AMONG all the measures taken by a government to help poor farmers and agricultural labourers in times of a drought, the most prominent one is the Food for Work Programme, now rechristened the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (SGRY). The principle of providing foodgrains in return for work was employed first in the context of the Irish potato famine in the late 19th century when a Relief Commissioner brought American corn to be given to the famine-affected poor in exchange for work.
Launched in India in 1977 in 10 States, including Andhra Pradesh, the programme works on the principle of providing gainful employment to people in drought-hit areas. The guidelines underscore the need to ensure that such works help in the creation of assets in the respective areas and that surplus grain from the Green Revolution-driven areas are used for this. Humanitarian assistance in tandem with reconstruction work, hence, is the fundamental premise.
The failure of the monsoon during 2001-02 and the consequent reduction in crop area as well as crop failure during that season should have, in the normal course, led the Andhra Pradesh government to go for such a scheme on its own. This, however, did not happen. It took the death of some people in neighbouring Orissa (after having been forced to eat mango kernels infested with toxic fungi) and a public interest petition before the Supreme Court seeking a writ that governments at the Centre and the States had the responsibility to guard against malnourishment and starvation, to set the ball rolling. The apex court endorsed the argument and passed an interim order in November 2001.
Accordingly, several food security schemes, including the Food for Work Programme, were categorised as entitlements of the poor. The SGRY, hence, is not just another welfare measure but a constitutional imperative.
But the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister found in this radical interpretation of the Constitution an opportunity to serve a different purpose, as was revealed in a study commissioned by the Overseas Development Institute, London. Based on extensive field surveys carried out over a period of 12 months in select villages in three districts, the study suggested substantial abuse of the SGRY through a nexus involving local officials, the local elite and sections of the political establishment.
The Supreme Court's interim order gave the State government an occasion to demand as much as 3 million tonnes of rice. This demand was attended to by the Centre only partly. But then the Chief Minister found in the crisis facing the ruling National Democratic Alliance in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogrom a handle to pressure the Union government to realise his demands. Most of the rice, thereafter, allegedly found its way back into the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) instead of reaching the poor and the needy for whom it was intended.
This process of "recycling'', as it came to be known, was apparently carried out in the following manner: Rice from FCI godowns was sent to the government of Andhra Pradesh, from there to Public Distribution System (PDS) outlets, from there to contractors, who would in turn sell it to traders. The rice then went to mill owners, who finally sold it back to the FCI as locally grown produce. The critical factor that facilitated this process was the system of procurement as it prevails in Andhra Pradesh (unlike in such States as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) where the FCI procures grain directly from rice mills.
The incentive to resort to such recycling was the wide gap between the PDS issue price and the FCI's procurement price. Contractors who collected the food coupons (meant to be given in return for work under the SGRY) from mandal development officers would purchase rice at Rs.5.65 a kg to sell it to the trader or rice mill owner for Rs.7.50 a kg. The mill owner in turn would sell it to the FCI, as "procurement quota'', at Rs.9.50 a kg.
Apart from this systemic loophole, the "recycling" was made possible by the fact that the State government failed to enforce an important condition in the working of the SGRY that prohibits any role for contractors and the use of machines in the Food for Work Programme. After all, anyone with strong political connections and the capacity to invest in bribes, have heavy machinery and is able to recruit labourers on a large scale could become a contractor, and a contractor's role could defeat the basic thrust of such a programme.
But then, there was evidence to show that most of the work under the SGRY was being handed over to contractors and that in at least five cases out of six, contracts were being bagged by village sarpanches themselves. There were instances where sarpanches were outstripped by mandal panchayat presidents in the game.
Revelations with regard to the "recycling'' did provoke some protests, with the media playing its role and some of the Opposition parties making an issue of it. Finally, the Union government suspended the release of foodgrains under the SGRY, pending a visit by a Central team. This was when Shanta Kumar was the Union Minister for Food, Public Distribution and Civil Supplies. The releases since then (July 2002) have not been as smooth and as liberal as they were. And against a demand of at least 2.5 million tonnes, the Centre ordered the transfer of just 0.5 million tonnes.
In what appears to constitute an implicit acceptance of the fact that rice meant for poor farmers was being siphoned off and sold back to the FCI, the State government has decided against lifting superior Andhra rice and has instead preferred to lift rice from Punjab. The argument is that this will ensure that the rice from Punjab cannot be procured by corrupt FCI officials and stacked in the godowns.
But then, hardly any works are being undertaken under the SGRY in the State at present. While the State government is waiting for the release of further foodgrains by the Centre, the farmers and landless agricultural labourers have been forced to leave their villages in search of work. The rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution - against being exposed to malnourishment and starvation - continue to be infringed upon.