Redefining the poor

Print edition : October 18, 1997

The Targeted PDS as implemented in Maharashtra denies the entitlements of vast sections of the poor to subsidised food.

THE ostensible objective of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), announced with fanfare by the United Front Government in January 1997, is to give the poorest of the poor some relief from the spiralling inflation in food prices. Targeting as envisaged in the new system is inherently exclusionary; the manner in which it is being implemented by the Shiv-Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Maharashtra confirms that large sections of the poor and economically vulnerable will be left out of it.

Lining up for kerosene in Mumbai.-PAUL NORONHA

According to TDPS guidelines and the estimates of the Lakdawala expert group, the proportion of households below the poverty line in Maharashtra is estimated to be 36.86 per cent of the population or 60.45 lakh households as per the 1995 population estimates. A survey conducted in the State in 1992-93 for the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) estimated that there were around 77 lakh rural households below the poverty line in the State (72 per cent of total rural households). There is no reliable estimate of the number of urban poor in the State. In order to limit the total number of households below the poverty line to the Planning Commission's figure of 60.45 lakh households, the Government has devised a novel method to exclude the rest of the households. The IRDP survey classified the total number of rural families below the poverty line according to their annual incomes (Table 1). What the Government has done is to simply redefine the poverty line to Rs.4,000 per annum (around Rs.13 per day) in rural areas, thereby restricting the number of rural households below the poverty line to 43 lakhs. Perhaps as a concession to its urban voters, the poverty line in the Mumbai-Thane Metropolitan Region has been fixed at Rs.15,000 per annum (or Rs.1,250 a month) and the total number of urban families below that line has been fixed at around 21 lakh households.

There are many complaints about the authenticity of the lists of families below the poverty line; they are known to include the relatively affluent and exclude the genuine poor. Besides, only those households that bought foodgrain on their ration cards at least thrice between January and June 1996 qualify inclusion in the new system. It is noteworthy that the offtake of foodgrain was generally low during this particular period since open market prices were generally on par with PDS prices. In fact, the offtake improved later as wheat prices started rising after July 1996, but this period has been deliberately ignored by the Government.

Households with cooking gas (LPG) connections have been excluded from the scheme, and orders have been issued to select households only from notified slums. In the absence of a proper survey in urban areas, PDS inspectors and Fair Price Shop (FPS) owners have arbitrarily selected some households on the basis of oral enquiries, leaving many families without access to their entitlement of 10 kg a month at reduced prices. This also means that families without a ration card and the large number of the urban poor who live in unauthorised slums have been excluded. These are probably the sections that require the TPDS the most.

This arbitrary method of 'targeting' households has led to some ridiculous results. For example, it was reported that only seven families were identified as being below the poverty line in Ihalkaranji town of Kolhapur district. In the tribal village of Talasari in Thane district, only two families qualified as households below the poverty line. The fact that deaths of tribal children due to malnourishment have become a regular feature in Maharashtra probably prompted the State Government to revise the Poverty Line in designated Integrated Tribal Development Plan areas to Rs.11,000. In Pune city, out of 6.5 lakh ration cardholders, only 69,999 households (barely 10 per cent) qualified. According to the 1992-93 IRDP survey, the total number of families below the poverty line in Pune district was around 3.10 lakhs, of which the number of families earning up to Rs.4,000 per annum is 1.52 lakhs. But the number eligible for the TPDS is only 1.37 lakhs. This means that even those identified as poor by the "redefined" poverty line have been excluded.

The annual allocation of foodgrain for Maharashtra has been fixed at 14.89 lakh metric tonnes on the basis of the average lifting by the State in the last 10 years. As per the TPDS guidelines, 36 per cent, or 7.25 lakh tonnes, is earmarked for the families below the poverty line, while the remaining (7.64 lakh tonnes) is intended for households abover the poverty line. In Maharashtra, even as the TDPS took effect on June 1, the Government announced a reduction in the per capita allocation of foodgrain from 10 kg per adult to 8 kg with an upper limit being 30 kg per card. A simple calculation shows that the distribution of 7.64 lakh tonnes to 103.55 lakh families that are above the pverty line means that each household will receive barely 6 kg a month. In effect, the launch of the TPDS is being used as an opportunity to exclude those who are officially above the poverty line in a rather devious manner - by simply not making adequate quantities available in the Fair Price Shops!

When a delegation of the Maharashtra unit of the Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana recently met J.M. Pathak, Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies, Government of Maharashtra, he categorically stated that henceforth the Government would guarantee quotas only to households below the poverty line, and that families above the poverty line would get grain only on a first come, first served basis. He said those who do not get their quota could go to the open market.

This, in effect, means that the State Government has actually reneged on its electoral promise to provide rice, wheat, sugar, dal and edible oil through the PDS at prices prevailing on May 1, 1995. It was expected that the promise would pertain not only to the price but also to the prevailing quotas. However, while maintaining prices, the actual availability is being slashed heavily, making the entire exercise a farce. For example, as per the Food and Civil Supplies Department's orders for the month of July 1997, only 350 tonnes of rice and wheat were allocated for families above the poverty line in Parbhani, one of the most backward districts in the Marathwada area of Maharashtra. According to the IRDP survey, there are 2.01 lakh rural households above the cut-off limit of Rs.4,000 in the district. These families were entitled to only 1.74 kg of foodgrain in July. And even the families below the poverty line are not being guaranteed their 10 kg. In July, their average entitlement was only 8.7 kg. In the tribal district of Dhule, there are 3.82 lakh families below the cut-off line of Rs.11,000 and their allocation for July was only 7.64 kg per family.

The State Government has claimed that it has protected the people of Maharashtra from the recent increases in the Central Issue Prices (CIP) of wheat, rice and sugar. The fact is that foodgrain prices were frozen at such high levels on June 1, 1995 that in spite of the latest increase in the CIP, Maharashtra prices remain higher (Table 2). In fact, the State Government earns about Rs.4 crores annually on its sale of wheat (50 paise higher than the CIP) and another Rs.1.85 crores per year on rice, and it does not have to spend anything from its own annual budget allocation of Rs.200 crores for the PDS. If at all, it will need to spend around Rs.94 crores annually to maintain the price of sugar at Rs.9.05 per kg (assuming an annual lifting of about 4 lakh tonnes).

While tribal families will benefit somewhat from reduced prices, they will lose out in terms of reduced quantities, because the TPDS entitles them to only 10 kg per card, while the revamped PDS, as well as a Specially Subsidised PDS (SSPDS) of the Maharashtra Government meant exclusively for 68 tribal blocks) had an entitlement of 20 kg per card per month.

The BJP-Shiv Sena Government has announced that a three-tier PDS will soon come into existence in the State. Under the proposed three-tier system, families below the poverty line will get yellow cards that will guarantee them 10 kg of foodgrain a month at TPDS prices. Households above the poverty line will get saffron cards; allocations to them will depend on the availability of foodgrain. A third category of white card holders will not be entitled to any foodgrain, but will only get sugar (and kerosene if they do not have cooking gas connection). Those with an annual income above Rs.50,000, those who are income tax and sales tax payees and those with telephone connections will be included in the white category. The Food and Civil Supplies Department has already embarked upon a survey of all rural and urban households on this basis. If these criteria are applied, an entire section of organised industrial workers and most lower-middle class families are likely to be excluded from the PDS.

Kiran Moghe is the secretary of the Maharashtra Committee of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

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