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PDS failures

Print edition : May 27, 2000 T+T-

THE Public Distribution System (PDS) appears to be the weakest link in the food security chain in Orissa. The State government's decision to increase the price of rice has come in for sharp criticism. It has also brought the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in conflict with the local bodies where the Congress(I), the major Opposition party, has a strong presence.

In late April, the State government announced that the price of rice issued through the PDS is to increase from Rs.4 a kg to Rs.6.50 a kg. Janardhan Pati, secretary of the Orissa unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that the BJD, despite being a partner of the National Democratic Alliance Government at the Centre, has not been able to persuade its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to spare it from the hike. Governments in States such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal an d Andhra Pradesh managed to protect their people from the increase, he said.

The State government had estimated in 1997 that 66 per cent of the population of Orissa was below the poverty line (BPL). However, the Centre relies on the controversial estimate made by Prof. D.T. Lakdawala in 1993 to arrive at its allocation levels to the State under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) introduced in 1997. Lakdawala estimated that about 48.6 per cent of Orissa's population, accounting for 31.82 lakh families, was below the poverty line. But the State government's estimation is that there are about 48 lakh BPL families.

Rice allocation from the Central pool is based on the Lakdawala formula. A senior official in the State Civil Supplies Department told Frontline that while the Union government allocates 20 kg of rice for each BPL family, the State government spre ads this allocation over a larger population. Thus, even State government officials admit that the TPDS delivers substantially less than 20 kg of rice a month. The norm appears to be 16 kg, but some members of BPL families in Kendrapara and Ersama distri cts told this correspondent that they received only about 13 kg a month. As such 20 kg of rice is only just enough to feed a family of five for about 10 days; making available only 13 kg reduces their food security level substantially. At a time when emp loyment and incomes have undergone a major compression, a PDS with wide coverage would have provided a cushion to several families.

Even without taking into account the effects of the cyclone, the World Food Programme (WFP) reckons that the "nutritional situation in Orissa is one of the worst in India"; the problem malnutrition is chronic in the State. The infant mortality rate in 19 97-98 was 98 per thousand live births compared to the national average of about 70 and the under-five mortality rate was 131, compared to the national average of about 90. These figures mean that 10 per cent of all children born in the State will not liv e to see their first birthday; another 15 per cent will not be alive to see their fifth birthday. More than half the children below the age of four suffer serious malnutrition. These figures being averages conceal the acute gender disparities. At least 8 50,000 children - 732,000 of them girls - are out of school in Orissa. The State also has about 250,000 child workers.

The PDS has to be seen in the context of this massive problem of economic deprivation. Given the magnitude of the problem, how far does it address the issue? The chart shows that in each of the last five years the actual offtake of the State government w as lower than its allocation. Only in 1999 was the offtake high - at about 85 per cent.

How much rice does the PDS actually deliver by its targeting scheme? A simple calculation, based on the application of Lakdawala's and the State government's own estimates of poverty reveals that the reach of the TPDS is woefully inadequate. Even assumin g that all the rice distributed through the PDS reached those below the poverty line, the per capita supply of rice is meagre. In 1999, for instance, each person below the poverty line would have received on an average about 3 kg of rice a month. This tr anslated to about 100 gm per capita, using the Lakdawala formula. Using the State government's poverty estimates would show the PDS in even poorer light; on an average, each person below the poverty line would have received about 2.23 kg of rice a month - about 75 gm a day per capita. Clearly, the PDS is playing an insignificant role in supplementing the food requirements of the BPL families. The hike in the issue price of rice at a time of distress is widely perceived as the unkindest cut.

At Okhlipal, a village in Kendrapara district inhabited predominantly by agricultural workers, children told this correspondent that the practice of serving mid-day meals at school had been stopped some months ago. At the Integrated Child Development Sch eme (ICDS) local centre at Rajnagar, some distance away, the anganwadi workers said that the feeding scheme for children up to six years old had been stopped in October 1999, ironically just before the cyclone. A woman worker in the anganwadi said that t he poor people were anxious to know when the feeding programme will resume. She said that the children who come to the anganwadi to play appear "sluggish". "The anganwadi," she said, "does not seem to attract children anymore."