The human face of adjustment

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

Since the introduction of the targeted public distribution system, access to food for the poor has come down in Maharashtra, revealing holes in a scheme that is supposed to be a safety net.

EVEN before the crack of dawn, women in Dharavi, Mumbai's big slum, wake up and brave the streets to grab a place in the queue for supplies under the public distribution system (PDS). "I put a stone or a can to mark my place at around 4 a.m. By around 8, I start standing in the line. Finally, we get kerosene by the afternoon," says Shakeela Bhanu Patel, from Samata Nagar. She may get quota of kerosene after a six-hour wait, but Shakeela has not been able to get ration foodgrains for the past one year. "The PDS shops have stopped selling rice and wheat for the past one year," she says.

Whatever little the ration shop sells is in high demand. Often fights break out in the queues. "My cousin was once caught in a stampede outside the ration shop. He was kicked in the stomach," says Shakeela. Her mother and brother sell vegetables on the street, while Shakeela does the house work. Their monthly income is Rs. 1,000; the below poverty line (BPL) cut-off norm is Rs. 15,000 a year. However, Shakeela's family has not been classified as a poor household under the government's targeted public distribution system (TPDS).

Introduced by the Central government in 1997, the TPDS replaced the universal ration system with one in which subsidies target only poor families. Consumers are classified into four - the poorest of the poor, below poverty line, above poverty line (APL) and high-income. Food quotas and prices differ for each class. The scheme was introduced to comply with World Bank conditionalities which demand cuts in subsidies to trim public expenditure and ensure loan repayments to the International Monetary Fund/ World Bank. In order to cushion the impact of structural adjustment on vulnerable groups, the Bank suggests that subsidies be "targeted" to reach only the poor. Such targeting is called "adjustment with a human face".

Ironically, since the launch of the targeted scheme, for poor families access to food has actually come down. Food entitlements have been cut by more than half. This, at a time when India's godowns have the largest "surplus" of foodgrains ever - 62 million tonnes - lying unused. Yet, half the population remains malnourished. The TPDS slashed food entitlements to a maximum of 30 kg a month for poor families and 10 kg for non-poor homes, as compared to 70 kg for families under the previous universal ration system. Many poor families have been overlooked. Around 54 per cent of BPL families were wrongly excluded under the TPDS, as compared to 5.5 per cent under the universal scheme, according to a survey of a Maharashtra village undertaken by Madhura Swaminathan and Neeta Mishra.

IN Dharavi, the slum with one million people, only 144 of its 84,099 ration card-holders have been included in the BPL category. Thousands of BPL homes have been left out. Like Kala Makwana's, whose family cannot buy enough provisions. "Sometimes the neighbours give us food that they have cooked. My husband is a temporary labourer. He hasn't found a single day's work for the last four months. But we have eight people to feed," she says. The three women in her house work for 12 hours a day stringing bead garlands for which they get around Rs.8 for each. But they receive their wages every six months. This family, which barely manages to make ends meet, has also been classified as "above poverty line"(APL).

Others classified as APL also find it difficult to manage. The joint monthly income of Bharati Babu Lone, a domestic worker from Dharavi, and her husband is Rs. 2,000. But it is still not enough to support the family. "Is it possible to run an entire household with this money? Especially in Mumbai?" she asks.

Most Dharavi residents agree that after the TPDS was introduced, the system has deteriorated. "Ever since they gave us these new cards, things have become worse. Earlier, at least we got some grain. For the past year, rice and wheat supplies have stopped completely. Even when they were available, our quotas were much less. And the prices were so high, that they were the same as open market prices," says Shakeela.

A survey in Dharavi by the Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana (JMS), a women's organisation, found that ration shop owners' associations in the area had stopped lifting grain from government godowns after March 2000. "Prices for APL families were nearly the same as open market prices and in terms of quality it was much worse than cattle feed. People had stopped buying ration grain," said JMS member Rathi Prabhakaran. Adds JMS activist Prema Nair, "One shop I visited in June this year still had last year's rice stocks lying unsold."

Foodgrains were lying unused in Maharashtra's godowns from April 2000 to October 2001. Maharashtra has not lifted its APL quota allocated by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for the last one-and-a-half years. Finally, the government reduced prices in August 2001 and is now trying to offload this old grain. Yet, ration shop owners are not lifting the stocks since the open market price is lower than the government's issue price for articles under PDS, says Navin Maru, president of the Ration Shop Owners' Association. "The government has cut subsidies, making everything more expensive. It is not interested in the poor people any longer," he says.

With ration shops selling only kerosene, most women have to rely totally on the black market for provisions. "We earn around Rs. 50 a day, and all of it goes towards buying food," says Shakeela. Food represents the largest item of expenditure for the majority of Indian families. Around 95 per cent of rural households and 90 per cent of urban households spend more than half their income on food, and can be termed "food insecure", says Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

IN Dahanu's tribal hamlets too, the TPDS has heightened food insecurity. Situated in Thane district, two hours by road from Mumbai, ration supplies in this tribal area are so erratic that many women have stopped relying on the local ration shop. This, in a district which has the highest number of malnutrition-related child deaths in Maharashtra. Targeting was intended to ensure adequate supplies to these deprived tribal areas where most people work as daily wage earners in orchards or in sweatshops producing balloons. But the scheme has not helped them either. With hamlets spread out far apart, most women have to trek 4 to 10 km to the shop and back. "When people don't have money, rations are available in the shop. It lasts only a few days. What's the point in wasting time?" says Lahani Dauda of Sogwa village.

Many women in the area prefer to buy broken rice at Rs.5, a rupee cheaper than the rice in the ration shop. "Before these new cards were given to us, we could buy sugar, wheat, jowar and oil from the ration shop. Now they don't sell the full quota - only 20 kg of rice and 3 litres of kerosene. It lasts barely for 10 days," says Tulsi Vaje Mase, also from Sogwa village, who has a BPL card.

Many of those who are eligible for a BPL card have not got one. Girji Rukji Dauda's family of five has to survive on her husband's daily wages of Rs.40 from the balloon factory.

Corruption is also rampant in the area. Women complained that officials demanded Rs.500 to issue a ration card. Moreover, supplies are not regular. "There are months when no rations arrive. When stocks arrive, they last for a day or two and then vanish. I want to know where my quota disappears?" asks Devu Goling from Sakhra village, who works in an orchard.

It is not surprising that many deprived families are left out of the scheme, considering the government's method of identifying the poor. In Maharashtra, the number of BPL families is revised depending on how much subsidised grain the Central government is willing to provide. A few months back, the Central government decided to increase the allocation. It increased the target of BPL beneficiaries in Maharashtra from 58 lakh families to 65.34 lakhs, based on the last Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) survey. Accordingly, the Maharashtra Government has raised the rural poverty line norm from Rs.4,000 a year to Rs.15,000 a year. However, Census 2001 data show that if Rs.15,000 was used as the cut-off point, there would be more than one crore poor households in the State, says Maharashtra's Food and Civil Supplies secretary Neela Satyanarayan. But since the subsidy allows for only 65 lakh households, 35 per cent of the State's poor will not be counted as being BPL.

Using the income poverty line to measure poverty is itself riddled with flaws. Based purely on calorie intake, the poverty line has been described by the Planning Commission as "too meagre to sustain a level of living which would be considered tolerable in the modern context". It also excludes people who may earn a few hundred rupees more than the BPL limit, but are as deprived. Other aspects of poverty, such as quality of life or indebtedness, are also not considered.

The TPDS has neither benefited the poor nor reduced the quantum of subsidies. But the amount of foodgrains distributed has fallen since 1991, when structural adjustment was introduced. "The subsidy has risen every year because of the high cost of storing grain in godowns. It would reduce if the government distributed the stocks," says Madhura Swaminathan. Arguing for a near universal system, she says that it would also reduce the administrative costs and hassles associated with running a targeted scheme.

Considering the extent of malnutrition, a universal distribution system is vital. Around 51 per cent of adults and 70 per cent of children under four years in Maharashtra are severely or moderately malnourished. Indians are eating less now than they did 40 years ago. Nationally, the average cereal consumption per capita declined between 1961-62 and 1990-91 in all States except Kerala, says Madhura Swaminathan.

It is high time that the government let people eat the "surplus" in the granaries, rather than pay huge godown costs to leave the grain rotting to be feasted on by rats and pests. Then, maybe Shakeela and her friends can get a decent night's sleep. Instead of having to wake up in the middle of the night to get ahead in the rat race.

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