Lok Sabha Elections 2004
Under BJP Rule:
There is a phenomenon that the UNICEF calls the “South Asian Enigma”. It refers to the extremely high rates of malnutrition seen in children in South Asia – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Malnutrition rates in these regions are far above any other region in the world. Bangladesh with 63% of children malnourished and India with 53% have the highest rates of malnourishment in the world. These rates are far in excess of what is seen in even Sub-Saharan Africa – 20-25%.
This situation points to the conditions of near starvation in which the bulk of India’s population lives today. The NDA Government in the last five years has actively aided this process by its blatant pro-rich and anti-poor policies. A Reserve Bank of India report points out, that the expansion of buffer food stocks to 3 times the desired level by 2000-2001 was accompanied by a decline in per capita availability of food grain. This fell from a high of 505.5 grams per day in 1997 to 470.4 grams in 1999 and then to 458.6 grams in 2000, indicating that the basic food security problem, far from being solved, has actually worsened.
Towards Widespread Hunger and Starvation
As a result, as we entered the twenty first century the availability of cereals in the country dropped to an all-time low of less than 143 kg. per head and that of pulses per head similarly dropped to below 10 kg. The last time such abysmally low levels of availability were seen, was just before the World War II in colonial times, and again briefly for two years during the food crisis of the mid-sixties. Today, an average family of five members consumes 114 kg. less of food grains, compared to the early nineties. It is thus not surprising that starvation deaths are reported from across the country.
While the crisis over forty years ago was caused by a deficiency of supply, which everyone could understand, the problem today is caused by deficiency of demand: and most people cannot comprehend how the existence of large buffer stocks of food grains goes hand in hand with hunger and starvation. The cruel truth is that the NDA government has withheld the distribution of food to the starving millions in the country even as grain stocks rose to unprecedented levels in government godowns.
Dismantling of the Public Distribution System
What was the response of the NDA Government to unprecedented levels of hunger in the country? The Government responded by a virtual dismantling of the Public distribution system in the country. In the name of Targeted PDS, the Government reduced the amount of food released through the PDS and resorted to a savage hike in prices off food grains offered through the PDS. The effects were immediate and startling. The price of rice distributed to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families was increased from Rs.350 per quintal to Rs.595 per quintal in 1997. The price of wheat was increased from Rs.250 per quintal to Rs.450 per quintal in 2000. The rise in prices for Above poverty Line (APL) families was even steeper. Food distributed through the PDS plummeted – from 19.7 million tonnes in 1996 to 12 million tonnes in 2000.
The NDA Government, instead of being concerned about this, gleefully started shouting from the rooftops about the large buffer stock of food grains! At one point this buffer stock rose to 60 million tonnes, i.e. 5 times what was distributed through the PDS. It costs the government in excess of Rs.14,000 crores to hold this large reserve stock, and more than 50% of the Rs.25,000 crore support that the government provides to maintain food security is spent on maintaining this buffer stock! While hunger stalks the villages of India, rats consume Rs.308 crores worth of food grains every year. The BJP-led Government spends more to keep its people hungry than to feed the hungry millions.
The drought in 2002-2003 forced even the callous NDA Government to bring about a marginal decrease in PDS food prices and the proposed expansion of the “antodaya scheme”, leading to an increase in food released through the PDS. But even these measures have not led to a restoration of food released through the PDS to levels achieved in 1996. The Government however showed its concern for the increasing food stocks that it held in a novel manner.
Exporting Food While People Starve
A significant portion of these stocks was actually exported, at hugely subsidised rates, or sold in the open market. The export price was as low as the price paid by Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. When the World Trade Organisation objected that this amounted to an export subsidy, which is not allowed, the Indian government responded by converting the difference into a transport subsidy for exporters, who were still allowed to sell abroad at these amazingly low rates. So while hundreds of millions of our people continued effectively to starve, the Central Government sent around 17 million tonnes of food at abysmally low rates out of the country. In contrast the Government distributed just 7 million tons of food grains to 14 drought-affected states in 2003.
Another six million tonnes were sold to private traders, also at relatively low prices. If these are taken together, 23 million tonnes were effectively wasted over 16 months, by not using them in productive employment or welfare schemes. If these food stocks had been actually used for government schemes, the total volume of all such schemes could have been doubled. Total employment schemes could have been increased more than tenfold, with huge positive implications for the currently desperate situation of rural employment. Alternatively, all the schoolchildren in the country could have been provided mid-day meals in school through a centrally organised scheme.
License to Qualify as Poor!
Today, under the targeted PDS scheme, three layers have been created – Above Poverty Line (APL), Below Poverty Line (BPL) and the poorest who qualify for the Antodaya scheme.
The Targeted PDS scheme in a predominantly poor country like India means demarcating not between the rich and the poor, but between different categories of the poor, to "target" some of them for benefits regarding access to cheap food that actually all of them require. It is aimed at statistically reducing the numbers of the poor, even though an increasing number of people are joining the ranks of the destitute every day.
NDA Government acknowledges that more people have less work, as revealed by official data on unemployment. It admits that nine out of I 0 families in rural India and seven out of 10 in urban India spend Rs. 60 out of every Rs. 100 they earn on meeting their minimum food requirements. In several countries, a family is considered poor if more than a third of its income is spent on food. But the criteria used for the identification of poverty border on the farcical. For instance, if a woman owns more than three sarees, she becomes ineligible for a BPL card. Ownership of a bicycle, even if it was acquired through incurring debt or by cuts in other essential household expenditures including food, deprives the household of the benefit.
In December 2000, the Prime Minister as his birthday gift to the poor had announced the Antodaya scheme, namely, the provision of 35 kg of food grains at Rs.2 a kg per family a month for wheat and Rs. 3 for rice to the "poorest of the poor" arbitrarily decided as being around one crore in the whole country. Apart from the gross underestimate in numbers, the criteria of eligibility for benefits accruing under this scheme further lowers the standards of human existence. It is like telling a hungry family that they cannot be that hungry if they have shared two rotis, since there are those who have shared only one. And who is to decide on eligibility? In a bizarre replay of the inspector raj system against which the rich had many complaints, inspectors, instead of checking the piles of currency notes hidden away in designer mattresses, now search the meagre belongings of the poor to decide if they qualify for the much sought after red card. While, under the economic liberalisation programme pursued vigorously by the BJP-led Government, licenses have been abolished for virtually everything, only the poor in this country now need a license to qualify as poor!
One of the important recommendations made by the Abhijit Sen Committee set up by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Food in the context of the huge stocks of over 6 crore tonnes of food grains rotting in Government godowns is precisely the people of this country demand - an "expansion of the existing Antodaya scheme of food support, to become a food security system for the entire destitute population, in particular old people, the disabled, widows and other single women without regular support". The committee also calls for a restoration of the earlier universal public distribution system, where food grains at low prices were distributed through the PDS to all those who wanted to avail of the facility. It further recommends the provision of food grains at half the present BPL prices, analysing in detail the utter failure of the targeted system. True to character, the BJP-led NDA Government has virtually ignored the recommendations of this committee.
This then is the record of the NDA government in its provision of the basic minimum that is required for the survival of the Indian people. It is a record that would have made the government in any civilized country hang its head in shame. Instead, in a brazen display of callous indifference to the plight of millions of hungry people, this government is telling the world that “India is Shining”!