Friday, 7 October 2011

Poverty politics

The 2G spectrum scam, Commonwealth Games loot, cash-for-vote bribery, Lokpal fiasco, Pranab-Chidambaram duel on the Finance Ministry note, and the count goes on. It seems the UPA-II is stuck in a rut.  As if the battering by the united Opposition and hauling over the coals by civil society over corruption was not enough, there came another embarrassment for the government: the controversial affidavit of the Planning Commission that claimed that persons consuming items worth more than `32 per day in urban areas, and `26 in rural areas, are not poor.

Ironically, the affidavit added that the figure was adequate for “private expenditure on food, education and health,” at a time when even the minimum wage is pegged at over `100 a day. Strangely, the Planning Commission cannot even see that a daily-wager has to shell out at least `30 every day for using the cheapest mode of public transport for travelling to his or her workplace in any city of India. 

The affidavit provoked high-decibel protests from all quarters — in academia, civil society and of course the Opposition. Commented NC Saxena, a member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council: “At `32 a day, even dogs and cats cannot live, considering the present day cost of living.” Magsasay Award winning rights activist Aruna Roy remarked: “This number is a joke. There’s no seriousness about the poor.”

In a desperate bid to seek defense, the Centre rushed Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh for damage control. But, to the utter embarrassment of the Planning Commission, Jairam Ramesh made it clear that the present State-wise poverty estimates based on the Planning Commission methodology will not be used to impose any ceilings on the number of households to be included in different government programmes and schemes, including the coming one on national food security. The firefighting lent credence to the unfortunate fact that the Planning Commission is incredibly detached from the ground reality. The late economist Amaresh Bagchi once rightly said that the Planning Commission is a big detriment to the development of India’s States, as it narrows the space of their governments to set priorities on expenditure. Planning that does not have flexibility or responsiveness to local conditions is designed to fail. 

There are several examples to support Bagchi’s claim. The NC Saxena Committee says that 50 per cent of Indians are below the poverty line if one takes into account the criterion of calorie intake, but the Planning Commission counts the number as just 28.3 per cent of the population, as it would then have warranted more food subsidies, that is against the prescription of the Capitalist World Bank.

The question of food security is hogging the national debate nowadays. The fact is that four major schemes aimed at fighting hunger and food insecurity — public distribution system, integrated child development scheme, mid-day meal scheme and the most publicised NREGS — have failed to deliver the expected results. 

Further, the current BPL census is a recipe for more confusion. The methodology includes reliance on data the Planning Commission has provided on State-wise estimates of poverty. But it is grossly underestimated and contradicts the list prepared by the State Governments. In the past, several chief ministers have challenged the BPL figures for their States, claiming that the numbers of the poor were much higher than those computed by the Centre. But then they are forced to negotiate with the Planning Commission. Jean Dreze, who conceptualised the first draft of the NREGA, and who recently quit his membership of the NAC over the food security issue, says the biggest problem is the continuation of the pre-existing policies on identification of beneficiaries. Though the PDS is functioning relatively well in some southern States, it is ramshackle elsewhere. According to a report of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution,  “In the last three years (2004-2007), `31,585.98 crore worth of wheat and rice meant for the poorest of the poor was siphoned off from the PDS. In 2006, `11,336.98 crore worth of food grain that the government was supposed to distribute to the needy at subsidised prices found its way into the market illegally.” Every year, India’s poor are cheated of 53.3 per cent of wheat and 39 per cent of rice meant for them. Exceptions apart, the poor in India simply can’t trust the government to deliver them food supplies. Similarly, the NREGA has made little impact on the livelihood security of the rural poor. The Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security carried out a survey in 100 villages of Orissa and found that out of `733 crore spent under NREGA during 2006-07, over `500 crore has been siphoned off and misappropriated by government officials.

To overcome the lacuna ingrained in the PDS, some experts advocate its substitution by cash transfers and the universalisation of schemes to make the question of poverty numbers redundant. But universalisation is problematic, because the success or failure of social schemes depends on proper identification of their target groups, besides the continued process of structural reforms. Moreover, the proposal of cash transfer is also a weak substitute. There is gender angle attached to it. As food is controlled by women, chances of it reaching the stomach of the family members is high, which might be missing in case of cash subsidy.

The skewed ‘reform’ is destined to fail if it does not include the marginalised in the development process. The World Bank-led structural adjustment policy has introduced a new form of imperialism in the farm sector. In a decade since 1997, about 2,00,000 farmers committed suicide due to indebtedness following crop failures — by shifting from traditional to cash crops —and slapdash trade liberalisation and corporate globalisation agenda of the government.

Now the government needs a face-saver and it is coming in the form of the Food Security Bill. Even if Parliament passes the Bill in the coming winter session, there is a little chance of its implementation in 2012. If one look at the motives of the UPA, any layman can discern that the Act will be accelerated only in 2013-14, just ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. 

The systemic failure ingrained in governance and policy-making has reached an all-time record under UPA-II. The intention of nation building should not be confused with the political compulsion of the grand old party, whose stock is at its lowest. It is high time, the aam admi got out of the trap of poverty politics.

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