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PLENTY OUT OF REACH
- The poor have to be fed through well-designed, targeted policies

There are reports that this year’s rains may also be deficient. Since the total rainfall last year was also below normal, these reports have raised the spectre of droughts and starvation deaths in some parts of India. Not surprisingly, a recent panel discussion on NDTV focused on the issue of how people could be allowed to die of starvation at a time when government granaries seem to be too small to hold the stock of available foodgrains in the country.

The panel included a member of the planning commission, representing the government’s views. He had a hard time defending the government’s record in food distribution. “How can any government which professes to care for the poor allow starvation deaths when there are adequate stocks of food available with the government'” was the constant refrain. As is usual in such discussions, emotions sometimes got the better of common sense, and some irrelevant objections to current government policies were also voiced. For instance, one panelist wanted the government to ban all exports of foodgrains if the poor could not be provided with adequate food. This is of course looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope — the domestic availability of foodgrains is sufficiently large to permit everyone a square meal even after the export of food grains. The problem is not one of availability, but of how to ensure that the stocks reach the really needy.

Why can the poor not get enough to eat when there is no apparent shortage of food' Amartya Sen would refer to his theory of entitlements and point out that the poor have very low entitlements. Put in every day language, the poor are simply unable to pay for the food that they so desperately want or need. They are priced out of the market since they do not have the incomes or purchasing power with which to back their demand for food.The only long-term solution is to raise incomes of the poor so that they do not have to depend on government doles.

Indeed, it is a sad commentary on the performance of successive governments in the last five years that we have still not been able to raise minimum incomes to levels which are at least sufficient to fend off malnutrition. Although poverty levels have come down over time, the rate at which minimum incomes have been increasing is dismally poor. Clearly, the poor have to be fed now, and this requires well-designed, targeted policies that deliver food to the poor.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about ways in which the excess foodstocks can be delivered to the poor. An obvious distribution channel is the much-maligned public distribution system. The PDS has been restructured in recent times. Two levels of prices have been introduced. Households above the poverty line are now required to pay substantially higher prices which essentially cover the economic cost of delivering food grains. In other words, the subsidy on food supplies to the APL households has been more or less abolished.

In principle, the PDS has become friendlier to the poor. Issue prices have been reduced and quotas increased substantially to those households which are below the poverty line. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have had the desired effect because there has not been any dramatic rise in PDS purchases amongst BPL households. There are several reasons for this. First, the relatively poor are not able to take full advantage of the increase in their rationed quota because they are constrained by their low levels of income — many of them may simply not have enough incomes to purchase the additional quantities of foodgrains even at reduced prices. Second, the coverage of the PDS leaves much to be desired — there may not be any PDS outlets particularly in rural areas.

Third, there are allegations that some states have deliberately not supplied PDS outlets with sufficient grains. The more charitable version of these allegations contend that states do not acquire allotted quotas from the Centre, while the more uncharitable stories doing the rounds allege that the more villainous states actually divert grains meant for BPL households to the open market. Of course, all states should not be tarred with the same brush — Kerala and Tamil Nadu have managed to ensure adequate delivery of PDS grain to BPL households.

People who are moved by the acute social injustice sometimes wonder why the government cannot arrange for the free distribution of food to the poor. “Is this not a better solution that letting the rats feast on the grain in FCI godowns'” they ask. Even if the government were to release some quantity of foodstocks for this purpose, it still has to work out a distribution network. Clearly, the PDS is not a feasible option. Perhaps, a more effective solution is to supplement the PDS by releasing a fixed quantity of foodstocks to local bodies such as panchayats. As in all such schemes, there would be a certain amount of corruption in the form of leakages. But, the final outcome would be better than the status quo.

Another possibility is to channel a much larger volume of foodgrains in rural works programmes. Such programmes employ workers in the creation of rural infrastructure, using the excess foodstocks to partly pay workers in kind. Rural works schemes of this kind have often been touted as ideal anti-poverty programmes because they incorporate a degree of targeting. This is because only the poor and needy will agree to work in such programmes in view of the inadequate remuneration.

Unfortunately, this solution also has some fundamental problems. If the main purpose of such schemes is to provide additional employment or simply to use up the excess foodstocks, then the projects that can be carried out must be highly labour-intensive. This places a constraint on the kind of infrastructure or assets which can be created. Typically, these cannot be particularly durable assets — roads which are washed away during the first monsoon being a good example. This obviously implies a waste of the non-labour inputs used up in the programmes. One might as well ask labourers to dig up holes and then fill them up! On the other hand, if rural works programmes try to create durable assets, then the projects cannot be very labour-intensive. Then the overall scarcity of non-food resources with the government implies that only a small fraction of foodstocks can be delivered to the poor through such programmes.

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