The poor as a problem

Published : Sep 30, 2000 00:00 IST

The Maharashtra government's new population control project, which seeks to deprive the violators of the two-child family norm of the benefits of welfare measures, causes concern among people working for the rights of women and the poor.

LAXMI KAMBLE lives in a one-room shack near the Goregaon bus terminus in Mumbai, along with her unemployed husband and their four children, the first three of them girls.

In August, the Maharashtra government, it would seem, decided that people like the Kambles are enemies of progress because they have too many children. Starting next year it plans to cut off access to over 60 state-run welfare programmes to people who vi olate the two-child norm. After May 2001, government employees who have large families will lose out on loans and benefits like medical subsidies, and could even end up with unfavourable remarks in their confidential reports. Newly appointed government e mployees will have to commit in writing to a two-child family. The state will only provide free school education to the first two children of a family and will even cut off access to subsidised foodgrains, sugar and kerosene through the Public Distributi on System (PDS) for any children born after the second one. People who have more than two children will not even be entitled to stand for election to local bodies.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's campaign to stop families like the Kambles from using state subsidies and infrastructure to support themselves has been cheered on by middle class and elite opinion in Maharashtra. Funnily, the Kamble family itself is n ot much bothered over the prospect that families in their situation will face sanctions just a year down the road. Laxmi Kamble's husband does not think his daughters need to go to school much longer. No one in the family uses state medical care because none exists near their slum. Although they have lived in Mumbai for seven years, the family does not have a ration card either. Market prices of kerosene and sugar are high, but the Kambles do not have a choice. "We live in rented premises," she says. "T hey don't give ration cards to people who don't own their own shack."

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh has made no secret of what he thinks of the new policy. "I have an even better idea," he says wryly. "Let's execute all people who have more than two children. That way, we'll solve the population problem, and at least ch ildren won't be punished for their parents' actions."

It does not take much to see just why the Maharashtra government's prescription is unlikely to achieve its stated objective. States which have succeeded in bringing down their population growth rates have done so by improving public access to pre and pos t-natal healthcare, and, above all, by making women's education universal. Ensuring that the educational, social and financial status of women improves, and discouraging repeated pregnancies in the quest for a male child, have been central to successful population control programmes. The Maharashtra government's population policy, announced in May 2000, makes polite noises in support of all these objectives. Where it falls short, however, is in the matter of specific policy objectives and, more importan t, commitments of cash. All that remains is a welter of coercive measures, which are likely to do nothing other than to punish the poor for being poor.

Little in the State's population policy suggests that serious thinking has gone into its making. The official body that will represent women when it comes to population issues, for example, consists of nine politicians' wives, including those of the Chie f Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, six bureaucrats, the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai's SNDT Women's University, and the Family Planning Association of India's Avabai Wadia. No representatives of organisations that work for women's empowerment and rights are on the list. There is no mention of widening access to basic health services for women and children, only, strangely enough, of bringing laparoscopy to rural areas - where even primary health centres are often unknown. And while the policy does menti on the enforcement of laws to end child marriage and sex determination tests, it makes no effort to explore just how regulatory authorities charged with such functions and that have failed to work for decades will now be made to function effectively.

No one seems entirely certain exactly how the new measures will be administered. The below poverty line (BPL) families are issued yellow colour ration cards, which entitle them to a flat 12 kilograms of wheat and 8 kg of rice a month. Sugar and kerosene are, however, made available on a per head basis. Officials seem unsure of whether, and how, BPL families may be subjected to the two-child norm in this matter.

Foodgrain for families that are deemed to be above poverty line (APL) is distributed on a per head basis, making this category of PDS consumers more easily subject to the two-child regulation. Whether the cuts would apply to existing consumers, or only t o children born after May 2001, however, is not known. Educational regulations are similarly vague. Maharashtra's laws entitle all girl children to free school education, but it is still unclear whether this facility will now be subjected to the two-chil d rule.

Unsurprisingly, most people working for the rights of women and the poor are deeply disturbed by the new policy. For one, the punitive measures that form the core of the population policy are certain to hit women most. Where food is scarce in families, f or example, girls and women are certain to bear the brunt of the shortage. If education is to be denied to some among a family's children, money is more likely to be spent on sending boys to school. The fate that befell the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corpora tion's two-year old decision to charge women for their third delivery at the BMC's hospital is instructive. There has been no evidence that the scheme has worked as a deterrent against having a large family, or that it has reduced the birth rate in a soc iety where male children are assigned special value. "The whole policy," says the All India Democratic Women's Association's Sonya Gill, "will simply inflict more hardship on the poor."

AN examination of the Maharashtra government's record on the PDS illustrates just how absurd its proposals to use food as a weapon with which to combat population growth are. Since the early 1990s, efforts have been made to cut food subsidies, both by ra ising costs and seeking to target only the poorest of people. The impact of high PDS issue prices has been dramatic. BPL families get wheat at Rs.4. a kg and rice at Rs.5.40 a kg. APL families get 8 kg of foodgrain per adult at Rs.9.80 a kg for wheat and Rs.13.40 a kg for rice. These price levels, reached after repeated hikes, in many cases mirror or even exceed the market rates. By some estimates, the offtake from ration shops in Mumbai has declined by some 25 per cent since the latest series of hikes that started in January. The Maharashtra government, on an average, makes available 10 kg of grain for each ration card each month, a third of its stated target.

If the poor can no longer afford to buy the grain meant for them, the numbers of poor that the PDS serves in Maharashtra are also alarmingly low. Slightly over a third of those who hold ration cards in Maharashtra have been deemed to be poor, on the basi s of rules which mandate that their monthly family income must be below Rs.15,000 in urban areas, and Rs.4,000 in the countryside. In Mumbai, a city of one crore people where half the population lives in slums or is homeless, under the income criteria ju st over 450,000 families, accounting for around a tenth of the population, have been deemed poor for PDS purposes. The Rationing Control Officer in Dharavi, known as Asia's largest slum with a population of half a million, discovered in 1997 that it had only 365 poor families. In a remarkable illustration of how governments actually "eliminate" poverty, that figure was reassessed, and fell to just 151 last year.

Data gathered by AIDWA general secretary Kiran Moghe, a longtime watchdog and campaigner on the PDS scene in Maharashtra, illustrates the point that the picture is not very different elsewhere in the State. In the major industrial towns of Nashik, Maleg aon and Ahmednagar, the numbers of families granted a BPL category card are abysmally low. In November last year, just 39,750 yellow cards were held in Nashik, 37,500 in Malegaon and 1,130 in Ahmednagar. "The government does not believe workers are poor, " notes Moghe. As important, it evidently believes that the numbers of poor are falling dramatically. Between November 1999 and September 2000, Moghe has found, the number of BPL category cards in Kothrud, home to some of the largest slums in Pune, fell from 3,718 to 2,587, or by some 30.4 per cent. In Yerawada, home to many of the city's poor Dalit families, the fall was even more dramatic. Only 261 families had BPL cards in September 2000, a fall of an incredible 97.6 per cent.

Clearly, the post-liberalisation project of restricting access to the PDS has denied vast numbers of people in Maharashtra, as elsewhere, affordable food. National Family Health Survey data for 1992-1993 show that in Maharashtra, 18.5 per cent of boys an d 22 per cent of girls from the age of 1 month to 47 months were severely malnourished. That placed India's richest State in the same league as Uttar Pradesh and Orissa, and worse off than poor Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. With the level of access to PD S food having declined since the early 1990s in Maharashtra, the figures may well have deteriorated further. Denying PDS grain to children under the two-child family norm will lead to even more appalling conditions among the poor and will do little to co ntain population growth. "It's going to be one more nail in the coffin," says Moghe, "one more move towards doing away with the PDS altogether."

It is important to remember that the PDS is not the only government poverty-alleviation project that will be hit by the two-child policy. Schemes run by those ranging from the Animal Husbandry Department to business start-up funds for Dalits will now be subjected to the new regime. Contrary to popular perception, there is no evidence to show that poor people have larger families than the well-off. But the relatively well-off need less state support than the poor, and they are unlikely to be particularly perturbed by the shrinking of welfare that the two-child policy envisages. As important, the rich are certain to be more able than the poor to purchase their way around employment and loan restrictions. As such, the coercive regime that Maharashtra is p utting in place specifically targets the worst off sections, seeking to restrict their numbers by any means necessary.

How then does one account for the widespread support that Vilasrao Deshmukh's plans have received from liberal opinion in the State? It has passed little notice that the two-child only policy is the outcome of a distinct Mumbai-centred ideological projec t, hinged on the belief that the poor are the problem. Massive migration from poor Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the argument goes, has encouraged the rise of fascist and xenophobic forces like the Shiv Sena. Reducing welfare is seen as an instrument to disco urage migration, and thus restore both urban order and Mumbai's secular and cosmopolitan culture. Chhagan Bhujbal, who is now the Deputy Chief Minister, had given vent to one of the more express assertions of this claim in Pinki Virani's book Once Was Bombay (1999). "Bombay has really been up for grabs this last decade," he said, adding, "too much kindness can also kill a city."

Little empirical data has been made available in support of this reactionary posture. In fact, there are more than a few facts to show that Mumbai's real problems of unemployment and mass poverty are the outcome not simply of migration but of poor planni ng and what several observers have described as "casino capitalism". Maharashtra's fertility rate, and population growth, is nowhere near levels prevailing in some other States, and simply does not justify the repressive two-child policy. The Congress(I) -Nationalist Congress Party regime has, sadly, shown little inclination to address the real economic problems of Maharashtra. If Chief Minister Deshmukh is indeed serious about reducing population growth, he might do well to spend more on education, nutr ition and health, something that the State government has shown no signs of being willing to do.

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