No country for the common man

Neoliberal policy makers are concerned about cutting food subsidy at a time when the ‘republic of hunger’ is only expanding.

birajpatnaik

Biraj Patnaik | April 17, 2010



It’s official now. The aam admi is off the UPA’s radar. If more confirmation of that was needed, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee delivered it in parliament in his budget speech. Sure, the platitudes were still mouthed, but not a single budget proposal reflected the concern for the aam admi. In fact, there seemed to be an inverse relation between the time devoted to the aam admi in the speech and the budget allocations. If the aam farmer was gratified to find mention in the FM’s speech, all he got by way of additional allocation was Rs 400 crore for six eastern states to usher in, hold your breath, a second green revolution. This allocation represents just 0.1 percent of the total revenues foregone by way of tax exemptions to industry. Similarly, the rising food prices saw a week of intense debate in both houses of parliament before the budget was presented. The FM’s response: cut the food subsidy by Rs 500 crore! But then, did the aam admi ever exist beyond the rhetoric of the election manifesto at all? To be fair, there were signs that he did figure in the last UPA government: enhanced allocations for social sectors, the national rural health mission, the employment guarantee act and the loan waiver for farmers. Despite this, UPA II floundered with a bad start and continues to falter in its commitment. The roots of this dissonance perhaps lie in the fact that the assessment of ground zero of Indian poverty is perceived differently by the powers that be, both in the government and in the Congress party.It is this dissonance in the understanding of reality that is responsible for the hubris of UPA II. Take health and nutrition as a sector. Despite the high growth rates of the past two decades, India is burdened with one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. At 46 percent this is nearly double the child malnutrition rate for sub-Saharan Africa. Pause for a minute to understand what this figure means. It means that the hardest lesson that nearly half the mothers in this country have to teach their children is the lesson of how to live with hunger. Is there a greater indignity that we can force a mother to endure? Mothers incidentally aren’t doing too well either. Anemia among pregnant  women (15-49 year age group) has gone up from 49.7 percent in 1998-99 to 57.9 percent in 2005-06. And 300 mothers (for every 1,00,000 births)  in the country die at child birth. This rate of maternal mortality in India is the amongst the highest in the world and most of our neighbours in South Asia do better than us.

Anaemia among children in the age group of 6-35 months is at an astonishing 79 percent according to the National Family Health Survey 3. Our infant mortality rate at 53 (for every 1,000 children) is equal to the average infant mortality of the least developed countries in the world and two and half times that of China. Nearly a third of all babies born in India have low birth weight and this is twice as many as the low birth weight babies in Africa. The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau tells us that close to 40 percentof our adult population has a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 that makes the situation in India “alarming” as per WHO norms.

India is ranked 65 out of 88 countries in the Global Hunger Index (IFPRI), below Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and believe it or not, even Sudan. We are five places below Cambodia. If this is not bad news enough, then we manage to fare worse in UNDP’s Human Development Index, occupying 134th rank, just ahead of Solomon Islands.

It is this alarming challenge that UPA II was expected to rise to and perhaps what it was voted back to power to deal with.

Let’s admit it, even neoliberals must have feelings. The feeling that these statistics, perhaps, most likely to invoke, in our Prime Minister and his fellow growth-wallahs, is that of acute embarrassment, especially in international fora, where India seeks to occupy the high table. It even prompted the PM to describe child malnutrition as a “national shame”. Obviously, he hasn’t been shamed enough or this emotion doesn’t work for him. Manmohan Singh has not even bothered to convene the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutritional Challenges since it was created a few years back.

Beyond symbolism, the policy choices that continue to be made are mired in the decades old belief of trickle down and a senseless pursuit of growth at all costs. Social sector expenditure in this paradigm is viewed largely as wasteful expenditure that needs to be assiduously avoided if the fiscal deficit has to be controlled.

Take the government’s own measures for identifying the poor. The current estimates of poverty stand at a per capita per day expenditure of Rs 12 for rural areas and Rs 17 for urban areas. This is a starvation line and not a poverty line. But even by these low standards of poverty, at 28 percent, the poor in India could easily come together to form one of the largest countries in the world. A Republic of Hunger, as Utsa Patnaik puts it?

In the last two years, three government committees have come up with three sets of estimates for identifying the poor – the Arjun Sengupta Committee, the NC Saxena Committee and the Tendulkar Committee. The Sengupta Committee pegged the percentage of poor in the country at 77 percent based on a per capita per day expenditure of Rs 20 while the Tendulkar Committee estimated it at 37 percent and the  Saxena Committee pegged it at 50 percent. Even to accept the abysmally low estimate of 37 percent that has been proposed by the Tendulkar Committee, the government continues to drag it’s feet. Remember that if this estimate was accepted the poverty line would stand updated at a per capita per day expenditure of a princely sum of Rs 15 for rural areas and Rs 19 for urban areas. The great achievement of UPA II would have been to herald in an era of prosperity wherein all Indian citizens who were spending more than Rs 15 per day for all their needs – food, clothing, health, education, shelter – would not be considered poor. Consequently, a vast majority of the deserving poor would be left out of government welfare programmes including the public distribution system. A government that claims to have as its core the interests of the poor is struggling to get a fix on their numbers. Surely this does not augur well for the poor.

So, what does UPA II really hold for the aam admi? The National Food Security Act (NFSA), perhaps? It was touted to be the ‘NREGA’ for UPA II and expected to deliver the same electoral gains that the immensely popular rural employment guarantee scheme delivered for UPA I. The NFSA had the backing of 10 Janpath, and the first letter written by  UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to the prime minister, after UPA II was sworn in, was for the speedy enactment of this law with a draft legislation also attached to the letter. The NFSA featured in the president’s address to parliament and in two budget speeches of the finance minister besides countless references to it by the prime minister and Congress party apparatchiks. Surely that counts for political commitment.

However, the manner in which the proposed NFSA is unfolding it is becoming a classic case study of the proverbial “slip ’twixt cup and the lip” of UPA II. The draft bill produced by the Empowered Group of Ministers for instance, begins by ringing the death knell for food security in the country, with the premise that it will deal only with the food grain subsidy and not nutritional security. This is a self-defeating, self-imposed limitation for what could potentially be a historic piece of legislation. The bill essentially concludes that Indian state can achieve food security for all by providing 25 kgs of food grains at Rs 3 per kg to all BPL households identified using the Planning Commission estimates. The 25 kgs that the bill promises is in fact less than the 35 kgs which have been made a legal entitlement by the Supreme Court in the landmark Right to Food Case. The poverty numbers of the Planning Commission fall way short of what is required to deal with the nutritional emergency that the country faces. To add insult to injury, all the critical components that should have been part of this bill including mid-day meals, pensions, special programmes for very vulnerable people and maternity entitlements, find no place in the bill. What makes this even more unconscionable is the fact that most of these programmes are already in place. They are being implemented across the country with an annual fiscal outlay of close to Rs 80,000 crores. And since they are all sub-judice in the Right to Food case, in the Supreme Court, the government cannot discontinue or cut back on any of these entitlements. All that the government was expected to do was to bring these programmes under the legislative fold within a better framework of accountability.

Bring the concerns of the aam admi into the picture and the contours of this draft bill would have looked very different. It would have, at the very minimum, converted into rights all the legal entitlements that the Supreme Court has created over the past decade. It would have taken this opportunity to plug the gaps in existing programmes and created new programmes for very marginalised people who are outside the radar of policy making today. It would have created a strong framework of accountability along the lines of the RTI and the NREGA with independent monitoring mechanisms. And it would have created a set of enabling provisions for enhancing food production in the country and advancing rights of the poor over productive resources.

What we have instead is an “all-gong-no-dinner”  draft that disappoints on all counts. The single most important concern before the EGoM seems to have been a reduction in the food subsidy. So instead of a much needed universal Public Distribution System, what we have is the existing entitlement reduced by 10 kgs in the garb of legislating food security.

Forget taking on board the views of activists and campaigners, those much-derided jholawallahs, the EGoM goes out of its way to disregard the provisions in the draft bill sent by Sonia Gandhi to the prime minister. Every single suggestion in that draft has been knocked off the EGoM draft bill signalling a clear schism between the government and the party on this very key piece of legislation. A schism that represents the tension within UPA II that wants to retain the rhetoric of the aam admi, but is reluctant to abandon the neoliberal core of its policies. Unless this tension is resolved, there is little hope for the aam admi and indeed for the nation.

The views expressed in this article are personal.

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