Dividing the poor

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

A government official receiving applications for fresh ration cards was mobbed during Rachabanda, a mass contact programme, in Hyderabad on February 1. While 1.47 lakh ration cards were sanctioned during the programme, more than 7.79 lakh new applications were submitted. - MOHAMMED YOUSUF

A government official receiving applications for fresh ration cards was mobbed during Rachabanda, a mass contact programme, in Hyderabad on February 1. While 1.47 lakh ration cards were sanctioned during the programme, more than 7.79 lakh new applications were submitted. - MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The flawed Bill on food security has not received the kind of publicity that the Lokpal Bill has, but that does not diminish its significance.

THIS government has divided everything and everyone. There are different cards for different sections of the poor. If my employer, taking pity on me, gives me an old television, I am not entitled to a yellow card [Below Poverty Line card]. My son who is disabled has a special cycle which he uses to go to work. The BPL surveyors roll their eyes and say that I am earning well because I have a hand-me-down television and a wheelchair for my disabled son. They say, you have a cycle, how can you be in the BPL list?' said Aamna Khatun, a domestic worker from Kanpur who earns Rs.800 a month.

She was speaking at a convention on the right to food security organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in New Delhi on August 9, coinciding with the anniversary of Quit India Day. It was organised to highlight the public resentment against the proposed Food Security Bill and the faulty BPL survey currently under way. Nearly 500 women from at least nine States attended the convention. Delegates spoke in favour of a universal and more substantial public distribution system (PDS). The meeting covered interconnected areas, such as the proposed cash transfer system and the BPL survey, which is based on highly limited inclusionary criteria and broad exclusionary criteria.

It is interesting that like many other proposed pieces of legislation in recent times, the Food Security Bill, of which the scheme of cash transfers forms an integral part, has faced considerable opposition from various quarters, including women's organisations. Ironically, just like the Women's Reservation Bill, it has not received the kind of orchestrated attention that the demand for a Lokpal Bill has. This, however, does not diminish its significance in any manner.

Arguing for nothing less than a universal PDS that will ensure a minimum of 35 kilograms of foodgrain for every family at Rs.2 a kg, along with subsidised entitlements of fuel, edible oil and pulses, the women rejected the government's proposed Food Security Bill. They called it a bluff that had in one stroke excluded 25 per cent of rural India and 50 per cent of urban India from the PDS, thus comparing it unfavourably with the present system in which the PDS serves more than 80 per cent of the people, categorised as BPL and APL, or above poverty line. (How many of the card-holders now receive their entitlements is, of course, another matter.) The government's Food Security Bill is actually a proposal for a significantly truncated and targeted PDS, the resolution adopted at the convention noted.

Cash transfer in lieu of material subsidies such as foodgrain and fuel was proposed in Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's Budget speech this year: The government provides subsidies, notably on fuel and foodgrains, to enable the common man to have access to these basic necessities at affordable prices. A significant proportion of subsidised fuel does not reach the targeted beneficiaries... we have deliberated for long the modalities of implementing such subsidies... to ensure greater efficiency, cost-effectiveness and better delivery for both kerosene and fertilizers, the government will move towards direct transfer of cash subsidy to people living below poverty line in a phased manner. The women at the conference rejected the scheme, which, they felt, would not work in a system plagued by leakages.

Women's organisations, including AIDWA, argue that Eleventh Plan documents show that leakages in the PDS doubled in the period after the system of targeting began. There is no guarantee that the cash transfer system will be free of leakages and pilferage, they argue. They also feel that the cash transfer proposal, backed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, is yet another way of targeting populations on the flawed understanding of poverty. Even if the system is indexed to inflation, it is argued, it will be an uphill task to get the rates revised on a regular basis, as the experience with old-age pensions and school scholarships has shown. Also, there is no guarantee that the cash meant for food will not be used for other things.

The experience of the implementation of schemes like the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] and old-age and widow pensions have showed that the problems of corruption and undue delays continue in these schemes that are based on cash transfers to bank accounts, observed the resolution passed at the meeting.

The Right to Food Campaign, an umbrella front of several like-minded organisations, and the Rozi Roti Adhikaar Abhiyaan, a network of 30 organisations defending similar rights and the right to livelihoods, have also criticised the cash transfer proposal on the basis of exhaustive surveys done in Delhi. At present, a committee headed by Nandan Nilekani has been asked to look into the methodology for replacing the transfer of foodgrains through the PDS with direct subsidies. The Delhi government seems convinced about the feasibility of the scheme. To test the feasibility of the proposal, a pilot survey funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was conducted in partnership with SEWA and the India Development Foundation among hundred families in an area of Delhi called Raghubir Nagar. Each family was given Rs.1,000 a month in lieu of its PDS entitlements. The survey results are yet to be made public.

The Rozi Roti Adhikaar Abhiyaan, AIDWA, the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, the All India Kachra Shramik Mahasangh (an organisation representing ragpickers), the National Federation of Indian Women and the Centre for Advocacy and Research are critical of the survey. According to them, Raghubir Nagar as a sample study area is not representative of the poorer localities in Delhi. Besides, they say that the opinion of those who were unwilling to accept cash transfers in lieu of foodgrains had not been considered by the surveyors. The sample size was small, and it was unclear whether those selected in the study were BPL card-owners.

The Abhiyaan conducted a much larger and comprehensive survey of 4,005 households in Delhi spread across 55 areas that covered slums, resettlement colonies and homeless persons. Nearly 91.5 per cent of the respondents preferred a reformed PDS instead of cash transfers. A meagre 5 per cent opted for cash transfers, and the rest had no opinion on the matter. It was shocking that 17 per cent of the respondents had no BPL cards. Only 31.5 per cent of the daily-wage labourers in the sample had BPL cards. Around 47.5 per cent of the respondents were daily wagers, 18.3 per cent received a monthly salary, 17.1 per cent were self-employed and 14.7 per cent were unemployed.

Sixty per cent of the card-holders said that ration was distributed regularly. A large number said they received less than their entitled quota. The survey was conducted under the conditions laid down by the Mission Convergence plan of the Delhi government, comprising a set of criteria to identify the poor based on location and social and occupational vulnerability. Occupationally vulnerable households were defined as those that were primarily dependent on earnings from occupations and forms of employment or self-employment that were casual, irregular, with low and uncertain wages, unsanitary, hazardous and unhealthy, or that were bonded or semi-bonded in nature or characterised by other undignified and oppressive conditions.

Dipa Sinha, an independent researcher who was involved with the office of the Right to Food Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court (the commissioners are appointed to track hunger and the implementation of interim orders relevant to the Right to Food case across the country), said even though three phases of the Mission Convergence survey had been completed, the results had not been declared and ration cards based on the plan criteria had not been issued. Only 28.7 per cent of the 4,005 respondents surveyed in the vulnerable areas of Delhi reported that they had been surveyed by the Gender Resource Centres under the Mission Convergence survey. As per the National Sample Survey (NSS) data (2004-05), only 27.5 per cent of those below the poverty line in Delhi had BPL cards. Clearly, a much larger proportion had been left out, and this problem cannot be solved by cash transfers as the first hurdle to identifying the poor, even on the basis of the existing criteria, had not been crossed.

We did our survey to highlight what the preferences of the poor were, as we were always told that we did not know what the poor wanted, said Dharmendra Yadav, representing the association of ragpickers in the city. Anjali Bharadwaj of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan said that there was no information in the public domain and that it was after painstaking efforts that some details of what the government was up to had emerged gradually. The local ration dealers tell the women that the ration shops are going to close down soon, she said.

Independent surveys

Apart from the joint survey conducted by the Abhiyaan, some organisations conducted their own independent pilot surveys, including one in Raghubir Nagar, the pilot project area, to test the feasibility of cash transfers, with much the same outcome. Each of the independent surveys was much larger than the pilot survey commissioned by the Delhi government.

Sehba Farooqui of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS) said that her organisation had conducted a survey among 731 households covering 15 areas in Delhi where the respondents were mainly home-based women workers working on piece rates. These home-based workers slog all day and earn anywhere between Rs.16 and Rs.25 a day. They are all APL card-holders. Earlier, they had BPL cards, she said. Sonia Varma, an office-bearer of the JMS, said that in a resettlement colony in South Delhi, residents reported that employees of the post office demanded Rs.50 from them for getting their accounts opened for cash transfers, and also asked them to hand over their ration cards. We were told by the Delhi government that there is no such proposal on ground, but it is already happening in parts of Delhi, said Anjali Bharadwaj and Sonia Varma. Studies from other States done by other researchers also indicate something very similar to what our survey has shown, said Dipa Sinha.

The Food Security Bill has come in for a lot of criticism for suggesting reduction in the quantum of foodgrains from 35 kg for every family each month to 7 kg per person for BPL families and 3 kg per person for APL families. With an average family size of 4.5 persons as per the 61st NSS round, the quota per member stands automatically truncated under the Bill. Even the pricing of the foodgrains is questionable as it is higher at Rs.3 a kg for rice, at a time when States such as Tamil Nadu are giving it at Re.1 a kg.

Other organisations, too, have reservations about the Bill. The Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) has pointed out that the draft Bill omitted infants from its ambit by excluding maternity entitlements such as wage compensation for working days lost; community crches at all workplaces, with paid nursing breaks; and counselling on breastfeeding as a service. J.P. Dadhich and Arun Gupta, national coordinators of the BPNI, said that the earlier National Advisory Council (NAC) draft had recognised the food security of infants, but this aspect had disappeared in the draft of the Empowered Group of Ministers. It was appalling, stated the BPNI, that the draft had proposed ready-to-eat meals for children under six, which ran contradictory to the existing law of ensuring exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for six to 24 months with additional home-based foods.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had given a commitment to enact food security legislation in its first term. But the government had differences with the NAC regarding the coverage and method to be adopted to ensure food security, the quantum of foodgrain required and the impact of the food subsidy burden. The NAC's approach was more comprehensive and holistic. A committee appointed by the Prime Minister under Dr C. Rangarajan examined its recommendations and concluded that it was not feasible because of the lack of availability of foodgrains and the huge subsidy burden.

The committee was in favour of restricting entitlements to Rs.2 a kg for wheat and Rs.3 a kg for rice to households that fell below the Tendulkar Committee poverty line plus 10 per cent of the BPL population. The NAC did not agree with this coverage. But soon a group of economists wrote to the NAC chairperson pushing for a system of direct cash transfers or food stamps, citing the alleged inefficiency of the PDS system.

On August 2, the Right to Food Campaign wrote to the Prime Minister, rejecting the EGoM draft of the Food Security Bill, calling it a mockery of the idea of food security. It lamented that there was no integrated approach to food security. Issues of nutritional security, procurement, production, storage and distribution as processes integral to food security had been bypassed in the Bill, it said, and added that the government's intention was to do away with the already shrunk coverage of priority households. The proposal to provide foodgrains to the general category at half the minimum support price would mean that people would have to pay prices that were much higher than the present BPL and APL prices in the long run, it argued.

The linking of BPL entitlements to the Unique Identification Number, as proposed in the Bill, has also been criticised, especially as the biometric UID is a matter still to be discussed in Parliament. According to a reply in Parliament by Ashwani Kumar, Minister of State for Planning, Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, some 1,78,67,200 Aadhaar, or UID, numbers have been issued.

The latest BPL survey, which is under way, has drawn a lot of flak for its very restrictive automatic inclusion criteria. According to it, only those living on alms, legally released bonded labourers (not those in illegal bondage), households without shelter, manual scavengers and primitive tribal groups will be included in the five-point automatic list; a household headed by a single woman or a person with a disability or a minor child will not be considered. For the rest, who will not be automatically included, there is a list of seven questions on the basis of which the poor will be ranked and given a score from zero to seven. Ideally, each of the seven criteria, however limited in definition and scope, should be considered as a basis for automatic inclusion in the BPL list.

We need kerosene on a regular basis for our children to study and for the food to be cooked. Whenever I go to buy it from the ration shop, the owner says it is finished. How can it get over even before it has arrived? You'll get it when it comes,' he says, said Ekmani Devi from Bihar at the AIDWA convention. The problems of single women, households headed by women, and disabled persons were highlighted by individual speakers at the convention. For a government grappling with allegations of corruption and inaction, the least it can do is to provide some very basic entitlements that are being demanded. A Food Security Bill should try to ensure food security for one and all and not rate the poor on a list of one to seven or give them the chimera of well-being under the garb of an ill-conceived cash transfer system.

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