Will the United Progressive Alliance Government take steps to put in place a universal public distribution system to provide food security to the people in a just and caring manner? Although there seems to be no direct governmental effort in that direction so far, the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has been projected by the media as a player interested in making PDS coverage more broad based and more inclusive, with a view to bringing relief to larger sections of the people.
The NAC has given importance not only to ensuring speedy relief to the affected poor but also to improving farm yields in terms of both quality and quantity so as to build sizeable buffer stocks. It has also highlighted the need to correct the system by putting an end to charges of large-scale corruption and inefficiency among the workforce. Another problem to be tackled is the shortage in high quality warehouse facilities.
It has been reported that a “universal” PDS could be taken up for implementation in 1,500 blocks spread over 150 poverty-ridden rural districts in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The choice of areas is apparently political. The context is heightened extremist activities in several parts of the region. More than 95 per cent of the population in these areas is poor.
In addition, the “poorest of the poor” who come under the Antyyodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) families, constituting 2.5 crore among the 6.5 crore BPL (Below the Poverty Line) beneficiary families in India, have been chosen for receiving more benefits at prices much lower than what they pay now. The people who are in the APL (Above the Poverty Line) category in the identified districts are also entitled to 35 kg of wheat or rice, though at slightly higher prices.
The affected people are being brought under PDS coverage, universal or targeted. There seems to be some visible activity in this area. Although the Left parties, eminent scientists such as Professor M.S. Swaminathan, and ‘the right to food' activists have been pressing for the revival of Universal PDS, the reluctance of neo-liberal economists and bureaucrats, who played a role in the replacement of Universal PDS with Targeted PDS in the mid-1990s, to violate “stop subsidies” rules is believed to be among the road blocks.
Apex court expresses concern
One thing however is quite clear. The central government will need to clarify its position in the highest court in the land soon enough. A week ago, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court expressed its serious concern over media reports that huge stocks of foodgrains were being wasted in the absence of adequate storage facilities. Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma asked the government to consider releasing the foodgrains to deprived people rather than allowing it to rot. They observed: “In a country where admittedly people are starving, it is a crime to waste even a single grain.” The official statement of the government indicated that there was wastage of foodgrains at many places, the judges noted, adding that it might consider constructing adequate warehouses or food storage facilities on a long-term basis. “On a short-term basis, they could also consider hiring warehouses or putting up waterproof tents to save the grain. But all-out efforts must be made to ensure that not a single grain is wasted.”
The judges were hearing a public interest litigation case on the right to food filed by People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The PUCL's lawyer, Colin Gonsalves, had brought a report published in the Hindustan Times (“India lets grain rot instead of feeding poor”, HT, July 26, 2010) to the court's attention. Citing the news report, the judges commented that it was a crime to waste food in a poor country. They told Additional Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran: “If you cannot store the grain, give it to the people to eat.”
The Supreme Court Bench sought a response from the government to the newspaper investigation. It also wanted the central government's response to the judges' suggestion on or before August 10 so that the Court could pass appropriate orders.
The press deserves appreciation for its expose of the government's dismal failure to protect precious stocks of foodgrain procured from different places after spending a lot of money and time. Quoting a highly placed source, the Delhi-based daily revealed how 17.8 million tonnes of wheat and rice, which can feed 140 million people for a month, were allowed to rot. Of this, about 10 million tonnes, having seen through at least one monsoon, was at risk of rotting; if that happened, the country would incur a loss of about Rs. 17,000 crore. Tracking Hunger is an HT and Mint initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger.
Interestingly, some other English language dailies have followed up with insightful pieces. The Indian news media have come some way since the second half of the 1990s, when most of them openly abandoned any claim of being the watchdog of the interests of India's poor. The recent financial meltdown and recessionary crisis that very nearly derailed the economies of the developed world, large-scale unemployment, the collapse of livelihoods, and the sharp rises in the prices of essential commodities have profoundly transformed the context and triggered some elements of new thinking. The hope is that at least some influential sections of India's still-rising news media will now consciously and in a sustained way play the role of watchdog of the interests of the hundreds of millions of Indians who suffer from crippling deprivation and poverty.