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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

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Starving the poor - II

By Jean Dreze

AS THE effects of prolonged drought intensify across the country, there is an obvious case for using idle food stocks for income- generation purposes. Aside from helping the poor in drought- affected areas, income-generation programmes would give farmers elsewhere some protection against a price crash later in the year, mitigate the problem of escalating food stocks, and earn the Government some credit for supporting the people during this crisis. There are, in principle, good prospects of broad-based support for such an initiative.

Why, then, is so little being done to use food stocks for drought relief purposes? There appear to be three basic constraints, concerned respectively with political, financial and structural factors. The political constraint is simply that drought relief is not (at least not yet) a priority in the corridors of power. The poor have never counted for much in India's lopsided democracy, and with the growing orientation of economic policy towards the (so-called) middle class, their concerns have been further marginalised. Drought, for instance, hardly figures in ongoing discussions of the upcoming budget.

This political invisibility of drought-related issues struck me after a recent visit to Rajasthan's State Secretariat in Jaipur. While some able and public-spirited administrators were hard at work, the dominant mood was one of complacency and abdication. The most common attitude was to downplay the drought, if not blame the victims for their own predicament. One official assured me that the drought was ``media hype'', and that people were doing just fine. Another explained to me how he had learnt from Amartya Sen's work that the first sign of a famine is food scarcity and a rise in prices, neither of which could be observed in Rajasthan today. (It is hard to think of a more radical inversion of Sen's analysis.) Asked about the possibility of curbing electricity consumption in Jaipur during the drought period, the Chief Minister proudly told us (P. Sainath and myself) that he had already done it. As he spoke, the lights of Jaipur's lavish wedding parties and glittering avenues were glowing across the evening sky. A similar feedback emerges from New Delhi's various bhawans (Yojana Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, etc.). A senior official at the Finance Ministry, for instance, assured me that ``people do not have the capacity to absorb more food'' [sic].

Initially, I took it that all these good people were trying to pull wool over my eyes. It gradually became clear, however, that they actually believed what they were saying. And to be fair to them, there is little in Jaipur (let alone Delhi) to remind the middle classes that they live in the capital of a drought- affected State. The atmosphere there is one of economic boom and unprecedented opulence, with plenty of internet cafs, smart restaurants and fashionable boutiques. The ``social distance'' between Government officials and drought-affected people further enhances the political invisibility of the latter's predicament.

The second constraint is financial. The coffers of State Governments are empty, making it difficult for them to bear the cash costs of income-generation programmes (e.g. the non-wage component of food-for- work schemes). At the State Secretariat in Jaipur, ``paise naheen hai'' was a constant refrain. The Government of Rajasthan is caught in a debt trap, whereby larger and larger sums of money need to be borrowed simply to cope with interest payments on outstanding debt. Finding money to pay the salaries of Government employees is the top priority of the finance wizards, if not the single priority. Rumour has it that all kinds of development schemes have been halted, downsized or postponed for that purpose. Even widow pensions, I was told, have not been paid for eight months for lack of funds.

The financial constraint is exacerbated by the tendency of different parts of the public sector (e.g. the Food Corporation of India, the State Governments, different Ministries) to protect their own budgets and ``pass the buck''. State Governments, for instance, currently have to buy food from the Central Government at the ``BPL price''. Thus, the low social cost of food at this time of bulging stocks is not reflected in public accounting practices.

The thought arises, of course, that part of the food stocks could be sold on the market to generate the required cash resources. This brings us to the third issue - the structural constraint. This constraint derives from the primacy of the price-support objective, discussed in the first part of this article. If food stocks are released on the market, food prices will fall. This would undermine the Central Government's commitment to sustain a ``minimum support price'' (MSP). In other words, whatever food the Government may sell to generate cash resources will, in effect, have to be bought again to sustain the official MSP.

This problem, incidentally, applies not only in relation to the ``overheads'' involved in organising (say) employment programmes, but also to wage payments themselves. If wages are paid fully in kind, market demand for food is bound to decline, compelling the Government to procure more food if the MSP is to be sustained. In short, the Government cannot have its cake and eat it: either it has to generate independent cash resources for drought-relief programmes, or it has to adopt a lower MSP.

To these three basic constraints, one has to add further impediments of a more routine nature: bureaucratic inertia, infrastructural bottlenecks, lack of communication between Ministries, and so on. The ``blame game'' between the Central and State Governments is another stumbling block. State Governments, for instance, complain of inadequate food allotments from the Centre. The Centre, for its part, blames State Governments for failing to make full use of their existing allotments. Constructive efforts to resolve these differences are few and far between.

In overcoming these constraints, the first step is to ensure that the welfare of drought-affected people becomes a major political priority. That, in turn, is unlikely to happen unless drought- affected people are able to build countervailing power and alter the prevailing biases of public policy. As it happens, a redeeming feature of droughts in contemporary India is that they tend to be periods of intensified political action and popular mobilisation. The 1970-73 drought in Maharashtra led to growing social awareness of the right to work, later enshrined in the State's pioneering ``employment guarantee scheme''. The 1987 drought in Rajasthan gave birth to a powerful movement for the ``people's right to information''. Even the Naxalite movement has important roots in the devastating droughts of the mid-1960s.

This year, similar processes have already begun in some drought- affected States. On February 18, for instance, more than 1,000 farmers and labourers from drought-affected districts of Rajasthan held a public meeting near the State Secretariat in Jaipur, in a spirited attempt to make their voices heard. Their startling testimonies exposed the self-satisfied claims of the administration. In one village of Pali district, people have to fetch drinking water from a distance of 20 km. In Rajsamand, the district's largest lake has dried up for the first time in 300 years. In Udaipur district, two starvation deaths have already been reported. In tribal areas of Chittaurgarh, drought-affected families are selling their meagre assets to buy food. In some villages, children are withdrawn from school by impoverished parents. Distress migration and cattle deaths are widespread. As for relief programmes, they are virtually non-existent as things stand: the coverage of relief works is negligible, and even the public distribution system does not function in many areas.

This meeting was a major wake-up call for the State Government (and there are early signs of a positive response). Gatherings of this kind also give a sharp sense of the latent political power of the underprivileged. The paradox of mounting food stocks amidst widespread hunger provides a natural rallying point for popular mobilisation across the country. Therein lies the hope not only of resolving that paradox but also of achieving more lasting changes in the balance of political power.


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