(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
May 29, 2011
Wither Food Security?
IT is over two years now since the UPA-II government announced its decision to legislate a National Food Security Act (NFSA). The president of India, in her first address to the joint session of parliament following the 15th Lok Sabha elections, had announced that `her government’ would enact such a legislation within its first 100 days. The agonising debates on the quantum of poverty in our country continue to be used as the reason and excuse to delay this promised law.
In the ongoing proceedings on a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission has im-pleaded itself and claimed that an expenditure of Rs 20 per day on essential requirements for those living in urban areas and Rs 15 for those living in rural India was enough to keep them out of poverty. By implication, all others earning more are ruled out of the safety net proposed by the NFSA.
This poverty line of Rs 20 per day for people living in the cities is worked out from the Planning Commission’s opinion that anybody with Rs 578 per month is not to be officially considered as poor. As per its report, this amount includes a monthly expenditure of Rs 31 on rent and conveyance, Rs 18 on education, Rs 25 on medicines and Rs 36.5 on vegetables. A mockery! A fraud! In fact, both.
The ridiculousness of these figures can be gauged from the fact that the Planning Commission itself prescribes a minimum in-take of 2,400 calories daily to sustain oneself. This requires an expenditure of at least Rs 44 per day. This, of course, does not include any expenditures on shelter, clothing, education, transportation etc.
The Planning Commission, on the basis of its reasoning, takes the poverty ratio at 33 per cent of our population. The National Advisory Council has suggested a ratio of 46 per cent. Both these estimations fall woefully short of the late Arjun Sengupta’s estimation that 77 per cent of our population is currently surviving on less than Rs 20 a day.
Such sham exercises not only make a mockery of the commitment to provide food security in our country. They, in fact, mask the real intention of aggressively pursuing the neo-liberal economic policies which continue to widen the hiatus between the two Indias, making the life of a vast majority of our people more miserable.
In the meanwhile, last week the union cabinet approved the conduct of a nationwide survey that would simultaneously map the economic, caste and religious backgrounds of the entire population. While the Registrar General of India will be entrusted with the task of conducting the exercise to enumerate the caste and religious backgrounds, the ministry of rural development, in association with the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry will enumerate the below the poverty line (BPL) census.
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 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 is exactly in sync with the Planning Commission’s estimation that Rs 15 a day in rural India is sufficient to live a life above the poverty line!
Thus, the elaborate methodology worked out by the union cabinet for estimating the BPL population only reinforces the mockery and the fraud proposed by the Planning Commission. The central government has also made it clear, while announcing this BPL census, that if any state government challenges the figures of the census, then it would have to sort it out with the Planning Commission. These figures are critical for foodgrain allocation from the centre for the public distribution system and, therefore, for allocations under the proposed food security law. Clearly, the current complaints and grievances of the state governments, on this score, will not only continue, they are likely to be compounded.
Any meaningful food security in our country can come about only through a universal public distribution system 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 ensure that such a system is put in place. The argument that India does not have sufficient resources to do this is equally fraudulent. The monies looted through the 2G spectrum scam alone (leave alone all other scams) would be more than sufficient to provide meaningful food security to our people.
Strong pressures must be mounted on this UPA-II government through popular public protests to recover these gigantic sums looted and put them to use for improving the quality of life of our people.
(May 25, 2011)