Pulling back the safety net

Print edition : October 18, 1997

ON October 6, a demonstration was staged in Mumbai by the Janata Dal in Maharashtra to protest against the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), particularly two aspects of it: the estimate of the State's poor and the norms for determining the number of families below the poverty line in urban areas. The protesters said the estimate of the number of poor was outdated and described the norms used for determining the number of families below the poverty line as faulty.

Under the TPDS, which was launched in Maharashtra on June 1, households covered by the Public Distribution System (PDS) are divided into two categories: one of families below the poverty line and another of families above the poverty line. A family below the poverty line gets 10 kg of foodgrain a month at a subsidised rate (fine rice at Rs.3.50 a kg and wheat at Rs.2.50 a kg). A family in the second category gets fine rice at Rs.6.50 a kg, super fine rice at Rs.7.50 and wheat at Rs.4.50.

The families below the poverty line get a guaranteed supply of 10 kg amonth at subsidised rates. The others get supplies on a first come, first served basis. "This," said J.M. Pathak, Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies, "preserves the philosophy of benefiting the poor first."

A 1992-93 survey conducted in Maharashtra for the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) showed that there were 77 lakh families with earnings less than Rs.11,000 a year and 43 lakh families with earnings below Rs.4,000 a year. The Centre has now determined that only 60.45 lakh families in the State could benefit from the TPDS. The figure was arrived at on the basis of the Lakdawala Committee's estimates.

Pathak admits that "there is great doubt about the veracity of the survey that we are using as the basis for determining the families below the poverty line, but then there is doubt about every survey of this nature." The criticism is that by setting an income of Rs.4,000 per annum as the eligibility criterion, the Government has excluded a large number of people who are poor. The Government's argument is that it wants the poorest of the poor to benefit first.

Under the new system, because of the methods used for identifying those below the poverty line, many urban poor would be left out of the TPDS. The Food and Civil Supplies Department admits that "there are no detailed income surveys of households in urban areas. So for now, we have used certain other criteria." Only those households that bought foodgrain at least thrice between January and June 1996 on their ration cards qualify for inclusion in the new system, and only households from notified slums are eligible. Those who have cooking gas connections have been excluded.

At a ration shop in a Mumbai suburb.-PAUL NORONHA

Another aspect that has come in for criticism is the freezing of prices at June 1995 levels by the Shiv Sena-BJP Government. Prices were frozen at such high levels that they could absorb future price increases.

Chief Minister Manohar Joshi has defended the freezing of prices at 1995 levels and said, "As a result (of freezing prices) we lifted 15.73 lakh tonnes of foodgrain during the year 1996-97 as against 8.63 lakh tonnes during 1994-95 and 10.50 lakh tonnes during 1995-96."

Pathak said, "Maharashtra has frozen the prices of five commodities for five years. For example, the Central Issue Price (CIP) of sugar is Rs. 11.40 per kg. We are giving it at Rs.9.05. Our subsidy on sugar itself is Rs.85 crores. Ordinary rice is Rs.6.60 per kg but sold at Rs.4.50 for families below the poverty line. Wheat is Rs.4.50 but sold at Rs.3 for those below the poverty line."

There are 1.8 crore ration cardholders in the State, which has a population of nine crores. The State Government says that all cardholders will be accommodated in a proposed three-tier system, under which cardholders will be classified in three categories and given cards in three different colours, which will determine varying levels of accessibility to the scheme.

Pathak said, "We are going to adopt economic and non-economic criteria to determine who comes under which of the three categories. If a person claims an income of Rs.4,000 per annum but is a lawyer or has a telephone connection, we would exclude him from the list." But this system is again expected to leave a large number of the urban poor, especially industrial workers, out of the purview of the PDS.

Pathak said that of the 1.24 lakh tonnes the State received monthly from the Centre, 1.22 lakh tonnes was used. He said, "Maharashtra is lifting the highest percentage of its allotment after Karnataka and Kerala."

The record of Maharashtra's public distribution system, Pathak said, "is fairly good". Although the State "is not among the top three States, it is certainly among those in the upper quarter in terms of quickness of implementation of the scheme and the lifting of grains." "By and large," he said, "the poor are being reached."

It is clear, however, that the State Government is under pressure, facing criticism from Opposition parties for implementing a scheme that will leave large sections of the people out of the PDS. Even Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, speaking at the Chief Ministers' Conference held in New Delhi on September 30, had to say that the PDS was originally created to insulate the poor from market failure, but "the TPDS has increased the dependence of the poor on the very markets."

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