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Poverty reduction: The other side of the coin

| Updated: October 25, 2017 05:41:17

Poverty reduction: The other side of the coin
Income-poverty level has declined over time as established by quantitative as well as qualitative indicators. But, the very process of assessment has come under serious scrutiny in recent times. The allegation is that the study of income-poverty does not tell the whole story of poverty-led misery. It is now argued that people should not be deprived of the access to some basic social services on the plea that they are not able to buy the services. Rawls identified these services as "primary commodities". If access of the poor to these can be increased, their non-income poverty - such as lives, capability and welfare - can tremendously be influenced. And more importantly, such access would definitely contribute to human capital formation for their future generations, and thus make a perceptible influence on the reduction of inter-generational poverty crisis.
Admittedly, data on non-income side are scant; only a guess could be made about recent years. Empirics from household surveys show that non-income poverty has also declined to a large extent. In this case, special attention should be given to the access to food as food is the most basic element of survival for mankind. We assume that households not reporting three satisfactory meals a day (assessment of household members) would be considered to be in hunger. Under this assumption we notice that, the proportion of such 'unsatisfied' rural households has more than halved. But that kind of improvement leaves no room for complacency as, even now, six out of 100 households fail to feed family members with three satisfactory meals a day. We can dub this syndrome 'silent famine'. According to our estimates, roughly 10 million people are deprived of the food needed to keep them fit for productive pursuits. That means that hunger haunts them every day and drives them to early death. This 'silent famine' seems to have demeaned much of our success.
Apart from the slim success in food access, access to education above primary level has improved very marginally. Still, 10 in every 100 rural households do not send their boys and girls (aged 6-15 years) to schools. All this is happening when we continue to espouse that education is the magic lamp for poverty alleviation; falling far behind in education, no nation could seek success in their fight against poverty.
What then causes an improvement in hunger-like situation that we have narrated above? A panoply of factors - either in isolation or in combination - could have caused the improvement. The causes are partly market-driven and partly driven by commitments from the state. Among the market-driven forces, adoption of new technology in paddy production is at the top of the list. This has helped increase food production, provide incentives to farmers and exert a downward pressure in food prices. In consequence, even the extreme poor could access food. Basically, the poor have benefited from this new technology on several counts. First, labour-intensive as they are, MVs (modern varieties) absorb more labour per unit creating employment opportunities for the poor. Their exchange entitlements have thus increased to ensure food security. Second, infrastructural development and the growth of non-farm activities have tightened the labour market, and raised the wage levels to the benefit of the poor. Third, increased access to the tenancy market associated with changes in tenurial terms have favoured the poor to increase income and food security. Finally, some state-sponsored programmes such as safety nets, VGF (Vulnerable Group Feeding) 0and food for education etc. have also helped households avert hunger. By and large, following the reduction in income-poverty, scopes on the part of the households for spending on non-food items have further widened. 
But the basic question is: who are these hungry households and what are their features? We need to know about them if we want to draw policies to address poverty and hunger. First, we observe that the largest proportion of these households have no homestead land. An inverse relationship exists between land ownership and hunger condition, where owning more land means less hunger. As per farm size, the largest share of the hunger-driven households comprises non-farm households, although we observe substantial improvement on this score over time.  Finally, households where the heads have no formal education seem to be easy prey to hunger. That is, education has an association with hunger: more education means less hunger. But as land is hard to transfer, expansion of education remains to be the heart of the anti-hunger programmes.
We thus observe that there is not much difference between the determinants of income-poverty and non-income poverty. In fact, both are influenced mainly by per capita income. This suggests that it is very difficult to conceive poverty reduction without raising income. But who fails to raise income? From the available data, we have already mentioned that small land size and the lack of education bedevil increased income. But since the socio-political imperatives have been cited as serious constraints to drastic land reforms in the near future, we are left with three alternatives for policy consideration. First comes the need for increasing the access of the poor to education; second, enabling the poor households through necessary reforms in the tenancy market, expansion of infrastructural and credit facilities, etc., and third, distribution of 'khas' land among the landless households.
The first and the third options predominantly lie in the hands of the state, as it is the constitutional obligation of the state to enhance access to basic education for the people. Again, freeing khas lands from the occupation of the influential persons is also the responsibility of the state. The second option could be materialised by both state and market. The partnership of the public and private sectors will play a pivotal role in building physical infrastructure, providing credit and expanding non-farm activities - all of these will then pull labour out of agriculture. 
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.

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