'Give foodgrain to the poor, whatever the cost'

Print edition : October 18, 1997

Interview with Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Union Minister of State for Food and Consumer Affairs.

Although Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is Union Minister of State for Food and Consumer Affairs, in this interview with Sudha Mahalingam he indicated that he was not in favour of restricting the scope of the public distribution system by means of the Targeted PDS. In fact, he said that the 10 kg per family per month guaranteed to households below the poverty line was inadequate, and that it was not possible to phase out the population that was above the poverty line. He also said that foodgrain procurement needed to be increased and that the States' allocation should not be less than the previous year's and it should be at subsidised prices. He said he opposed "tooth and nail" the proposal that any allocation in excess of the average offtake in the last 10 years should be at economic cost.

Excerpts from the interview:

What will be the monthly foodgrain quota for families below the poverty line under the TPDS?

It is 10 kg per family per month for nearly six crore families below the poverty line, covering a 32-crore population. The allocation from the Central pool is 72 lakh tonnes for families below the poverty line, 103 lakh tonnes for families above the poverty line and 45 lakh tonnes for other schemes such as the Employment Assurance Scheme and Jawahar Rozgar Yojna. The total allocation is 220 lakh tonnes. However, if we increase the quota for families below the poverty line to 15 kg per family per month, then the allocation for BPL (below the poverty line) households will be 107 lakh tonnes, for families above the poverty line another 107 lakh tonnes, and the remaining five lakh tonnes will go for welfare schemes.

Have you got clearance from the Finance Ministry to increase the quota to 15 kg? If so, what will be the subsidy involved?

Until now, there is no green signal from the Finance Ministry. If we give 15 kg, the additional subsidy will be Rs.1,400 crores, assuming an offtake of 85 per cent by households above the poverty line.

RAJEEV BHATT

Do you not think that giving 10 kg per month per family to households below the poverty line is inadequate?

Yes, I agree it is inadequate. Traditionally procurement has been only around 10 per cent of total foodgrain production. This year, 220 lakh tonnes have been procured, as against the total production of 1,900 lakh tonnes. We need to step up procurement if we are to give more. We are looking at decentralising procurement so that grain will be moved only to deficit States. For instance, West Bengal is pooling very little although it is not a deficit State. Therefore, we have had to move grain all the way from Punjab. But some Sates like Kerala and Rajasthan are opposed to decentralisation of procurement.

What is the time-frame envisaged for phasing out the population that is above the poverty line from the purview of the PDS?

I don't think it is possible to phase out the APL (above the poverty line) households from the PDS. In the Common Minimum Programme we said that we would issue special cards to BPL (below the poverty line) families and issue essential commodities at half the normal issue prices. We are doing that now. But the second clause, namely, phasing out APL households from the PDS, is not possible, for political and practical reasons. Kerala, for instance, is a food-deficit State. In Andhra Pradesh, only 26 per cent of the population will qualify as BPL (below the poverty line) consumers. Any State that is getting a relatively large allocation now will not agree to a reduction.

There has been this criticism that in the name of targeting, all that is being achieved is the pruning of the PDS?

Under the Revamped PDS, everyone in the backward areas was given ration cards. Now under the TPDS, the poor in every area, both backward and forward, will get specially subsidised foodgrains. I do not foresee a reduction in the number of APL category in the States in which the system is working well. However, efforts will be made to identify bogus cards in the system. There are only 16.5 crore families. As against this, 19 crore cards have been issued. Weeding out the excess three crores is all that we can achieve. But overall, there will be an increase in the numbers benefiting from the PDS.

What about the subsidy involved in the TPDS? Will the Finance Ministry not object to it?

If the Finance Ministry can agree to doling out Rs.18,000 crores to 40,000 well-to-do government employees through the Pay Commission award just because they are organised, I don't see why it should object to this. After all, what do you give the poor? No employment, no electricity, no fertilizer subsidy. Give them at least foodgrain, whatever the cost.

The TPDS envisages that the allocation to States will be based on the average of the offtake of the last 10 years or the minimum required to service customers below the poverty line, whichever is higher. In States where the PDS is already well-established, this will not be sufficient.

I have ordered that the States should be given more than that. For instance, Kerala, which has an average offtake of 17 lakh tonnes, wanted more. I have sanctioned 21 lakh tonnes. From the beginning I have opposed this 10-year average formula. The Prime Minister has called five meetings of Chief Ministers to discuss this.

Would the additional allocation, if any, be at the economic cost or at subsidised prices?

The Cabinet has decided that any additional allocation (in excess of the average offtake of the last 10 years) should be at economic cost. I have resisted this proposal tooth and nail right from the beginning. I am going to suggest that this be amended. It should be at subsidised prices. In States where no PDS worth the name exists, they can start targeting the poor first and then expand the PDS to the category above the poverty line. But others should get what they want at the prices at which they have been getting it. They should get quantities not less than last year's at subsidised prices.

Are the States agreeable to the application of the Lakdawala formula for identifying the poor? Has the process of identification begun? Each State is coming up with its own definition of the poor.

No, some States have come up with different estimates. Andhra Pradesh got the Lakdawala estimates revised upwards. It is a debatable point as to who should be defined as being poor. The DRDA (District Rural Development Administration) estimates are not the same as the Industrial Survey estimates. Both these are different from the Lakdawala estimates. What I would advise is that the States start issuing BPL cards to the poorest and work their way upwards. But there is very little that the Centre can do to identify the poor. It is very much the responsibility of the States.

Why is the PDS not working in States like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh? What are you doing about it?

We have set up vigilance committees to monitor the distribution of ration cards to below-poverty-line consumers in Bihar. It will start working in these States also.

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