During the five years of the previous Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the state, Kerala had won acclaim for widening the social security net and for the gains made in addressing problems of hunger and homelessness. The LDF Manifesto for the elections to the state Assembly earlier this year also contained a number of ambitious promises, including eradication of absolute poverty, eliminating hunger and ending homelessness; not least the reason for which they succeeded in winning a historic mandate.
It was no surprise then that one of the first decisions made by the present government, in the very first meeting of the Council of Ministers headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan soon after swearing-in, was to announce that an in-depth survey would be conducted to analyse the key distress factors causing absolute poverty and propose measures to overcome the same.
On July 15, the Minister for Local Self Government MV Govindan announced that following the approval of the plan by the Council of Ministers, Additional Commissioner for Rural Development Santhoshkumar has been appointed as the nodal officer for the project. A pilot survey will be conducted followed by an in-depth survey monitored by a committee headed by the nodal officer. This survey will be completed by December this year, Govindan said.
Absolute Poverty in Kerala
Over the last 40 years, absolute poverty in Kerala has undergone a sharp reduction as a result of various factors such as the implementation of land reforms, provision of public education and health care, a strong public distribution system, decentralisation of power to local self-governments, social security and welfare schemes and Kudumbashree programmes.
According to Planning Commission data of the Union government, the incidence of absolute poverty in Kerala was 59.79% in 1973-74 which came down to 7.05% in 2011-12. This compares favourably to the ratio of absolute poverty at the all-India level, which was 54.88% in 1973-74 (lower at the time compared to Kerala) and reduced to 21.92% in 2011-12.
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However, as the Kerala Economic Review 2020 notes, even though Kerala is better off than most other states in India in terms of average poverty estimates, there are still several pockets of deprivation in the state. Absolute poverty in Kerala is mainly concentrated in some social categories and groups such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, fisher-folk, potters and artisans.
Plan to Eradicate Absolute Poverty
The programme in the 2021 LDF Manifesto to eradicate absolute poverty was first outlined in the budget presented by former Finance Minister Thomas Isaac in January this year. The state already has a Kudumbashree programme called Agathirahitha Keralam which expanded the Ashraya project to rehabilitate destitute families to 1.6 lakh beneficiaries.
The proposed survey will identify all those not covered by the current programme, an estimated 4.5 lakh families at present. Families of those of old age, those experiencing mental or physical disabilities, those who are suffering from debilitating diseases, children who are orphaned, homeless people and families of long-term migrants who are now out of work, etc. will be given priority.
The proposal is to identify the needs and problems of each such family and to prepare micro plans to lift them out of absolute poverty, based on successful plans such as the ones prepared for the families of Ulladar community under the PK Kalan scheme in Alappuzha. Trained personnel from local self-governments will be utilised to prepare these plans and livelihood programmes will be worked out along with existing schemes for housing, nutrition, health, etc.
The manifesto also promised that the state government along with the local self-governments will provide income support on a monthly basis wherever required to ensure the basic needs.
A People’s Alternative
Many recent reports have cited alarming increase in hunger and food insecurity in India since the beginning of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown restrictions. The number of people living in households with daily incomes below $5 in India went from 298.6 million at the start of the outbreak in March 2020 to 529 million by the end of October, according to the State of Working India Report published by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University.
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Indebtedness increased and an estimated 75 million additional Indians were pushed into poverty (defined as daily income of $2 or less as has been set by the World Bank to be the measure of absolute poverty), according to a study by the Pew Research Centre.
In Kerala, the social security net and large-scale programmes like setting up of community kitchens, provision of monthly ration and grocery kits and subsidised meals through People’s Restaurants (called Janakeeya Hotels) has resulted in the state staving off that kind of disaster. However, with the economy still weak and the state limping back to normalcy, the people need all the support they can get, and the most poor among them even more so.
Minister for Local Self Government MV Govindan expressed confidence that such a programme as the one envisioned will be one more step towards a genuine People’s Development Alternative.