In pursuit of relief

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

The drought-affected in Rajasthan demand means of sustenance.

A HERD of camels stood still in the barren fields as rain fell with a fierceness long forgotten in Rajasthan. They seemed to be holding their breath at this wonder from the skies. The poor people of Rajasthan, too, can now look forward to some relief to their agonies of the last three years. The rain will quench their thirst and bring some succour to their dying cattle. Yet it will do little to lift the dark shadow of hunger. Not until their crops ripen in October will the drought be truly over for them.

It is to explain this simple point to the government that the poor began an indefinite dharna near the State Secretariat in Jaipur on June 14, organised under the banner of the Akal Sangharsh Samiti, a network of 57 organisations in Rajasthan. The dharna resisted the official move to stop all relief works by the end of June, in view of the onset of the monsoon. It was finally called off on its 26th day (July 10) after the government announced the extension of relief works until September 30 and an increase in the labour ceiling to 5.44 lakhs a day. This was a victory for the poor, but one that raises many questions and issues for reflection.

The most important is the question of the human condition that prevails. Do the poor in our country have a right to life? In the wake of a three-year drought of exceptional severity, one is talking not of quality of life but of means of basic sustenance - food. Not lentils, vegetables, oil, milk, or fruit, but just grain. Even this basic minimum is denied. The worst victims of drought are those for whom survival is a daily struggle even in a "normal" year. They have few reserves to fall back upon. Most of them are landless agricultural labourers or marginal farmers; Dalits or Adivasis. Undernourishment, poor health, lack of education, inadequate shelter and ramshackle public services are all part of their make-do existence. Their lives are like earthen pots which may break any moment. What happens when the work they depend upon is also taken away?

This brings us to a related question - whether the poor have a right to work. Property, as we know, is unequally distributed. And so is other wealth. Little has been done to invest in the poor as persons who have a right to education, to development, to realise their capabilities on a par with anybody else. Barring a few exceptions, the life of a large majority of people in our country is still determined by the circumstances of the family he or she happens to be born into. Manual labourers, by and large, are condemned to remain manual labourers.

Right to employment is therefore akin to right to life as far as the poor are concerned. This is especially so in times of drought. Baird Smith, in his report on the famine of 1860-61, aptly described Indian famines as "famines of work [more] than of food." The Famine Commission of 1880 described this process in the following words: " a general rule, there is abundance of food procurable, even in the worst districts in the worst times; but when men who, at the best, merely live from hand to mouth, are deprived of their means of earning wages, they starve not from the impossibility of getting food, but for want of the necessary money to buy it."

Following this diagnosis, the relief policy embodied in the Famine Codes (introduced towards the end of the 19th century) put the greatest emphasis on the creation of large-scale employment through relief works. This has been the main plank of famine prevention in India during the post-Independence period. During the prolonged drought of the last three years, however, the Rajasthan government has not adhered to this principle. In spite of constant public demand for employment on relief works, these were started as late as January 2001. In some areas implementation of relief works began in April or May. In addition, the imposition of drastic "labour ceilings" (the number of labourers who can be employed) and payment on the basis of not only time (eight hours) but task (quantum of work completed) made the relief works a travesty of responsible famine prevention efforts.

According to a survey initiated by the Akal Sangharsh Samiti in 105 drought-affected hamlets of Rajasthan in April and May, eight persons are seeking employment in relief works for every person actually employed. An important stipulation of Rajasthan's Famine Code ("every person who comes for work on a relief work shall be provided with work" - clause 75) therefore stands violated. Many dharna participants reported that they had been able to get employment for only 15 days, and that they had received less than the prescribed minimum wage of Rs.60.

This being the situation of a large number of drought-affected people, it is not surprising that through the year we heard news of widespread hunger and near-starvation. How people in some districts like Banswara were managing on 'Bihari rabri' (a thin gruel made of maize flour) or on roots and tubers such as kand-mool. Some cases of starvation deaths were also reported.

Along with the depressing news of hunger and starvation came news about mounting foodstocks in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns. The political economy of the Indian state comes through starkly in this imagery of "hungry stomachs and packed godowns". Unfortunately, this is not mere imagery but a reality. As the FCI itself has acknowledged, the godowns contain more grain than can possibly be stored in adequate condition. Some of this grain is rotting, some has been exported for cattlefeed abroad at a highly subsidised price (Rs.4.30 a kg, less than the price - Rs.4.60 - at which grain is being sold to poor households through the public distribution system). In fact, the two countries where grain was sent, Iraq and Indonesia, turned it down on the grounds that it was of poor quality. When the people are starving, why has grain been sent abroad? The dharna participants asked this question to the Jan Manch, a panel of the main political parties functioning in Rajasthan, organised on July 10 with V.P. Singh as the chief guest. But no satisfactory answer was forthcoming.

Feudal India remains in its FCI godowns. At the beginning of this year, foodgrain stocks were approaching 50 million tonnes. According to one calculation "if all the sacks of grain lying in FCI godowns were lined up in a row, the line would stretch for a million kilometres - more than twice the distance from the earth to the moon" (Jean Dreze, The Hindu, February 26, 2001). Since then, the stocks have grown further, to more than 60 million tonnes. This is about four times the official buffer stock requirement (15.8 million tonnes). This excess storage is not without its costs. The Central government spends close to Rs.2,000 crores annually on food subsidy, a large part of which represents the operating costs incurred by the FCI. A dharna slogan aptly expresses the indignation and anger of the poor at such a situation: "bhukhai pait bharai godam, anyay hai apradh hai!" (hungry stomachs, packed godowns is injustice and a crime).

In order to reduce excess stocks, the Central government decided on July 10 to slash the PDS price of foodgrains by 30 per cent, and also do away with the distinction between Above Poverty Line (APL) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) households for the purpose of PDS supplies. The abolition of that distinction was one of the demands of the dharna, based on the argument that the severity of the drought had pushed many households which had been classified as APL households below the poverty line. While this decision will benefit APL households throughout the country and is a welcome development, for the BPL households the actual difference is relatively small. For them, the price remains the same though the allocation per family has been increased marginally.

At the end of the day, what the government offers the poor is much like a dole. There is no sense of equality there. For example, asked why the government of Rajasthan did not have money to continue the relief works, a senior bureaucrat from the Planning Commission said that this was partly because of the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission's recommendations. But what about the labourers? Does not the Fifth Pay Commission have anything to say about them? When it comes to labourers, all we hear about is a "minimum wage", never a just wage.

Bela Bhatia is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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