Everybody loves a good number: 93, 77, 54, 33…

A couple of years ago, everybody’s favourite statistic was 54 per cent, fifty-four being the percentage of India’s population below 25 years of age. Here, there, everywhere, the number was quoted, but at least with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Not so, the international poverty standard.

The World Bank uses a global indicator of incomes—of $1 per person per day or $2 per person per day—to compute poverty. By that yardstick, considered arbitrary by some, surely you would expect some degree of unanimity on the percentage of India’s population living below the poverty line?

Well, keep expecting.


90 per cent: The Asian Development Bank said two years ago that “at least 90 percent of people” live on less than $1 a day in India, China and some Southeast Asian countries.

77 per cent: The columnist Praful Bidwai said in Bangalore this week that 77 per cent of the population lives on less than Rs. 20 a day, or half a dollar.

54 per cent: In May this year, Newsweek reported that in 1985, 93 per cent of India’s population lived on less than $1 per day; by 2005, it was 54 per cent.

52.5 per cent: The Washington Post, quoting the same World Bank, said in August 1997 that 52.5 per cent of Indians earned less than $1 a day.

50 per cent: Ramtanu Maitra wrote in Executive Intelligence Review in December 2006 that 450 million Indians (or a little less than 50 per cent) lived below the World Bank’s old definition of $1 per day per persion, and that 700 million Indians (or almost 70 per cnet) lived below the poverty line based on the World bank’s new definition of a minimum earning of $2 per day per person.

Nearly 50 per cent: Seven years ago, Mary Motta asked if India should be so hung up on a moon mission when nearly half of its population lives below the poverty line.

33 per cent: Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad writes in the latest issue of Prospect that 300 million Indians (roughly 33 per cent) live on less than $1 a day

33 per cent: The International Herald Tribune, quoting the World Bank, said in Janaury 2006 that one in three earn less than $1 a day, i.e. 33 per cent.

30 per cent: The Christian Science Monitor, quoting the Indian census, says 30 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day; 78 percent on less than $2.

26 per cent: Social anthropologist Diana Wells, quoting the 2001 census, wrote in 2001 that the number of people who earned $1 a day had declined from 36 per cent to 26 per cent.

25 per cent: Xinhua news agency, quoting India’s minister for rural development and poverty alleviation, reported in 2002 that 260.25 million people earned less than $1 a day, which was a marked decline from 1993- 94, when 320 million people were below the poverty line.

25 per cent: Union Minister P. Chidambaram told Charlie Rose two years ago that the number of Indians earning less than $1 a day was 250 million, or slightly short of 25 per cent of the population.

20 per cent: A World Food Prize winning high school essay pegged the number of people earning less than $1 a day at 200,000,000 or 200 million, or a fifth of the population , i.e. 20 per cent.


So, what’s your favourite number?