Thursday, 14 March 2013

Measuring the Poor from Above.

This ProgBlog article written by Shailaja Chandra is a contribution to the current Wikiprogress online consultation* - “Reducing poverty is achievable: Finding those who are hidden by inequalities

In India poverty reduction is a priority for all Governments –central and state. Undoubtedly at places well-intentioned programmes suffer from neglect, fund misappropriation and disproportionate expenditure on overheads. But that is not to say nothing works. Millions are benefiting and are able to lead relatively decent lives- living longer and healthier than their parents did.    Disparities that exist are largely attributable to the faulty identification of beneficiaries and an inability to distinguish between those in relative poverty from those living in moderate poverty and more importantly those in absolute poverty. When resources are limited, the greatest need is to target the neediest the first. Here is one solution that could help. 

            On fundamentals everyone is agreed that safe drinking water, primary health care, schools and toilets are non-negotiable. While Government schemes provide for all these services, those in the greatest need are often unable to avail of them. This is because the opportunity cost of accessing them is too high. When it is simply not feasible for a father or a husband to forsake a daily wage that buys the next meal to accompany his wife and child by walking 10 kilometres to the doctor, he quite simply will not go. Even after reaching a motorable road on foot, few are willing to risk waiting for public transport which may not show up. In other words those who are physically unable to reach long distances will automatically exclude themselves. Solutions have to keep that in mind and for that measurement of people and distances becomes very important.

          Elected representatives and bureaucracies tend to count growing numbers of beneficiaries as a sign of a system working well. Instead were they to start measuring the dimension of exclusion they would be nearer the truth. But this measurement has to be spatial and not numerical. Then alone would it be possible to differentiate between people in extreme or (absolute) poverty, from those in moderate or relative poverty. It is only by amalgamating GIS mapping and census data that it is possible to show the distance of every village from the nearest basic facility or service.

          This exercise was successfully undertaken by the National Population Fund of India for primary health centres and sub-centres throughout the country, (except urban areas) The write-up is available in OECD’s publication Statistics, Knowledge and Policy –Measuring and fostering the progress of societies - Chapter titled Power to the People (sub-chapter on Enhancing Accountability through GIS mapping and Census data: Figure 1 and Figure 2 on page 6 and 7 make the position clear.)  Link:

           The initiative received the Best E Health award of the year and the PDF maps were made available to every state Government in India to plan where the next set of primary health centres should come up, keeping in view spatial disparity (not economic status or population density). The same strategy can be used to identify deprived areas and their distance from not just primary health centres but even sources of drinking water, fair price shops and schools. If one has to avoid falling into the trap of over-dependency on the success of trickle down, the only way is to do spatial mapping of villages and connectivity. And to identify the people to be reached out to first  they need to be mapped by using technology. The relatively better off even if they are technically below the poverty line should come lower in the pecking order of entitlements compared to those in abject poverty.

Economic assessments of poverty often belie the truth. A combination of GIS mapping and Census data is what can tell the truth.

The Wikiprogress online consultation closes this Friday 15 March. You can post a comment in a few clicks by going to the “Contribute!” section of the online consultation page. Make sure your voice is heard. 

(A former civil servant, Shailaja Chandra is the Vice President of Initiatives for Change-Centre for Governance, a think tank that supports social reform.)

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