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Playing dirty politics with the poor

By Praful Bidwai
October 03, 2011 12:27 IST
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Second-generation neoliberal policies, coupled with multiple failures on the food front, could do to the UPA what India Shining did to the NDA in 2004, says Praful Bidwai.

The United Progressive Alliance government has scandalised the public by repeatedly stating before the Supreme Court that it cannot commit itself to providing enough food to the Indian people at affordable prices.

Its affidavit, filed through the Planning Commission, says that the per capita urban poverty line estimated by an expert committee headed by the late Suresh Tendulkar is Rs 32 a day at current prices; it is Rs 26 a day for the rural areas. The central government can at maximum provide subsidised foodgrains to those below this income through the public distribution system.

This has understandably attracted ridicule from public-spirited scholars and other citizens, and even from an otherwise apathetic media. You cannot buy a thali for less than Rs 15 to Rs 20 in cities, and a small cup of tea costs Rs 5. The amount the poor spend daily on medicines is barely Re 1, according to Tendulkar. This won't fetch much more than a painkiller tablet.

How anyone can survive even at an animal level of existence on Rs 26 to Rs 32 a day remains a mystery to all but the Planning Commission's mandarins. To be fair, at least two of them, and many former commission members, have openly expressed their disagreement with the affidavit. But that hasn't deterred its Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia from accusing critics of misunderstanding the 'factually correct' affidavit. [Editor's note: Ahluwalia will make a statement on Monday to clarify the Planning Commission's stance and is expected to also take a decision on filing a fresh affidavit to clear the controversy.]

Worse, Ahluwalia pedantically says that the affidavit faithfully quotes the Tendulkar poverty line numbers, 'expressed as per person per day, and some people have confused that with what it would require to feed a family.'

But most people don't confuse the two, yet find it impossible to understand how an urban family can meet its needs of food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, education, and even consumer durables with Rs 160 per day. To add insult to injury, Ahluwalia has offered affordable food not to 31 per cent of the people, who would be entitled to it under Tendulkar, but to 41 per cent.

Such elitist statements by high functionaries mock at the poor. This is of a piece with Dr Manmohan Singh's response to the Supreme Court's appeal a year ago to give free foodgrains to the poor rather than let them rot in godowns.

Dr Singh said the court 'should not go into the realm of policy... I respect the sentiments ...that when foodgrains are rotting and people are suffering from deprivation, then some way should be found to ensure that the food needs of the deprived sections are met. But quite honestly, it is not possible in this country to give free food to all the poor people.'

It is relevant to ask if it is the government's 'policy', a domain it guards jealously, to maintain mass hunger and deprivation, and ensure that 48 per cent of Indian children remain malnourished, as they do despite two highest-GDP-growth decades in India's recent history. Is it also official policy to perpetuate anaemia amongst almost one-half of all Indian women of childbearing age, so they raise a whole generation of stunted children?

The government's attitude betrays an obsession with shirking its responsibility, and reducing its commitments to the poor. That's why Dr Singh manoeuvred to overrule the National Advisory Council's recommendation that the PDS must give foodgrains at affordable prices to at least 90 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban people.

To dilute this, he set up the Rangarajan committee and persisted with the existing (mis)Targeted PDS for people Below Poverty Line, BPL, which excludes almost half the deserving poor, but includes many non-poor people in several recently surveyed states.

The malaise is traceable to many Indian economists' preoccupation with measuring poverty on the brutal criterion of the daily calorie intake needed for bare survival -- originally, 2,400 calories in villages, and 2,100 in cities and towns. When VM Dandekar and Nilakantha Rath used this measure in their pioneering 1971 study Poverty in India, they wanted to highlight the prevalence of absolute, acute, below-subsistence level deprivation, not to create a standard for food entitlements.

The concept has become a grotesque mockery through its conversion into just such a standard -- as a means of perpetuating animal-level existence for hundreds of millions of people.

Thus, consumption figures taken from the National Sample Survey (NSS) and National Family Health Survey (NHFS) have been translated into sums of money on the manifestly wrong assumption that people's food basket and prices are more or less homogeneous across the country -- when they vary from district to district and tehsil to tehsil. This allowed all kinds of arbitrary criteria and poverty lines to be drawn up.

Professor Rath recently recalculated the data used in official computations after disaggregating it and came up with calorie-based poverty estimates that are about 50 per cent higher for many states, and almost double the official figures for some. These fit in closely with an actual decrease in per capita cereal and pulse consumption, noted on the basis of NSS data by economists like Utsa Patnaik.

The Tendulkar committee, headed by an arch-conservative neoliberal, introduced further distortions by using circular arguments like the following: 'The proposed poverty lines have been validated by checking the adequacy of actual private expenditure per capita near the poverty lines on food, education and health by comparing them with normative [sic] expenditures consistent with nutritional, educational and health outcomes.'

Similarly, 'when estimated population from NSS is ranked according to ascending size of food expenditure per capita, normative food expenditure per capita is defined by that level of food expenditure per capita that corresponds to cumulative share of population from NSS that equals the index of malnutrition derived from NFHS-III...' The 'index of malnutrition' is an unweighted sum of the proportions of underweight children, and adults with a low Body Mass Index.

This makes no sense. The Tendulkar report is replete with such gobbledegook, arbitrary definitions and absurd assessments. It's nothing short of obscene that such spurious measures of poverty have been given respectability by the Planning Commission and then used to work out food entitlements for people by arbitrarily dividing them into BPL and non-BPL categories.

Given such fundamentally flawed calculations, and their pervasive abuse, it is imperative to delink people's basic food entitlements from poverty measures. We must altogether abandon 'targeting', which has greatly harmed the poor. In India, under-nutrition is more widespread than income poverty, however measured. Therefore, the government's topmost priority must be to tackle malnutrition through a universal PDS.

Evidence shows that states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have moved towards universalisation of food entitlements, have successfully plugged leaks in the PDS and increased food delivery to the poor. The 'targeted' PDS based on false BPL benchmarks, by contrast, has malfunctioned and perpetuated hunger.

There is a larger political lesson in this. India has embarked on a growth model that is doing nothing to put more income into the hands of the vast majority. Disturbing evidence of this emerges from the latest NSS data, which shows that total employment for persons above 15 grew annually by a paltry 0.8 per cent between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010. This was way below the annual increase of more than 2 per cent in the number of people entering the labour market. Self-employment actually declined, as did women's employment.

This represents a terrible regression. Equally distressing is the trend towards greater and footloose migration, without a definite destination, revealed by the latest census figures. Falling agricultural incomes, growing debt, and rising displacement from dams, mining and industrial projects, are driving millions of rural people into the cities.

The swelling of this reserve army of labour has resulted in a larger rise in the urban population than the addition to the rural population over the past decade -- for the first time since 1921. These migrants survive in a precarious manner amidst unspeakably bad working conditions. They often migrate to one city for a few months or weeks and then again leave for other cities.

India is no longer insulated from the global Great Recession. Its effects are being felt in export-oriented industries and particularly in Information Technology-related sectors. This will further slow down job generation, increase economic distress and deepen poverty.

Meanwhile, the government is toying with plans to give yet more sops to the super-rich through 'second-generation reforms', or more neoliberal measures, including rampant privatisation, dismantlement of such minimal labour protection as exists, greater liberalisation of foreign investment in retail trade and military production, and major tax breaks. There are proposals to set up special industrial zones, and give banking licences to big business.

This will further widen income and regional disparities and aggravate social discontent. Inflation, close to 10 per cent, is already fuelling discontent. But Dr Singh says the high prices of vegetables, milk and meat represent the 'success' of official policies, which have resulted in higher incomes. Nothing could be more self-delusional.

Second-generation' neoliberal policies, coupled with multiple failures on the food front, could provoke popular disgust and do to the UPA what 'India Shining' did to the National Democratic Alliance in 2004.

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