card (WEC) would be a smart card with separate slots for DBT, Food subsidy, Fertilizer subsidy & crop income insurance, health insurance, and health and education-training expenditures and NAREGA/job subsidies. This Welfare Entitlement Card  could also act as a photo ID card for all those entitled to receive Welfare payments.
   The recent ASER study shows that ~50% of 14-18 year olds despite having been schooled cannot read write or do basic arithmetic. Worse the actual learning seems to have deteriorated over the years. This despite the fact that government likely spent 5 % of GDP and households 3.5 % of GDP on education (NSS data 2011/12). The solution must be a combination of public education reforms by increased use of e learning (for teachers & brighter students), well regulated, modern competition and empowerment of the poor and marginalized, by putting the spending power into their hands to ensure accountability of public education institutions. Dissatisfaction has also been expressed at the effectiveness and quality of the public health system, particularly of  the primary & secondary health system on which Govt. spends Rs 500,000 crore (5 % of GDP) and households are forced to spend more than 6% of their budget (or 4 % of GDP). This too requires a combination of wide use of e-medicine, regulatory reforms, transfer of government health expenditure to the poor, which can be subsequently increased to conform to a modern and just health system.

First Stage

  We propose that all subsidies be linked to Aadhar and be paid as DBT. This means that all petroleum product linked subsidies (kerosene, diesel, petrol) must be integrated with the LPG subsidy & renamed petro-product subsidy. Though a large part of the fertilizer subsidy is a petroleum linked urea subsidy it also has other mineral linked components. As it’s directed at farmers undertaking crop agriculture, it can be converted to an input subsidy per unit of cultivated land, along the lines Telengana input support scheme. The third major subsidy, for Food/PDS should either be converted to DBT or a monetary entitlement for purchase of food from any registered food shop, including currently licensed PDS outlets. Similar entitlements must be defined for health insurance and health expenditures and on basic education, job training. All these would incorporated in a Welfare card which incorporates smart card technology to incorporate all the welfare entitlements mentioned above. The Welfare ID or Entitlement number would be linked to the Aadhar data base behind the firewall, to ensure that each and every citizen in the lower half of the population, receives all the welfare benefits she/he is entitled to and that these benefits are not siphoned off by corrupt officials.

Second Stage

   In the second stage the new Cash transfer system would be linked to and integrated with, the Personal Income Tax system (with PAN) to create a Negative Income Tax/Net Income Transfer System (NIT) as proposed by us earlier as part of Personal Income Tax Reform. [iii]
A version of this article appeared on the Op ed page of the Indian Express, under the title "Smart Policies for Redistribution." .

[i]  Arvind Virmani, "Poverty and Hunger in India: What is needed to Eliminate Them, The Pakistan Development Review, Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2006.  Arvind Virmani, “Poverty And Hunger In India: What is needed To Eliminate Them,” Working Paper No. 1/2006-PC, Planning Commission, February 2006.
[ii] Unique ID Number (UID),
[iii] Income Tax Reform II: Afeasible Negative Income Tax/Net Income Transfer System (NIT) ,

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