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The Planning Commission submission to India’s highest court that the poor are defined as those who earn Rs 25 or less a day in rural areas and Rs 32 or less in urban locations would have made for a good joke if it wasn’t so tragic. For it’s now the benchmark for those who can avail of PDS rice and wheat and other social benefits doled out by the state. Incidentally, it was in May this year that the Supreme Court directed the Planning Commission to come out with a realistic (read humane) yardstick for determining the BPL cutoff to facilitate the distribution of five million tonnes of foodgrains to the 150 poorest districts.
May 30, ’11 Our story earlier this year
At the time, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves had remarked that, according to the government of India, unless one was starving one was not poor (Outlook, May 30). Three months later comes this callous Planning Commission submission, Rs 25 and Rs 32 per day, after adjusting for inflation! This apparently is enough money for expenditure on food, education and health.
Economist Jean Dreze points out that the money factored in now for health expenditure is less than one rupee per day—barely enough to buy an aspirin. “In the Tendulkar report, the alleged adequacy of this benchmark is based on a wholly circular argument. Roughly speaking, one rupee per day is currently the median expenditure on health. That is, half the population spends less than that on health. How this benchmark can be interpreted as adequacy is not explained,” he says.
Dreze says the real issue of who should be entitled to PDS is a matter of value judgement and public debate, not a matter of technical estimation, as it is made out to be. “In rich countries, a lot of people, including many well-off people, benefit from public support in various ways, such as free healthcare, family benefits, free education and so on. The idea that these benefits be restricted to those below the poverty line, let alone a poverty line of Rs 25 per day, would be greeted with derision.”
The leaks and pilferages in the PDS are often cited in the case for cash transfers and to argue that the government can’t afford to increase the subsidy bill. Till the late ’90s, the PDS was universal and covered the entire population. It was only after 1997 that it became targeted at BPL families. Since then, there has been much bloodletting on who constitutes the poor of India. Of the three panels constituted by the government, the Tendulkar committee figures—which found acceptance with the Centre—pegged the number of poor at 40.74 crore on the basis of the projected population of 2005. Others like the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector had put the population of the poor at 77 per cent.
Now if members of Parliament get subsidised food in the Parliament canteen, is it unreasonable to seek a similar subsidy for the poor?