It has barely been a month since Geeta V.N., a domestic help with a below poverty line (BPL) card, and thousands like her, stood in long queues in front of a tahsildar office to get income certificates following a government directive that all card-holders must furnish proof of income. The decision of the government now to do away with income criterion makes this exercise — that cost money for the poor — redundant. With the government deciding to replace income ceiling for BPL cards (Rs. 17,000 for urban and Rs. 12,000 for rural) with a 15-point eligibility criterion, Ms. Geeta is yet to figure out what other kinds of certificates she will have to furnish now to prove herself eligible.
B.A. Harish Gowda, Principal Secretary of the Food and Civil Supplies Department, told The Hindu that the new decision was “not a reversal” but only a decision to determine eligibility at the source of income (the nature of occupation) rather than on the basis of annual income.
“Will yet another set of criterion be put in place when the National Food Security Bill is ushered in?” asked Kathyayini Chamaraj, executive trustee of Civic, pointing to the fluctuations in policies that create hurdles for the poor to access a basic entitlement such as food.
She pointed out that the 15 criterion now introduced are not only too broad and open to varied interpretations but also focus on ways of exclusion rather than frame yardsticks for inclusion of poor in the subsidy bracket.
The criterion could mean that a man owning an autorickshaw is eligible for a BPL card, while a peon in a school is not, as employees of aided/unaided schools (barring those of unaided Kannada schools) are ineligible as per the new norms.
“It is nothing short of ridiculous to believe that all those working in private schools, irrespective of the nature of job, are not poor,” said K.S. Vimala of Janavadi Mahila Sanghatane. While there has been a demand from many quarters to return to the older system of universal public distribution system rather than one targeted at only those indentified as poor, the changing of criterion seems to be only making the system more complicated.
As elections near
Interestingly, the last time the BJP government in the State talked of changing the income criterion was in the run-up to 2008 elections, when the party had promised to revise norms and peg it at Rs. 30,000 for “extremely poor” and Rs. 60,000 for “poor” if voted to power. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the decision to do away with the income criterion comes even as political parties are preparing for the elections.
That apart, the statistics on spending on the public distribution system in the State indicates a decline in food subsidy allocation and actual money spent for it. The budget for this year pegs the food subsidy bill at Rs. 900 crore, down from Rs. 926 crore last year. In fact, revised estimates for 2011-12 (the actual amount spent) was Rs. 810 crore. The amount spent in 2010-11 was Rs. 950 crore.