Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Stop Theatrics, Universalise PDS


THE ways of this UPA--II government are getting stranger and stranger. The recent media grabbing exercise on the issue of defining those who are living below a poverty line to be entitled for subsidised government schemes, including food entitlement, has been settled, the country is being told, between the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and the Minister for Rural Development. The fate of nearly 800 million Indians who, according to late Arjun Sengupta’s estimation, are surviving on less than Rs 20 a day, is being determined by these two exalted individuals.

However, behind what appears as strange ways lies the reality that nothing is going to change from the obnoxiously inhuman definition of poverty that the Planning Commission has determined.

In these columns (May 29, 2011), we had, in detail, analysed the claim of the Planning Commission when it unsolicitedly impleaded itself in ongoing judicial proceedings on a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court on providing food security for all Indians. The benchmark that the Planning Commission suggested was that an individual earning Rs 26 a day in rural India and Rs 32 in urban India is not poor in our country!

This highly publicised meeting gives the impression that the Manmohan Singh government has rejected the Planning Commission’s benchmark, thus portraying itself as the champion of the aam admi.

Elsewhere in this issue, Professor Utsa Patnaik, a longstanding Left crusader who calls India as the `Republic of hunger,’ has analysed threadbare the hollowness of such concern for the aam admi. What the government is measuring through these sham exercises of concern is the destitution levels of our people, not poverty levels.

What is the reality of this governmental exercise? Notwithstanding all claims, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission has announced that they will neither alter nor withdraw its affidavit in the Supreme Court as it was ‘`factual’. A diabolic fraud that is perpetuated against the aam admi.

The Rural Development Minister, on the other hand, has announced that poverty estimates will be based on a new methodology. This would be on the basis of the socio-economic caste census expected to be completed by January 2012. This Union Cabinet approved conduct of a nationwide survey is designed to simultaneously map the economic, caste and religious backgrounds of the entire population. While the Registrar General of India is entrusted with the task of conducting the enumeration of caste and religious backgrounds, the Ministry of Rural Development, in association with the Ministry for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, will enumerate the people below poverty line (BPL).

The last BPL census was conducted in 2002 in the rural areas. This time around, the BPL census is to include the urban areas as well. The BPL households in urban areas would be identified through an ‘inclusion criteria’ based on three factors – place of residence, social vulnerability (illiteracy, chronic disability, female headed household etc) and occupational vulnerability (unorganised, informal, least remunerative sectors etc).

The identification of poverty in rural areas would be done differently. Here, the population would be divided into three categories – the top rich families (owning telephones, refrigerators, credit limit of Rs 50,000 per annum etc) would be excluded; those at the bottom (primitive tribal groups, destitutes, manual scavengers etc) would be automatically included; and those in between will have to satisfy seven “deprivation indicators” to qualify for BPL status. There is considerable confusion, widely suspected as deliberate, on these seven indicators.

According to reports, the methodology approved by the Union Cabinet will mean that a family of five earning members earning more than Rs 27,000 per annum would be automatically excluded from the BPL list. This has been calculated on the basis that a per capita monthly income of about Rs 447 is sufficient to be treated as being not poor. This not merely echoes the benchmark of the Planning Commission; it is in fact worse!

What a fraud! This even surpasses the techniques of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Geobbels! Both the Planning Commission and the Rural Development Ministry continue to stick to the very existing estimations that deprive, at least, over 400 million of our people from being protected by any food security. While other entitlements such as housing, health, education etc etc may be determined, most inadequately, by such so-called estimations of the survey, there can be no compromise or dilution as far as food security of all Indians is concerned.

It needs to be underlined that no estimation of poverty can be based on incomes of the people alone. It is a generally accepted estimation, accepted even by the Planning Commission that a minimum intake of 2,100 calories daily is required to sustain human life in urban India; in rural India, the minimum cannot be below 2,400. At current prices, averaging across vastly different areas of our country, both the estimations of the Planning Commission and the Rural Development Ministry are vastly inadequate to provide this requirement. A decent livelihood goes far beyond the calorie intake to keep oneself alive. Expenditures on shelter, clothing, education, health, transportation etc are essential requirements for a decent livelihood. A mere income definition, in conditions of accelerating rise in the prices of essential commodities and vastly differing price levels not only between urban and rural India, but across the whole country, would be completely inadequate. If there is a real concern for the aam admi, then all these essentials for a decent livelihood must be incorporated in any definition of poverty.

However, as far as food security of our people is concerned, this cannot be achieved through such sham exercises of ‘targeting.’

Any meaningful food security in our country can come about only through a universal public distribution system (PDS) that ensures that every single household in the country (both BPL and APL) receives 35 kg of foodgrains a month at Rs 2 a kg. Rather than going through such elaborate exercises aimed at committing a fraud on the people, the UPA--II government can do well to establish a universal PDS. The argument that India does not have enough food stocks to meet such an arrangement is equally fraudulent. Currently, over 60 million tonnes of foodgrains are rotting in the central government’s godowns. The UPA--II government, rather than releasing this stock to provide food security to our people, chooses to export it to the international market and make profits. Such are the ‘profits of death’ in our country.

Equally fraudulent is the argument that India does not have sufficient resources to ensure universal food security. The monies looted through the 2G spectrum scam alone (leave alone all other scams) would be more than sufficient to provide the much needed food security to our people.

What is required is the political commitment to provide food security to our people. If the UPA--II government is reneging on this commitment, endorsed by the President of India in her first address to the Joint Session of the Parliament, as a target of the UPA--II government in its first hundred days, seeking to justify this through fraudulent exercises and a disinformation campaign, then the people of India, through a strengthening of popular struggles, must ensure that all Indians receive food security, for which India has both the resources and the stock of foodgrains.


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