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Spotlighting hunger

Print edition : May 23, 2003 T+T-

A convention of working-class and peasant women organised in New Delhi by AIDWA calls upon the Central government to ensure food security and employment for all.

in New Delhi

ON April 24, hundreds of working-class and landless peasant women from various parts of the country participated in a day-long convention in the national capital on the right to food and employment, organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). They spoke in different languages but articulated the same demand - ensure food security and employment for all.

The day was also the 10th anniversary of the ratification of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, which reserved one-third of the seats in the local bodies for women. The convention drew a link between the right to food security and employment with the amendments. It was pointed out that women's participation in local bodies was meaningless if the right to food security and employment was not guaranteed. The convention declared that the demand for food and work was related to strengthening grassroots democracy and women's participation in it.

The convention blamed economic policies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for the rising prices and unemployment, the lack of purchasing power, and the unavailability of foodgrains at subsidised prices. This, in turn, increased the hardship of the working class, especially the rural poor, it observed. It was pointed out that the poor did not get even three meals a day while the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) were overflowing and the government exported 9.6 million tonnes of foodgrains at the rate of Rs.4 a kg, a price lower than the rates fixed for foodgrains allotted to families living below the poverty line (BPL). The participants lambasted the targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), essentially a World Bank prescription, which called for differentiating between the "moderately poor" and the "very poor". The declaration adopted by the convention noted that it was an intrinsically flawed approach to divide the poor people into above poverty line (APL) and BPL categories.

The convention expressed concern over the fact that the prices of BPL foodgrains had steadily escalated since 1996, the year the TPDS system came into existence. Initially, when the price of BPL foodgrains was reduced by two-thirds, the offtake increased to 80 per cent of the allocated foodgrains. However, in the subsequent years the BPL rates were hiked, making it impossible for even BPL families to purchase the foodgrains, and the offtake plunged. The Central government claimed that people were not buying the foodgrain as they did not need it. It failed to see that they were not buying as they did not have the purchasing power. It was pointed out that while the government claimed that poverty levels had come down, data provided by the National Health Survey showed that almost half of the Indian population did not get enough food and was malnourished, and that 80 per cent of Indian women were anaemic. Over the last year, the AIDWA conducted dharnas in front of FCI godowns in various Statesto drive home the point that desperation and hunger had reached unimaginable levels and that overflowing granaries and empty bellies could not coexist. The convention demanded that the PDS be universalised and all BPL card-holders be given rations at Antyodaya rates (Rs.3 a kg for rice and Rs.2 a kg for wheat); all widows, single adult women, disabled persons, persons over the age of 60 and female-headed families, regardless of whether they held BPL cards or not, be given immediate access to grain at these prices; ration quotas be decided on the basis of individual rather than family necessities; the foodgrain component of all employment-related schemes be calculated at Antyodaya prices (currently they are calculated at BPL rates); an earlier provision to ensure that 30 per cent of all work days be given to women in order to enhance their participation be implemented; and the right to work be made a fundamental right. The convention also demanded that radical changes be made in the measurement of poverty in order to include indicators such as malnourishment and quantum of family income spent on food requirements. Gender-segregated data were also essential for the accurate assessment of poverty, it noted.

ADDRESSING the convention, AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat alleged that the process of survey of families to categorise them as APL or BPL was arbitrary and hypocritical. She cited an example from Uttar Pradesh where a landless widow with four minor sons was put in the APL category only because the surveyors felt that her sons would be assets when they grew up. Brinda Karat said that though a substantial percentage of people in various States were eligible for food rations at rates designated for BPL families, they had been excluded from that category. She said the situation was so pathetic that even today there were many families that ate a paste made from red chillies to "kill" their hunger pangs.

Referring to the situation in Tripura, former Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Sandhya Deb Burman said that while 65 per cent of the State's population should have come under the BPL category, only 35 per cent had been covered under it. She said that in the interior areas of the State, the threat from terrorists made it difficult for people to reach fair price shops. She said that the Central allocation of foodgrains to the State was much less than the requirement. However, the State government had initiated several steps to aid the farming community's efforts to become self-sufficient, she said.

Mehazabeen from Gujarat had to take refuge in a relief camp after her house was destroyed in the communal violence in 2002. She said that the foodgrain given by the State government to the survivors of the communal violence was unfit for human consumption. Mehazabeen said that when homes were burnt, almost everybody lost their ration cards. However, the government was yet to restore the cards. She spoke of the rampant unemployment in Gujarat and said that women worked in the State for less than Rs.10 a day.

The story of Gomti Shakya, from neighbouring Rajasthan, was equally moving. The hardship endured by the State's people, who are in the grip of a severe drought for the fifth consecutive year, speaks volumes about the callousness of the Central and State governments. Gomti Shakya, a Dalit woman who hails from Ganganagar district, said that the people's suffering was compounded by the shortage of work. She spoke of the plight of the people in border villages such as Malkot, Pakki, Orki and Daulatpura, where the mines laid by the Army had killed several people and cattle and destroyed the mustard and wheat crops. The drought conditions made sowing meaningless, and relief work was inadequate.

Gomti Shakya said that the desperate situation forced women from 32 villages to organise themselves and picket the Collector's office demanding foodgrains. However, despite the agreement reached with the Collector, no foodgrain was supplied. "We were desperate to get at least one kg of flour," said Gomti Shakya. She said that the village panchayat members and the Patwari had complete control over the foodgrain in villages. Women were so desperate to get work that they worked for as little as Rs.5 a day. Gomti Shakya and others collected foodgrains from the town and distributed it among the needy. "What kind of a life do we lead sisters, without food, without water? The only way out is struggle," she exhorted the participants.

The need for struggle was also echoed by Kamlesh from Hisar in Haryana. She said that the food-for-work programmes were corruption-ridden. The sarpanch of her village encouraged the use of tractors in the drought relief work at the cost of manual labour. Several rural women led by the AIDWA got the sarpanch to reverse his decision.

Abhijit Sen, former Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, the current Chairperson of the high-level committee to formulate a long-term foodgrain policy, and senior Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, told the convention that one of the suggestions of the high-level committee, set up by the Union Ministry of Agriculture, was the restoration of the universalised PDS. He said that with the pattern of multiple foodgrain cards, the benefits of health and education also got divided. The committee had also recommended a widening of the Antyodaya scheme (to include the poorest of the poor, estimated by the government to number one crore; removal of the categories of APL and BPL; and an increase in employment schemes, Sen said. He said that another suggestion was that every family be given 60 days of employment in a year and foodgrains at the rates of the Antyodaya scheme. The committee has also made significant recommendations on the grain offtake side, which include reverting to the earlier unified PDS and fixing a uniform central issue price (CIP) of Rs.4.50 a kg for wheat and Rs.6 a kg for rice. This move, it was observed, would bring many of the "poor and moderately poor" people, who do not technically fall under the BPL category, back to the ration shops. The committee submitted its report recently and now the onus is on the government to implement it.

Substantiating the observations of the Sen Committee were the narratives of the women. Laxmibai from Ranga Reddy district of Andhra Pradesh said that severe poverty characterised the majority of the blocks in her district. She said that rice was sold at the unaffordable rate of Rs.5.50 a kg. She spoke of instances where people sold their girl children and men even mortgaged their wives. The drought relief work, she said, was task-based, and it took more than one person from a family to complete the task through the entire day though the wages paid were very low. Two women from Andhra Pradesh, Ratnamala and Padma, were honoured by the convention as they had on March 8, International Women's Day, broken the locks of the government foodgrain godowns and gone to jail.

"I am also a Dalit, like our Chief Minister Mayawati, but our lives are different," said Rajdulari from Uttar Pradesh. Referring to the recent political rallies held in Uttar Pradesh, she wondered why the Bahujan Samaj Party did not set up factories instead so that the unemployed youth could get work. Rajdulari said that the government did not regard poor families with male children as eligible for BPL cards. "You have sons, therefore you are not poor," was the reaction of the survey officials, she said. She expressed deep resentment for the Dalit leadership in her State, which had misled Dalits with false promises. Evidently, there was rampant discrimination and arbitrariness in the identification of BPL families in almost every part of the country. Ameerunissa from Karnataka said that the "green card" survey was on in her State and those households that owned a bicycle or a television were considered ineligible for BPL cards, irrespective of whether such homes were in an overall economic crisis. She said that the foodgrain available in the panchayats was "rotten" and that even the mid-day meals were not nutritious.

Addressing the convention, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet exhorted the women to carry on with their struggles, as it was the only language that the authorities understood. He said that the decisions arrived at the convention had to be taken to every poor household.

The convention concluded with a march to Parliament House, led by AIDWA president Subhashini Ali and Brinda Karat.