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The Nowhere Men & Women: How India Abandoned 14 Crore Citizens on a Policy Paper

The government of India runs the world’s biggest food security scheme, which provides free ration to more than 80 crore people. The scheme has won Prime Minister Narendra Modi accolades. But what if we realise that there are over 14 crore people who have been omitted from the benefit of this scheme because the government has not counted Indian citizens in over a decade? Can its intransigence break the welfare structure of governance?

Kaagaz has become a crucial word for people in their struggle for daily survival as they look up to the government for succour when economy fails them. The 2021 movie Kaagaz, starring actor Pankaj Tripathi as Lal Bihari Singh from Uttar Pradesh, seems straight out of a rural Indian landscape, where bureaucracy pushes a person into the darkness of a dreaded file by declaring him dead. Then starts Singh’s quest to be counted alive in the government roll call.

The story of the film may seem disjointed and unreal, but a part of it is certainly playing out in India’s hinterland. Take, for example, the case of 50 villagers of Khajuria Jagir village of Kurwai tehsil in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district who were declared dead on the Samagra portal in July 2023 when they were still alive. (Samagra is a social security programme of the state government.)

The quest of the villagers to prove themselves alive began with earnestness, as being declared dead means that they can no longer be beneficiaries under the many welfare programmes of the state and Central governments.

Unlike the people from Khajuria Jagir, who were officially counted before they dropped “dead”, many of India’s poor wait endlessly to be included in government lists of welfare programmes even when they can prove that they are deserving candidates. Governments and bureaucrats are, in fact, fighting a self-inflicted poverty of its own kind that has jammed public policy of welfare economics in the country.

And this is not just a result of India’s infamous red-tape syndrome. There is much more to it.

Outside the Government’s Benevolent Gaze

It is 11 am in Sona Dabar village in the Dabhaura area of Rewa district in Madhya Pradesh. This village, encircled by the Belwa forest, is already grappling with a sweltering heat wave. The arid land along with rapidly depleting groundwater seems to be a double whammy for its tribal population. In a bid to get respite from the soaring temperature, a group of women are perched on a pavement encircling a banyan tree, beneath which sits the idol of a local holy figure called Danavbir baba.

The women are discussing a message which was delivered to them—that the fair price shop will remain shut today. But Suraj Kali, 58, who is accompanied by her daughter-in-law Vandana Kol, is confronted with a different problem. She is unable to get ration under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013. She laments, “Life has turned upside down for my family ever since my two sons succumbed to tuberculosis. My husband is already bed-ridden, and, hence, we have no earning member in the family.” Vandana is trying to get her name registered for free ration as a new beneficiary.

Parliament enacted the NFSA in 2013 to provide subsidised food grains to approximately two thirds of India’s population. The food grains entitlement prescribed under the act is 35 kilogrammes per household per month for the poorest of poor families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and five kilogrammes per person per month for the remaining priority households.

The act, which completes 10 years of implementation in September, entitles up to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population—that is, 67% of national population—to receive subsidised food grains under the Targeted Public Distribution System. K.V. Thomas, the Union minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution at the time of implementation of the NFSA in 2013, says, “The NFSA was implemented in 2013 when I was a cabinet minister. There is no shying away from the fact that this act, along with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, turned out to be a lifeline during the pandemic. I must say that no government can afford to have its eyes off the act and its problems.”

However, despite the past and continuing political importance of the act, the reality is different for people who are trying hard to be counted as NFSA beneficiaries. Vandana made many rounds to the block office in Dabhaura with a pile of documents for being declared a beneficiary under the NFSA, but got no positive response from the officials. With a sombre look on her face, she said, “After my husband died in 2020, one day a sarpanch came to our house and told me that we would get ration soon.” The village head’s assurance stays empty till date.

Vandana’s pain is not exacerbated by inefficient local administrators but because of decisions being taken far away from their village, in New Delhi.

The Policymaker’s Blind Spot

In June, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Washington on his first state visit, he claimed to represent a number he had not yet counted. During the welcome ceremony at the White House South Lawn, he told a gathering of the Indian diaspora, with US president Joe Biden in attendance, “This grand welcome ceremony at the White House today is an honour and pride for the 1.4 billion people of India. This is also an honour for more than four million people of Indian origin living in the US. For this honour, I express my heartfelt gratitude.”

How did Modi know that India had crossed the 1.4 billion-mark with its people? Two months earlier, the UN estimated that India had overtaken China in population with a total figure of 1,425,775,850. Though the government liberally uses such estimates for hyperbolic claims, it shies away from counting people and beneficiaries of welfare schemes in the old-fashioned way through the decennial census and many statistical surveys. Over the years, this unwillingness has created a data deficit of humungous proportion which has humane and statistical implications for the most marginalised among Indians.

When the Modi government opted out of the census that should have been conducted in 2021, it sent back the country’s policymaking by a decade, says P.C. Mohanan, former acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission, who has had a troubled relationship with Modi’s government. “We have a problem of data deficit in India. We do not have updated census and socio-economic caste-based census, National Consumption Survey and MSME Survey. Even our civil registration system of recording deaths and births is not robust, which leads to data gap or data deficit.”

While agencies like the UN can rely on population estimates, the policymaker has no other choice but to bank on a physical census. India’s first chief statistician Pronab Sen says that India is not like European countries which are not dependent on physical census to count their people. “Their civil registration system is so robust that they can recompute their population at any given time,” he says.

Experts argue that the data gaps caused by the absence of the census and a lack of reliable ways to count people through secondary means make the implementation of welfare policies difficult and lead to the exclusion of a large chunk of eligible beneficiaries from availing benefits.

Data Deficit as Developmental Deficit

Data deficit works in myriad ways to deny the poor access to government schemes. In village after village, a huge number of eligible people is being left out from the food security act because of the government’s inability to count all Indian citizens. Since the NFSA determines ration quotas for states and Union territories using the census data, experts rue the delay in conducting census. Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, says, “The population during 2011, when the census was last conducted, stood at 1.21 billion, witnessing a decadal growth of 17.7% between 2001 and 2011. Now it has increased to around 1.4 billion. The number of beneficiaries has risen as the population has grown, but the quotas determined on the basis of the 2011 census still hold currency. This clearly has led to the letting go of many eligible people without food, which is a fundamental right.”

How does data gap lead to exclusion? A simple mathematical calculation can produce the answer to this question. According to the 2011 census, India’s population was 1.21 billion. Since the NFSA mandates the coverage of 67% people under its ambit, the act should have issued benefits to more than 810 million people in 2011. Going by the UN and other estimates, India’s population stands at over 1.42 billion now, taking the number of legitimate beneficiaries under the NFSA at 67% of the population to over 951 million. The non-availability of the 2021 census, thus, puts a whopping 14 crore plus people, or around 10% of the Indian population, outside the purview of the food security net.

Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, dubs the old census as the culprit behind the massive exclusion happening on the ground. “Since the government still depends on population figures from the 2011 census to determine who is eligible for aid, more than 100 million people are estimated to be excluded from the public distribution system,” she says.

Mohanan calls the census “the bedrock of Indian statistical system” because it impacts other surveys—for example, the Consumption Expenditure Survey—whose samples are either taken from the larger census pool or based on its representative data.

Sen agrees with Mohanan, saying, “The census is called the frame for all household surveys, as all sample surveys are drawn from it. Sample surveys are detailed questionnaires and their size ranges between 1.4 lakh and two lakh people. This is a large enough sample to provide state- and national-level estimation of how the population is distributed.” He adds that since the survey samples are old now, they are becoming less representative, leading to an erroneous conclusion that population distribution has not changed.

“It is a state where we are shooting in the dark. We do not know how many people are poor in India and how many have transitioned from the BPL to the above-poverty-line (APL) category in the last 12 years. We do not know where these poor people are. The area is not clear; the number is not clear. It is unthinkable for me.”Jayati Ghosh, who is a development economist and professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, says these words with caution but with a sense of despondency. And they sum up the condition the country finds itself in today: a country that does not count its poor and, thus, becomes a dark hole for economists and policymakers and underserves its people.

On the ground, exclusion is manifesting in innumerable ways.

Apart from the NFSA, Central pension schemes and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana—this scheme draws from the census as its beneficiaries are counted in the Socio Economic Caste Census—are also hamstrung in the absence of census.

People who married or became adults after the 2011 census was conducted and are demanding ration cards in their names rather than being declared dependents to their parents are facing problem. New entrants of all hues and colour are facing trouble in getting covered under the food safety act because their updated status does not show up in the official records. The old list continues to be operational in the backdrop of “a serious data deficit”, says Mohanan.

The BPL criterion is a contested domain among economists and policymakers. It is determined by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee standards, which were created in 2009. “By and large, the government still follows the Tendulkar Committee [criteria],” says Sen.

The Tendulkar Committee computed new poverty lines for rural and urban areas in 2009 and fixed the all-India poverty line for 2004–05 at Rs 446.68 per capita per month in rural areas and Rs 578.80 per capita per month in urban areas.

The Dialect of Exclusion

Cut to the nondescript block building in Jawa, 60 kilometres away from the Rewa city in Madhya Pradesh, which houses a large number of bureaucrats. A crowd has gathered as the state government has announced the Ladli Behna Yojana, under which women from 23 to 60 years of age having less than five acres of land or an annual income of less than Rs 2.5 lakh are eligible to get Rs 1,000 monthly assistance from it.

The scheme is targeted to woo voters, as the state is set to go to polls later this year. The city walls are adorned with names of government welfare schemes, some of which are made illegible by the red stains of gutka. C.M. Soni, the tehsildar, or the tax officer of the local sub-district, is presiding over a meeting of patwaris, or the land keepers. He says, “On an average, the population increases by 10% to 15% every 10 years or so. Obviously, the population has increased since the last census. We are doing work according to the budget allocated to us, but no new names are being added to the list of beneficiaries.” However, on the condition of anonymity, a government official from the area told Outlook Business, “There are many deserving people for inclusion in the NFSA list, but since the state quota is full, we cannot add new names. In some cases, we have no option but to accept new applications and tell applicants that their names will be added soon. However, even we do not know when it will happen.”

Over 400 kilometres east of Rewa, the story in the Latehar district of Jharkhand, once under the strong influence of Naxalites, is no different. Munni Devi, 26, hailing from Joruhar village in the district’s Barwadih block, has just returned from work. Her house is the only one at the foothill of a mountain with dense forest encircling it. The family walks 10 kilometres every day to collect tendu leaves from the forest. “Combining all 12 people in the family, we earn Rs 350 per day in this season,” Munni Devi says. She brandishes a box, having a written complaint on a piece of paper in it, which she made on April 11, 2023, to local officials. “Mera card hare se laal aur laal se peele colour ki category mai aa gya. Par abhi tak ration nahi mila. Hame hamara bakaya 455 kg ration deejiye (‘My card has switched from green to red to yellow category, but I have not got my ration so far. Give us our remaining 455 kilogrammes of ration’),” the complaint reads.

Munni Devi is befuddled about the logic of colour transition to her family getting ration. It is a kind of waiting list. Since the state quota for the yellow card of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and the red card of the priority households scheme under the NFSA are full, the Jharkhand government introduced the green category for the state-sponsored food security scheme. Started in 2020, this scheme is specifically meant for people who are left out of the NFSA coverage. The moment some names are deleted under the yellow and red categories, the people holding the green cards make a transition first to the red and then to the yellow categories.

Kanhai Singh, who was elected as a member of the Latehar district council in 2022 from the Barwadih division, says, “The addition of names under the yellow card has been stopped in the last three years. Considering the extent of exclusion, the Jharkhand government came up with its food security scheme and created the green card. But people have not got ration for the last five months under this scheme as well due to friction between the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Jharkhand government,” he says. “The FCI has stopped giving us rice, citing logistical issues. The government is roping in private players now, which has made the situation much worse here,” says a government official, on the condition of anonymity.

An Act Frozen in Time

The erstwhile Planning Commission determined the percentage coverage of states and Union territories under the NFSA by using the 68th round of the Household Consumption Expenditure Survey (2011–12) of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), Tendulkar Committee poverty estimates (2011–12) and the 2011 census data. Since the census and National Sample Survey figures have not been updated, the 2011 data continues to be used even in 2023, which has frozen the number of beneficiaries at 81.35 crore.

As a result of the frozen ceiling, the NFSA quota of 14 states and Union territories has been exhausted. It means that no more people in these states and Union territories can be accommodated within the existing quota even if they are qualified to obtain ration cards under the act. For example, in Bihar, the intended coverage under the NFSA stands at around 8.71 crore, which was achieved three years back. Similarly, Delhi had to cover 72.78 lakh people under the NFSA, which it did in 2021, leading to a situation where no new names have been added under the NFSA since then. Astonishingly, Delhi has nearly three lakh pending applications for new ration cards, the answer to a query made under the Right to Information Act revealed.

As recently as on July 31, the High Court of Delhi directed the Delhi government to conduct surveys of all pending applications for ration cards. Justice Subramonium Prasad, while directing the government to complete the exercise expeditiously, asked it to reach out to the needy, rather than waiting for them to petition the government.

Some of the other states that have no scope left to add more beneficiaries to their respective NFSA lists include Haryana, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Kerala and Maharashtra. Some states have demanded re-determining of the beneficiary quota under the NFSA, but their requests have not elicited the desired result from the Centre. On December 17, 2021, the Telangana government wrote to the Centre, requesting it to increase the NFSA beneficiary quota. After the letter remained unattended, Telangana again wrote to the Centre in July 2023, requesting it for additional food grain for a chunk of migrants who did not have ration cards in the state. It demanded 50,000 metric tonnes of rice to be distributed at Rs 10 per kilogramme per person. But the request stays unmet.

Activists claim that there is just 2% margin left for the whole country to hit the maximum limit under the NFSA—14 of the 36 states and Union territories have exhausted their quota under the act, while most of the remaining ones, such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh, have exhausted 98% to 99% of it. The remaining margin will hardly cover one million out of the over 140 million people currently excluded. “The states have very little breathing space left. … And the states where there is still margin left are doing badly because they have not identified beneficiaries in the last 12 years,” says Amrita Johri, a member of the Right to Food Campaign, a network of individuals and organisations working on the issue.

Non-Preference for Estimates

The matter of exclusion was raised in the Supreme Court in a case filed by the Bandhua Mukti Morcha in July 2021. The court said that an increase in the NFSA coverage was necessary and that Right to Food was a fundamental right. The apex court directed the Centre to contrive a formula to ensure that the benefits under the NFSA are not limited to the beneficiaries counted in the 2011 census.

“Per capita income is not the right metric, as it does not take into account the deep disparity and inequality in income and wealth concentration. An increase in national income would not be distributed equally across the population of the country,” says Bhardwaj. Vice chancellor of B.R. Ambedkar School of Economics University N.R. Bhanumurthy makes a similar argument. “The per capita increase in India reflects more at the macro level, but when it comes to the state level, there is huge divergence,” he says.

Economists believe that the government should find ways to use population estimates for food security, as suggested by the Supreme Court, even as it takes time to conduct the census. “The main point of focus should be to revise the population estimates,” says Khera. “The government can use its own population projections to revisit the ceilings,” says Mudit Kapoor, associate professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. “I think it is all about political will that is needed to revisit quotas. I cannot understand why, if the government can provide free ration to over 80 crore people for a year starting from January 2023 to December 2023 at a cost of Rs 2 lakh crore to the exchequer, it cannot revisit the NFSA quotas,” Johri says. Her reference is to the Modi government’s decision to provide free ration to beneficiaries in a pre-election year, which is otherwise supplied at a cost of Re 1 to Rs 3 per kilogramme to them.

Apart from the direct impact on welfare schemes, the census also provides data from which other crucial studies—such as, the National Sample Survey, which collects information on all aspects of the economic life of citizens, and the National Family Health Survey, which is a comprehensive household survey of health and social indicators—draw their samples. “Policies and programme objectives are to target beneficiaries; census gives you an idea about dispersion. I see there is a dichotomy of intent. If policymakers need to reach beneficiaries, the census will give you certain details,” says Pravin Srivastava, former chief statistician of India.

Despite all the hue and cry in the monsoon session of Parliament, minister of state for rural development Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti said, “At present, no proposal to modify the [NFSA] scheme for enhancement of coverage of beneficiaries under the Act is under consideration of the Government.”

The Politics of Data

In India, no incumbent government can return to power without convincing the electorate of the efficiency of its poverty alleviation schemes. From Indira Gandhi’s slogan of “Gareebi Hatao” in the 1970s to Narendra Modi’s pitch of “Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”, the key to winning votes lies in the perception of the government’s track record in poverty alleviation.

But a lack of data is not considered a handicap by all economists. One section is out to prove that “extreme poverty” has been either eradicated or reduced under the Modi government, while another is of the view that any methodology that shows reduction in poverty is flawed. In the meantime, the NITI Aayog has come out with a multidimensional poverty report that states that the number of “multidimensionally poor” individuals in India has declined from 24.85% in 2015–16 to 14.96% between 2019 and 2021.

“In July, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) came out with a multidimensional poverty index, according to which 415 million Indians came out of multidimensional poverty in 15 years. Even internationally, multidimensional poverty is an accepted concept. I think statisticians need to come out of the mindset of statistics,” says Ashwini Mahajan, professor of economics at the University of Delhi and national co-convener of the right-wing think tank Swadeshi Jagran Manch. He made this comment while referring to the findings in India: National Multidimensional Poverty Index, A Progress Review 2023, a report published by the NITI Aayog in which the UNDP is a partner. Mahajan believes that poverty is a deprivation concept, not an income concept. “Imagine two individuals: one earns Rs 5,000 per month and avails government benefits. His children attend school. He has a house with an LPG connection. The other one does not have all this but earns Rs 20,000 per month. Who is better off?” he asks.

The naysayers cite the government’s decision to release data selectively in public as a reason for distrust in the multidimensional poverty index report. After all, the Centre rejected the last set of Consumption Expenditure Survey, citing problems in the methodology. A leaked media report of the survey had claimed that the per capita expenditure of India had declined by 3.7% to Rs 1,446 per month in 2017–18. The unemployment data of 2017–18 was also held back by the government, as it had shown a spike in the unemployment rate to over 6%. “When [employment] data was not released, I resigned. I believe that whether you like it or not, data should be released,” Mohanan, who quit from his post as acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission, had said in 2019.

There are instances when other governments had also either delayed or trimmed the data which did not suit their narrative. “When the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government conducted the 1951 census, the language data for Punjab was not released. The disaggregated findings for Punjab were not declared, fearing communal clashes between Hindus and Sikhs,” says Vikas Kumar, professor of economics at Azim Premji University.

Data Gaps and Quality

The population census is not the only large data-gathering exercise that has been delayed. The last agriculture census was conducted in 2015–16, Socio Economic and Caste Census in 2011–12, MSME Census in 2006–07 and the Livestock Census in 2019. The Economic Census of 2019 is still not ready. The last National Sample Survey Organisation data is for 2011–12, while the last Annual Survey of Industries data is for 2019–20.

Moreover there is a debate on the quality of data and statistical systems in India. Recently, Shamika Ravi, a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, argued that national surveys are based on unsound frameworks and systematically underestimate India’s development owing to archaic survey mechanisms.

Disagreeing with her, statisticians like Pronab Sen and Mohanan argue that it was unfair to blame the survey methodology when results caused discomfort. They also stand their ground and argue that there is no systematic underestimation of development in the national surveys.

Other experts suggest that the fierce data debate can have positives. “I see this time as the great Indian opportunity. I do not agree with what is being said about the quality of data, but I do agree that we need to invest in resources for data collection. This should not be seen as an expenditure. Rather it should be seen as an investment,” says Srivastava.

Interestingly, while remaining non-committal about the census, a senior government functionary explained to Outlook Business the efficacy of Aadhaar-based identification of beneficiaries of welfare schemes. “This way, we will be more accurate compared to what the [conventional] surveys and the census tell us. If we have the digital footprint of people’s consumption through Aadhaar, it provides accurate information about the deserved beneficiaries of welfare schemes,” the source said.

As the intensity of the data debate increases and the census exercise stays suspended, there is no sign that the people who are missing from the list of beneficiaries will get anytime soon what should have been theirs already. With state elections round the corner, followed by the General Election in 2024, the government is unlikely to undertake any exercise that can change the narrative on poverty numbers or the socio-economic condition of Indians.

And in case the government is actually going to discard the physical census in favour of a digital counting of Indians through Aadhaar card, India may be entering an era of annihilation of the old welfare apparatus to make space for a digital, but untested, system. Until there is clarity of how India counts its people and the poor officially, the likes of Munni Devi will continue to wait for their deserved food grain.