August 07, 2020
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Starved Of Logic

Callousness, cussedness and apathy combine to write a tragedy of massively cruel irony

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Starved Of Logic
Jitender Gupta
Starved Of Logic
When the Supreme Court last fortnight censured the Centre and states for failing to provide food to starving millions despite a 60-million-tonne surplus of foodgrains rotting in godowns countrywide, it was exposing serious flaws in the government's food policy and the new Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). What particularly shocked the apex court was a Government of India affidavit which stated that against the minimum basic requirement of 75 kg of food per month per family of five, it was providing, on an average, a mere 10 kg through the public distribution system!

The court was amazed to know that 16 states and two Union territories hadn't even identified Below Poverty Line (bpl) families. Orissa, in the throes of a starvation-death controversy, doesn't have a clue on the precise number of poor it has. Outlook' s own investigation reveals an inexcusable arbitrariness in the bpl and 'poorest of poor' estimates. Thus, till the court came down on the government, Delhi had no bpl families, leave alone the poorest of the poor category. The court's criticism belatedly has the Delhi administration talking about a bpl population of at least 20 lakh families.

The government's inability to provide for the poor despite an increasingly unmanageable foodgrain surplus is a sordid tale of callousness and corruption. For one, the central and state governments are reluctant to accept the existence of a large constituency of poor (325 million bpl and 50 million of the poorest of poor) who are either underfed or are on the brink of starvation. In fact, no state government has yet accepted the occurrence of a starvation death.

But here are some grim facts that even central and state governments do not deny:

  • BPL families have not been identified under the new tpds introduced three years ago, so millions are outside the pds loop.

  • Even at BPL prices, the rural poor do not have the purchasing power to buy foodgrains at fair-price shops (FPS).

  • The Food Corporation of India (FCI)-trader-politician nexus has used fake ration cards to siphon off as much one-third of surplus foodstocks from government godowns.

  • Even at the district level, the local administration has connived with fps to fudge records to show rations have been issued, consequently denying actual beneficiaries their due. Affidavits and ration cards submitted to the Supreme Court illustrate this point.

  • Food-for-work programmes have failed miserably because the schemes are flawed.

    But the existing deplorable scenario hasn't got the government to get its act together and alleviate the plight of the hungry. Whenever Union food minister Shanta Kumar is confronted with stories of starvation deaths, his answer has been typical: "There is no lack of food. Intezaam ki kami hai (there is a lack of arrangements)." States, he points out, haven't been lifting the foodgrains allocated to them.

    State governments have their own defence. They say the tpds links the cost of even bpl foodgrains to 50 per cent of the economic cost of production, which computes the minimum support price (MSP) given to farmers, storage and transportation costs. Every time the farmer lobby pressures the government to raise the msp, the economic cost of foodgrains goes up. So, at the present Rs 5.64 a kg of rice for bpl cardholders, there are few buyers. Since the stocks remain unsold, and the targeted beneficiary shifting to cheaper foodgrain like bajra, states don't avail of all that the Centre allocates to them.

    Under pressure from the Centre to trim the number of pds beneficiaries, there is a vested interest in identifying the poor incorrectly. Thus, millions who are poor have been categorised as Above Poverty Line (APL). They hold cards entitling them to foodgrains from the pds at rates much higher than what those classified as bpl pay. In reality, they buy at prices much steeper than prevailing open market rates. This is because the apl price structure factors in 100 per cent cost of procurement, storage, transportation and administration. This, effectively, becomes higher than the local mandi or wholesale market rates as mandi rates don't involve government overheads. The price factor has turned away large numbers of cardholders from the pds, partially explaining the low offtake of stocks.

    Indeed, state governments admit that they do not lift their full allotment of foodgrains as the pricing has killed demand. Maharashtra government officials are candid that the apl quota has not been lifted for the last one-and-a-half years. An allocation of 10.2 lakh metric tonnes has not been sourced following a 33 per cent increase in central issue prices in April 2000. On August 29, the state government decided to reduce the apl quantum per household from 30 kg to 5 kg per month. This will further reduce the state's offtake.

    The arbitrariness of the bpl categorisation is also visible in Maharashtra. When tpds was introduced, the state's estimate was that 77 lakh families were below the poverty line in rural Maharashtra alone. The state was going by the figures in the Integrated Rural Development Programme Survey. However, when the central government's expert committee came up with 60.45 lakh bpl families for the entire state, the state government promptly revised its poverty line.

    The figures that this categorisation threw up in Mumbai were astonishing. In Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, only 151 families were identified as bpl. Just 1 per cent of ration cardholders were declared bpl in Mumbai and Thane districts.

    In Rajasthan, which has been the focus of the petition filed in the Supreme Court by pucl and which has shocked the apex court into action, the situation is alarming. The state is already reeling from three successive droughts but the relief work and food-for-work programmes ran for only three months before the monsoon in a majority of the districts.

    The actual state support for the poor was recently computed from government figures submitted to the Supreme Court by Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera of the Delhi School of Economics. The total allocation per person below the poverty line in 2000-01 is Rs 2.10. This includes Rs 1.40 under drought relief programme, Rs 0.40 through pds and Rs 0.30 from other social security schemes.

    Says Kiran Shaheen of the Centre for Equity Studies, a Delhi-based ngo which has done extensive studies in Orissa and Rajasthan and provided field reports and inputs for the pucl petition: "In village after village, we found ration cardholders were denied their rations. Many of the schemes were not operational and very little relief provided."

    Given the high price of both apl and bpl foodgrains, the Union food ministry's committee on pricing has already recommended drastically slashing both in order to clear the enormous glut in fci godowns. While apl prices were marginally lowered, the finance ministry has refused to entertain the idea of a higher bpl subsidy which would make the foodgrains more affordable for the poor.This stand has proved counterproductive—the cost of storing the foodgrains is Rs 6,000 crore per year, a little less than half the total foodgrains subsidy bill of Rs 13,500 crore.

    The Centre, however, points out that it's not just a question of purchasing power. Even the Antyodaya Yojana, a scheme for the poorest of the poor which provides rice at Rs 2 per kg and wheat at Rs 3 per kg, has seen very poor offtake.

    The maximum controversy centres around the food-for-work programme, meant specifically to feed people in drought-hit areas. The foodgrains are supposedly provided 'free' but comes with a rider—a day's daily wage is split into cash and food components; the Centre provides the food, the state must provide the cash. But the problem is that most state governments say they are strapped for cash. "From October, they will not have that excuse," says Shanta Kumar. "As the prime minister promised, the Centre will provide Rs 5,000 crore in cash and a similar amount in kind."

    In a knee-jerk reaction, Shanta Kumar issued the pds control order last week. It provides for stringent punishment for pds fraud, bringing into focus the phenomenon of pilfering. Findings of studies of the tpds are shocking. In Bihar and Assam, for instance, 64 per cent of rice stocks disappear from the pds. As for wheat, Bihar boasts a diversion rate of 44 per cent, Nagaland 100 per cent. Diversion of sugar is relatively less, at 47 per cent in Bihar and 32 per cent in Madhya Pradesh. And in Delhi, at the seat of the Indian government, over half the pds stocks of rice and wheat and a quarter of the sugar find their way into the black market.

    The Ninth Plan mid-term appraisal carries a stinging indictment of the pds system in Bihar. It says: "Only government staff, agents…benefit from it.... The state Civil Supplies Corporation has no money to buy from fci, no money for petrol, staff does not receive salaries for months.... Dealership is seen as a position where money can be made and most appointees are clients of mlas." Says Shanta Kumar: "For two years, we have been chasing the state governments to improve the pds and plug the leaks. Ab majboor hokay, hamnay yeh order pass kiya (Now we are forced to pass this order)."

    "It's not a lack of intezaam. It's a lack of conscience. How can you claim to be a representative government with starvation deaths on your conscience?" asks noted economist L.C. Jain. The entire system of central procurement and channelisation of foodgrains through the pds is flawed, he says. The Centre, as mai-baap, doles out food to the states, resulting in unnecessary expenditure on storage, transportation, etc. "If Gandhi would have seen the massive fci building on Delhi's Barakhamba Road, he would have invited an assassin to do away with him," he says.

    Adds Harsh Mander, country director of Actionaid India, which has been monitoring the famine and starvation in Orissa: "In these times of globalisation, desperately poor people are being marginalised and are becoming invisible. Even in colonial times, a famine was regarded as high priority. In India, a few years ago, despite socialism being reduced to rhetoric, there was still tokenism. Now even that has been abandoned. We have to look at long-term solutions like employment guarantee with the food component being included as legal entitlement."

    Jain has another solution: local self-sufficiency through decentralised storage. "The stomach is a biological tyranny.Hunger demands immediate availability of food. We have 3.5 lakh panchayats in this country. In every single panchayat, let us have a grain storage facility." The massive Rs 70,000-crore rural development budget surely permits the setting up of such village-level facilities within the year, he says. The Centre need only store a buffer of, say, 10 million tonnes. Let the rest go to the villages and encourage the panchayats to achieve local self-sufficiency in growing foodgrains. In times of scarcity, let the sarpanch rather than the food minister answer to the people.

    The reluctance of the states to go in for decentralised procurement despite the urging of the Centre he puts down to bureaucratic recalcitrance. Many bureaucrats would be rendered redundant. Many in the food ministry point out that the Centre only needs to exercise some political will to push the scheme through and the states would perforce fall in line. After all, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh have already successfully implemented decentralised procurement.

    Says Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh: "In India, it is not a question of scarcity. It is a question of surpluses and unequal distribution, whether of wealth or foodgrains. I think if we can answer how the surplus is to be distributed, our battle is won."

    Let's face it: the tpds as it is does not benefit the poor. For one, the Planning Commission's definition of who is bpl needs a serious rethink, specially at a time when unemployment is spiralling. An apl family, today, could be bpl tomorrow. There seems to be no logic in the government's attempt to whitewash the issue by pushing, through statistical sophistry, the poor above the poverty line.

    The stark and apparently enduring Indian reality remains: half of all Indian children are undernourished. Half of all adult Indian women suffer from anaemia. A third of all Indian infants have low birthweight. Undernutrition in India is the highest in the world, except for Bangladesh. Food and nutrition is one priority area that the government needs to address with more earnestness, political will and pragmatism.

    Bhavdeep Kang and Ajith Pillai With Priyanka Kakodkar and Soni Sinha in Jaipur
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