Issue Brief No.12

Pandemic-induced Poverty in India after the First Wave of COVID-19: An Elaboration of Two Earlier Estimates

Policy making, to be effective, requires assessments of magnitudes and trends of major events based on evidence.  One of the objectives of government policy interventions is—or should be—to pick up and stem slides in standards of living when they occur.   For a stubbornly poverty-stricken country such as India, this function of the state assumes even greater significance when calamities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, descend on the populace.  Although the Government of India is yet to release data on the population pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic, research organisations—both national and international—have attempted to study this important link.  These studies throw light on the important issue of arriving at estimates of the numbers of people that might have been pushed into poverty as a consequence of COVID-19, and therefore on the magnitude of the problem confronting any conscientious policy-maker.

The first of the two estimates assessed in this essay is due to researchers at the Pew Research Centre (PRC) in the U.S., and the second to researchers at the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University (APU) in India.  In this Issue Brief, S. Subramanian, Economist, and author of Inequality and Poverty: A Short Critical Introduction, and other books on poverty, seeks to reconstruct the assumptions and data inputs that have gone into the making of the estimates under review.  Analysing the estimates, which suggest vastly differing outcomes, he discusses the manner in which poverty figures are arrived at to provide a quantitative picture of economic deprivation.  In the immediate context, and on the basis of such data as are available, he concludes that it could be reasonably estimated, in line with the APU study, that anywhere upward of 200 million people may have slid into poverty after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. This finding assumes importance as an aspect of evidence-based assessment of the economic devastation that has accompanied the pandemic.  It points even more specifically to the role of the state, or its relative absence, in safeguarding its peoples from a once-in-a-century, long-drawn out catastrophe which has persisted for over a year.

Behind these numbers are real people, whose predicament would have been better served by a state with a mind to basing policy intervention on evidence, not least when such research evidence is available in the public domain.  Even based on a partial assessment, the two main pandemic responses by the government – a hastily declared lockdown and reluctantly ad-hoc relief measures – have resulted in "grievously harsh" consequences for India and its fight against poverty.  By highlighting the outcomes of two earlier significant research efforts, Subramanian invites attention to importantly required numbers that would enable policy makers to get a sense of the enormity of the deprivation that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.


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